Cafe 54 in Tucson Is the Real Face of Mental Illness in Arizona, Not Jared Loughner

A big man has a small cut on his finger.

The boss is concerned.

Work on a prep line in a restaurant and sooner or later, you're going to cut your finger. But we're not talking about any ordinary restaurant, and this employee's no ordinary prep line guy.

Chef Bruce Bowden
Jamie Peachey
Chef Bruce Bowden
Top row: Orlando Montes, Josie Cross, Galen Snyder, Jessica Steimer; second row: Alison Sakariason (trainee), Christopher Greaber (trainee), Bright Vandervoet, Ray Padilla (trainee); third row: Kimberly Clawson (trainee), Steve Kraus (trainee), Cindy Hardy (trainee), Shawn Caplan (trainee); bottom row: Jon Hall, Bruce Bowden, Mindy Bernstein, Gustavo Mendibles (trainee)
Photos by Jamie Peachey
Top row: Orlando Montes, Josie Cross, Galen Snyder, Jessica Steimer; second row: Alison Sakariason (trainee), Christopher Greaber (trainee), Bright Vandervoet, Ray Padilla (trainee); third row: Kimberly Clawson (trainee), Steve Kraus (trainee), Cindy Hardy (trainee), Shawn Caplan (trainee); bottom row: Jon Hall, Bruce Bowden, Mindy Bernstein, Gustavo Mendibles (trainee)

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Shadow Dwellers: A Series

What's the one image you took away from the Tucson shootings? We thought so. That mugshot of Jared Loughner is haunting. And for the world, it has become the face of mental illness in Arizona. Here, we know that's not true. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but the story of what it's like to be mentally ill in this place cannot be told in a single photograph.

Tens of thousands of seriously mentally ill people live in Arizona. Some of them look just like you.

Other stories in the series:

Phoenix's Most At-Risk Homeless Find Their Way, Thanks to a Team of "Navigators", by Paul Rubin

Meet Raven, a Homeless Man with More Community Than Many of Us Have, by Paul Rubin

Why Did the Arizona Department of Corrections Put a Mentally Ill Man in Cell with a Convicted Killer?, by Paul Rubin

Mental Illness Hasn't Stopped Chris Shelton from Becoming a World-Class Boxing Historian, by Paul Rubin

Jan Brewer's Response to Jared Loughner: Slash More Than 35 Million in Services from an Already Beleaguered Mental Health System, by Paul Rubin and Amy Silverman

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He's a "trainee" working at Cafe 54, a restaurant in downtown Tucson that hires the seriously mentally ill.

On those Food Network shows, the chefs are always cutting themselves. They wrap their wounds in dishtowels and hold them overhead, continuing to cook and bleed.

That doesn't happen in Mindy Bernstein's kitchen. The founder of Cafe 54 sends anyone with more than a paper cut to urgent care.

Most (if not all) of her trainees take a daily cocktail of strong psychotropic medications with a chaser of lots of therapy — their balance is precarious on a good day. Something as simple as a cut finger can start a downward spiral.

And so when this man returns from the doctor with three stitches and a bandage, Bernstein stops him as he hustles back to the kitchen.

"You're not in pain now?" she asks. "Right, they gave you something. But later you will be. You'll need Tylenol and ice. Come and find me. Okay? Promise?"

He promises.

The concept of using food service in vocational rehabilitation efforts for the seriously mentally ill is nothing new. Typically, you'll find such programs housed in hospital cafeterias; one mental-health program in Phoenix used to have its clients prepare and serve food at its functions.

But Cafe 54 is unique (in Arizona, anyway) in its unwillingness to be anything less than a fine-dining establishment. For starters, it's got a great location — walking distance from the über-hip Hotel Congress, as well as to high-rise buildings housing law firms and other big businesses, and just a few doors down from one of the city's most popular restaurants, Cafe Poca Cosa.

Then there's the menu. You'll have fond memories months later of the curry special, and the beet salad is as good as any around. Ingredients are fresh — organic and sourced locally whenever possible. And the atmosphere's a match to the granola Tucson vibe. In fact, the only thing that separates this little cafe from others nearby is the slightly lower price point (no entree costs more than $10), an incentive to customers.

Like many on her professional team at Cafe 54, Mindy Bernstein has more experience working as a clinician with the mentally ill than in the kitchen with beets and carrots. But this daughter of an egg rancher from Fontana, California, had a lifelong dream of opening her own restaurant, and her touches are everywhere — from the kibbutz-like attitude she was raised with to the periwinkle-blue paint (her favorite shade) on the wall behind the cash register.

The high ceilings and exposed pipes, painted cement floors, funky art on the wall — everything is to her specifications. (She also made sure there's more space in the kitchen, so trainees don't get claustrophobic.) More than once in conversation, Bernstein fingers the tabletops, pointing out that she searched all over for an exact match with the brown exposed-brick walls, laughing about her own obsessive-compulsive tendencies.

But she is careful not to use words like "crazy" in jest. For almost 20 years, she has served as executive director of Our Clubhouse, an advocacy and service organization based on a national model that's been around since the 1940s, housed in the building next door to Cafe 54, where Our Clubhouse participants created all the art on the walls. The restaurant is just the latest in a series of projects (if not its most ambitious yet) she's designed to make life better for at least a few Tucsonans hit hardest by mental illness.

Our Clubhouse offers therapy sessions, free meals, a place to use a computer; some clients work at an adjacent thrift store.

Next door, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday, Cafe 54 hums with activity, as artsy types and businesspeople linger at tables, dining on menu items that might include a butternut squash mac 'n' cheese or a Greek beef salad, with treats like chocolate ganache hazelnut tart for dessert. Fresh-baked rosemary rolls are a constant.

Trainees mingle among them, serving food and clearing dishes. It's not easy to qualify to be a trainee. You must be sober, and anger management can't be an issue; only a few can do it.

On your first visit to Cafe 54, you might not notice anything unusual, though the T-shirts, which read "Fresh Cuisine with a Side of Hope," might give it away, or maybe it's that the number you're given to put on your table after you've ordered at the register will bear the photo of a famous person (Sylvia Plath or Teddy Roosevelt, for example) who suffered from mental illness, along with their story. Those were Bernstein's idea, too.

In the kitchen, things run just as smoothly as up front, though it can get crowded with case managers and other social-service types crammed back there with the chef. Everyone takes part in the food preparation; they all look out for one another, too. If someone's having a bad day, they can sit out a shift. At most jobs, you'll get docked for being late; not so here.

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18 comments
dsgasgahasdh
dsgasgahasdh

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MIKE YEVTUCK
MIKE YEVTUCK

How come they dont have my face on there? im the poster boy for mental illness.

Gretchen Good
Gretchen Good

Mike, do you have an email? I;d like to talk to you and I'm coming out to Tucson to takea look at Cafe 54.

Shell01
Shell01

Shawn, I want to tell you after reading about you my heart was heavy. My Brother had a difficult time finding his way, he didn't make it to 30. I so want to hug you and tell you that you have a place here. I spent almost 40 years finding my way and I'm still finding it. Please know that you can do what your heart feels most fond of doing - you can be who you are. You can be who you want to be. I want you to feel loved by people like me from a distance, and are cheering you on, and holding your hand and enjoying your triumphs! Michelle

JD B
JD B

I am dying to find out exactly how this dumb story makes Jared Loughner less of the president of the lunatic fringe society. He is a whack job. With or without this silly restaurant.

MIKE YEVTUCK
MIKE YEVTUCK

There is plenty more wackadoo wack jobs just like Jared Laughner walking around 4th ave near the hippie food co-op in Tucson and downtown Tucson near the hotel congress. they are mostly goth looking and homeless. they been around here since the early 1970s. then they get old and die off and more younger ones take over. its a never ending cycle and nobody dors nothing to help them. they are the invisible mentally ill homeless and nobody cares to help them. its been like this in Tucson for over 40 years its nothing new if you ever lived here.

Shell01
Shell01

You sir, are an asshole

TKO
TKO

"Silly restaurant"? A place that employees the unemployable, saves lives, creates jobs, offers a service, and pays taxes. Not silly. You are!

Val Revering
Val Revering

What a wonderful article. I have friends that work in the mental health field and they're concerned about the cuts to AHCCS because many of their patients that used to spend $4/week on their meds are now spending $100/week and they simply can't afford them. It's nice to see an organization being proactive instead of reactive.

Shooter McGaven
Shooter McGaven

Amy what a beautiful article, thank you so much. I only wish that the whole community would support this place, and maybe skip Applebees, and other chains that do NOT need our money. What a cool concept, and great way to help people. This truly teaches people to fish, as opposed to giving them a fish. All the best to the owners and supporters of this business. You guys are rock stars and doing amazing stuff.

Marcy
Marcy

So people at Applebees should lose their jobs so people at Cafe 54 can have a job?

How noble.

While I have nothing against Cafe 54 and wish them well with their business, I'm not going to eat there simply because they discriminate against non-mentally ill people while Applebees doesn't discriminate against people who aren't mentally ill.

I'd eat there because I liked the food, atmosphere and prices, not because the person who cooks my food is one step away from the loony bin.

FormerDemocrat
FormerDemocrat

Loughner is a strong signal that liberalism is sick and dying. I would like to see all liberals receive a free head examination in an effort to prevent any more mass killings. I would recommend a quarantine of liberals, perhaps at our facilities in Cuba, but I realize the cost outweighs any benefit of saving them.

Mustafa
Mustafa

Hi, I too hate liberals. Is it now legal to beat them within an inch of their lives? I just don't understand...

gusto
gusto

Why do I get the feeling that you didn't even read this article?

Bernankeye
Bernankeye

No, of course not. I would never read anything with liberal (aka mental illnes) or loughner in the title. That would be foolish. Don't be a dolt.

 
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