The Nicest Place in Washington: Bellden Cafe in Bellevue

NICEST PLACES IN AMERICA 2020 FINALIST
"A Cafe With a Purpose"

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A café owner who had experienced extreme kindness repays the act by keeping her doors open, her workers employed, and the poor fed.

When Anne Lauren showed up at work on March 23, she figured she was about to be let go. “As soon as I heard that businesses would be closing to protect the vulnerable from COVID-19, anxiety rushed through my body. I arrived to work that morning worried that Claire would sit me down with the rest of the team and advise us that we would be closing for the foreseeable future,” says Lauren of her job as a barista at Bellden Cafe in Bellevue and its owner, Claire Sumadiwirya.

But that’s not what happened. Instead, Sumadiwirya told her staff the café was going to stay open and help the community.

Five years earlier and halfway around the planet with her infant son sick in a Chinese hospital, when a random act of kindness changed how Sumadiwirya looked at the world and her purpose in it.

She was in Shanghai for a consulting project when her six-month-old son fell ill. “My son was a preemie, and his lungs weren’t as developed as they should have been, so the pollution in China kept making him sick. We ended up in the hospital there for weeks,” Sumadiwirya says.

She is Chinese, but she was raised in America, and seen solely as an American in China. “In China, there’s no hospital cafés or restaurants and I had no family or friends there,” she says. “If I wanted a cup of coffee I had to leave my son.” After watching her sit by her young son’s side without leaving for food night after night, a hospital janitor brought her a cup of coffee, and his wife had researched the American recipe for chicken noodle soup and made her some, which he also brought to the hospital. “He walked 20 minutes to get that cup of coffee. It wasn’t as good as Seattle’s coffee but it tasted so good.”

Eating the soup, drinking the coffee, and crying, Sumadiwirya realized she didn’t have a satisfying way to thank the couple for their kindness. “That’s when I started to think, there are so many other parents, or expats in the hospital, that need somewhere to go even if it’s just to rest,” she recalls. Once her son was released from the hospital, she petitioned the hospital board for approval to open a hospital café, which would also work with a nonprofit to give back to the local community in Shanghai. “We were approved to open our café in the Shandong province only two months before Starbucks opened one there too.”

claire sumidiwirya founder of Bellden cafeCourtesy Team Bellden
Claire Sumadiwirya’s passion for serving the community stems from her own experiences.

After having a second child, Sumadiwirya says both of her children began getting sick from the pollution. “That’s when I decided it wasn’t worth the health of my children, so I decided to go back home to America.” She sold her café to the hospital, but not before negotiating that her well-trained team be allowed to follow her business model and work with the local nonprofit. “It was a great learning experience. It showed me that the café was a passion for me.”

Back on U.S. soil, Sumadiwirya couldn’t shake the memory of the janitor’s kindness and wanted to find a way to replicate that feeling for others. She decided she would open her own café in Bellevue and employ a business model that didn’t just donate to nonprofits, but partnered with them.

She carefully chooses her partner nonprofits, then creates a signature drink for each of them. Whenever a customer orders that drink, 25 percent of the price is donated to that organization. Currently the café works with these four groups: Jubilee REACH, which helps families in need; Vision House, a Christian organization that houses people experiencing homelessness; Washington Trails Association, which protects and maintains wild places; and a partnership between county government and nonprofit Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission to prevent child abuse. Café employees are paid to volunteer eight hours a month; the café sponsors events for its partner organizations; and it acts as a hub to collect donations of money and goods, like a recent diaper drive it held for one of its partner organizations.

Located right on Main Street in Bellevue, Bellden Cafe proudly displays which charities are being promoted each day on a sandwich board outside the quaint-yet-chic storefront. Large streetfront windows entice passersby with the treats they can buy along with the perk of knowing their money is going back into the place they call home.

So, when Lauren and others showed up to work that fateful day in March, they weren’t met with locked doors, a somber speech, and a pink slip. Sumadiwirya told them that now was more critical than ever to maintain their charitable efforts, even at the cost of profits from dwindling business.

The café didn’t close once during the early days of the pandemic—it was deemed an essential service and pivoted to takeout and contactless delivery. Sumadiwirya offered unemployment benefits to workers who didn’t feel safe on the job. For the rest, she offered the opportunity to serve the community above and beyond the café’s original commitments. Of course, the 25 percent donations for signature brews continues. They have raised money to deliver coffee and pastries to frontline workers at local hospitals and police departments. And Bellden has served as a hub for donations that go toward purchasing supplies like diapers, groceries and other necessary items for those who need.

“During the pandemic the community drives that Claire does have gone online. She will reach out to nonprofits and ask what their needs are, and then she’ll place the opportunity to donate money to the drive as an option when customers place their order,” says Lauren. “Claire purchases the needed items and personally drops them off at the location.”

Recently, Sumadiwirya collected letters and drawings from her customers and delivered them to a local nursing home, where folks are isolated, lonely and scared, like she was in China with her sick baby.

“I feel so blessed every day, and I couldn’t do any of this without my team,” she says. “They make the miracles happen.”

The Nomination

As soon as I heard that businesses would be closing to protect the vulnerable from COVID-19, anxiety rushed through my body. My main source of income at the time came from the service industry: I am employed as a barista at Bellden Cafe owned and operated by Claire Sumidiwirya. I arrived to work that morning worried that Claire would sit me down with the rest of the team and advise us that we would be closing for the foreseeable future. Instead, she invited me into a project that would satiate the needs of the local community and myself in ways I couldn’t anticipate.

Claire built her business on community engagement. Raised in Bellevue, WA since she was twelve years old, she has been a valuable member of the community ever since. In her twenties, however, she was sent on a work project to Shanghai, where her son was inflicted with a serious illness that left him and her in the hospital for weeks. At the time, Shanghai had no hospital-based cafes so in order to be nourished she needed to either leave her baby or remain hungry for the rest of the day. The hospital staff saw her suffering and met it with surprising hospitality: they began bringing her coffee and homemade meals to help her get through. These acts of kindness inspired her to launch Shanghai’s first in-hospital cafe.

When she returned to Bellevue, she wanted to continue her mission to nourish those in need through coffee and satiating treats. So she opened Bellden Cafe to be the den of Bellevue, where Coava coffee would be served, as well as Macrina pastries and a number of signature toasts, salads, smoothies, and bowls to complete the menu. 25% of proceeds from the sold charity products (whose taste profiles were specifically created with the charity partners’ mission and meaning in mind) go directly to local programs serving the homeless population, seeking to end human trafficking, supporting nature preservation, and increasing resources for families with children in need.

When news of the economic impact of COVID-19 hit, instead of protecting her assets and her business, she chose to sacrifice her profits to continue to support the community. Bellden Cafe has been open every single day since the mandated closures offering the full menu of items for takeout, delivery, and a new contactless service program: curbside pick-up. She has kept her team employed and offered them unemployment benefits if they didn’t feel safe working. Despite the financial difficulties caused by a decrease in daily customers, Claire continues to offer 25% of proceeds to her charity partners. On top of that, she has raised money from her customer base to deliver weekly coffee and pastry donations to frontline workers at local hospitals and police departments, as well as gather and deliver diapers, groceries, and other necessary items to organizations in need. Recently, she even collected a number of letters and drawings from the community to deliver to a local nursing home. Claire has done all of this while continuing to make specialty coffee, delicious toasts, and soul-filling smoothies; and then returns home at the end of the day to parent and homeschool her three children.

Her positive morale has been steadfast as she offers a warm welcome to customers, as well as opens her doors to shopless bread bakers and flower farmers to sell their creations in her brick and mortar to continue to support their businesses. She has kept her customer base happy and healthy by creating encouraging social media content including Bellden’s first music video, newsletters, and other fun and inspiring messages to keep people’s hearts light. Lastly, she realized the clever idea of creating Bellden’s first coloring pages to keep kiddos and adults calm and creative during this challenging time of quarantine.

Bellden Cafe, with Claire as its owner, has truly been a model of servant leadership displaying her commitment to the community in this time of crisis. I am proud to be her employee and her friend and to really live Bellden’s motto that #TogetherWeAreStronger.

The first COVID-19 case in the United States was confirmed in Snohomish County, just a little less than 60 miles North of Bellden Cafe. Since then, it has spread rapidly throughout Washington State with nearly 18,500 cases confirmed to date, and almost half of those existing within King County, where Bellden resides. In response, Washington quickly issued a “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order asking residents to only leave home for essential trips, as well as for all non-essential businesses to close. Bellden is lucky that restaurants have been considered essential and have been allowed to remain open for takeout and delivery only to continue to serve the community. But others have been hit hard without the ability to operate their businesses or work for companies that have been shut down.

Seattle is known as an introverted city. “The Seattle Freeze” is a common phrase used to describe how difficult it can be to meet friends from here because residents are likely to keep to themselves and their formally established communities. People aren’t unfriendly, but they don’t always go out of their way to make others feel welcome.

However, with an influx of out-of-state and international employees moving to Seattle for work, the social environment is quickly changing. As more of the population is new to the community and seeking to meet each other, it can be easier to find new and friendly faces interested in conversing.

I moved to Seattle from CA a little over a year ago and can vouch for this reality, as I have met many friends since moving here but not one of them was born and raised in Seattle.

The culture at Bellden is definitely different, however, as we have so many regulars who we know and love to keep in contact with!

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