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Bean dreams: Entrepreneur hopes Coffee Rehab will put recovery front and center

coffee beans, grounds, etc.
Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

A few years ago, it seemed like Katy Armendariz was on top of the world.

Minnesota CarePartner, the social justice-focused mental health agency she’d founded in 2013, was growing rapidly, and Armendariz was earning well-deserved kudos for her organization’s innovative, client-centered approach to care. Her personal life also seemed to be going smoothly: Armendariz and her husband were happily managing a busy life with their two young children. At age 31, she appeared full of energy and vibrant promise.

But Armendariz’s life wasn’t what it looked like from the outside.

Overwhelmed and exhausted by the pressures of running her booming agency, she was increasingly turning to alcohol to help soothe her nerves.

“I was getting stressed out with payroll, billing, insurance, clinical supervision, marketing, hiring,” Armendariz said. “I was doing everything. We grew to 70 employees within the first year.”

Armendariz’s stress didn’t just come from the operational side of her job. Minnesota CarePartner’s client base is foster children and families in child protection, and learning about her young clients’ traumatic childhood experiences was detrimental to her mental health. Armendariz — who is adopted from Korea and spent the first years of her life separated from family in an orphanage and in foster care — began to feel emotionally worn down.

Katy Armendariz
Katy Armendariz
Many evenings she drank wine to block out memories of her own painful early childhood.

“I was getting triggered,” she explained. “We were getting constant referrals from child protection. It brought up a whole lot of emotions for me. I kept drinking to numb myself, to get by and deal with the stress. It eventually became an addiction to wine.”

Armendariz said that her addiction started innocently enough.

“I’d have stuff to do,” she said, “so I’d take my laptop to a coffee shop after work and order a glass of wine.”

Because adding alcohol to the menu helps increase revenue, many Twin Cities coffee shops have begun to offer wine and beer in the evenings.

“I’d have my glass of wine,” Armendariz said. “Then I’d have another. I’d get stuck there.” After this pattern went on for months, she realized: “I saw the wheels coming off the train.”

Through treatment, a new ambition emerges

When Armendariz finally admitted to herself and to her loved ones that her dependence on alcohol had grown beyond her control, she decided to enter an addiction-treatment program. Because her life felt so busy, she at first signed up for an outpatient option, but that didn’t stick. With her family’s support, she enrolled in a 28-day residential treatment program.

The experience was just what Armendariz needed.

“It was amazing,” she said. “I had a lot of time on my hands. You don’t have your cellphone. You don’t have computers. When you are in intensive therapy you have free time to read and to think about your past, and about what you want to do with the rest of your life.”

By the time she’d completed her treatment program, Armendariz realized that she needed to take a step back from her role as CEO of Minnesota CarePartner in order to protect her own mental health.  She had a new career plan, and in her own indomitable style, Armendariz decided to make it happen.

“Life is really short,” she said. “I want to live my best life. I said to my husband, ‘I want to work in a coffee shop,’ and he said, ‘If that’s what’s going to make you happy, go for it.’”

A store is born

But Armendariz didn’t want to work in just any coffee shop: She wanted to work in a place that would support her sobriety, a place where she could feel comfortable talking about her addiction and recovery, where she could share her authentic self.

“I thought,” she recalled, ”‘There’s nothing like that out there. I know how to start a business, so why don’t I start a coffee shop that’s a place for people in recovery?’”

The coffee shop Armendariz envisioned would support recovery from all angles. Staff and managers would all be in active recovery, so everyone would feel comfortable talking about their lives and support each other in their struggles to stay sober.

And because living a substance-free life can sometimes limit a person’s options for entertainment, Armendariz wanted her coffee shop to be open late nights, so people in recovery would have a place to gather that was free of the temptation of alcohol and drugs.

“The people I met in sober groups, especially the younger ones, said, ‘It sucks being sober. It’s boring. I can’t go out because all of my friends will be drinking.’ I thought it would be great if I could create a place that’s open bar hours but isn’t a bar.”

Once she had the concept outlined, Armendariz went looking for a space. She’s hoping to find a space that’s big enough to house the coffee shop on one side — and Roots Recovery, the outpatient addiction-treatment arm of Minnesota CarePartner, on the other.

Armendariz likes the idea of this physical connection. She said she dreams that the building will one day become a community center for people in recovery. The shop would hire, she said, “only people in recovery as baristas. It would feature art by local artists in recovery. Music night would be by local musicians in recovery. There would be a sober moms’ night, a sober dads’ night, queer and sober, lots of different groups.” People who want to make the connection between mental health and addiction would be able to meet with a therapist right next door.

The next step was to come up with a name for the shop. Armendariz developed her own list, but credits her tattoo artist with suggesting Coffee Rehab, the name that made it to the top.

“I was getting a bunch of stuff added to the tattoo on my arm which is representative of my recovery process,” Armendariz said. “I told her about this café idea, and she suggested the name. I loved it, so I registered it and got the tax ID.”

Once the shop had a name, it was time to start some serious fundraising. Armendariz launched a Kickstarter campaign with a $60,000 goal. So far, the campaign has raised a little over $14,000. It’s an “all or nothing” campaign, which means that if Armendariz doesn’t reach her goal by the deadline of March 31, the project will get none of the money and she will have to start again at the beginning.

“I’m a little worried about that,” Armendariz admitted. “But if it doesn’t happen this time, I won’t give up.” Because profit margins are so low, it’s hard to get banks to give loans to coffee shops, she explained. “My plan is to apply for grants down the road if I don’t meet the Kickstarter goal. Then, once I have a place to show people, I might set up another Kickstarter and start over. It’s not an all-or-nothing thing.”  

She’s also thinking about partnering with a local restaurant or bakery, running a “pop-up” Coffee Rehab in their space on off hours as a way of generating revenue and testing the concept.

Community support

While Armendariz has no shortage of ambition and confidence, her experience in the restaurant industry is limited at best. When she decided to throw herself into the Coffee Rehab project, she set out to line up support from insiders in the coffee business and the local recovery community.

She started by mentioning the idea on a Facebook sobriety group. The response was immediate — and enthusiastic.

“People wanted to know if they could franchise it,” she said, laughing, “because they want one in their city.”

Her husband also mentioned it during his Al-Anon meeting. “People were like, ‘Oh my gosh. That’s amazing,’” Armendariz said. “They wanted to know when it was opening up.”

Online enthusiasm is good, but the real test is in-person response from industry insiders.

She spoke with chef, restaurateur and recovery advocate Andrew Zimmern, who she said backed her idea. “He made a pledge,” Armendariz said. “He said, ‘How can I help you? I’ll spread the word on Twitter.’ He was very excited about it.”

Anne Spaeth, owner of The Lynhall, a Minneapolis restaurant committed to building a healthy working environment for employees, was intrigued by the Coffee Rehab concept.

“I was really excited by Katy’s idea,” Spaeth said. “Once you start talking to her and hear her story, you see that she’s making important connections between addiction and mental health. I think those connections could help propel her business.”

Melanee Meegan
Melanee Meegan
Melanee Meegan, director of marketing for Minneapolis-based Peace Coffee, a roaster and distributor of organically grown, fair-trade coffee, said that she believes it is possible for a coffee shop to survive without serving alcohol. Peace Coffee’s Wonderland Park coffee shop at 3262 Minnehaha Avenue doesn’t serve alcohol, and their customers strongly support that decision.

“For folks that want an alternative to a bar, that’s a great model, especially if you have a built-in customer base like Coffee Rehab would,” Meegan said. “There isn’t any reason it shouldn’t be successful.”

Armendariz also met with members of the state’s recovery community to talk to them about Coffee Rehab. Wendy Jones, executive director of Minnesota Recovery Connection, said that she thought the shop could become a place where people in recovery could feel comfortable and welcome.

“I love that the philosophy is grounded in recovery,” Jones said. “It’s not just a business to sell coffee. It’s more of an overt community center that is very open about hiring people in recovery. It’s also about offering programming to support people in recovery and about providing a place to socialize and hang out that is recovery friendly.”

Other coffee shops might be gathering places for the recovery community, Jones said, but “they fill that void by default. They don’t do programming, they don’t promote access to other resources or have a partnership with organizations like Minnesota Recovery Connection. Katy’s shop would break down discrimination by putting all of that front and center.”

She also thinks that the shop’s late-night hours could make it a place where younger people in search of sober alternatives to the bar scene might want to hang out.

“When you’re early in your recovery, you are trying to rebuild a social ecosystem that is friendly for your healthy recovery lifestyle,” Jones said. “I’m 54. I want to be in bed at 9. But when I was in my late 20s and early in recovery, all my friends were going to bars. There wasn’t really any overtly recovery friendly places to go to that were open late on a Friday or Saturday night. It got pretty lonely.”

Kris Kelly
Kris Kelly
Kris Kelly, state program manager for Great Lakes Addiction Technology Transfer Center, said that she’s most excited by Armendariz’s insistence that Coffee Rehab would not try to hide its focus on supporting people through addiction and recovery.

“Coffee Rehab is not going to just be any coffee shop,” she said. “It is a social movement to normalize recovery, to put it out in the open. The world should see that we’re not ashamed. We’re not in church basements. We’re on Main Street, on busy streets where people in recovery can go to have a safe space to socialize and network, to build community.”

Kelly likens Coffee Rehab to All Square, a Minneapolis-based craft grilled-cheese restaurant that employs people impacted by the criminal justice system.

“All Square is thriving because it is a social movement,” she said. While the grilled cheese is great, the real draw is the mission. She hopes Coffee Rehab will have the same vibe: “Katy’s planning on serving coffee as her secondary ambition. Her first ambition is, ‘This is a social movement.’”

Gathering places like Coffee Rehab are desperately needed, Kelly said, because traditional recovery support networks just don’t work for everyone.

“A whole lot of people facing addiction don’t attend any traditional sober support groups,” she said. They just don’t feel comfortable in that environment. “I was one of those people. When I came into recovery I thought, ‘Where are my people? Where do I go to meet other people in recovery?’”

Armendariz said she hopes that customers will be able to find their people at Coffee Rehab.

“Creating a welcoming community is a dream of mine,” she said. When she first got sober, she explained, “I felt like I didn’t fit in anywhere. At Coffee Rehab, people will feel like they fit in. We’ll support them in their journey and show them that they really aren’t alone.”

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