You notice the eye contact when you first enter the Comfort Cafe in downtown Smithville. The affable host, the bussers hustling from the kitchen, the servers toting trays of fluffy pancakes and steaming mugs of coffee to the dozen or so tables: Everyone welcomes you with smiling eyes casting for humanity.

It is an act of revelation and connection. They see you because they want to be seen. Need to be seen. The nonverbal action— their mere presence in the cafe — represents a significant part of their recovery. And soon after you are seated, the staff’s sincere warmth initiates you into their public act of healing and growth.

Staffer Josh Anderlohr plopped down in a chair during my first visit to the quaint storefront just off Main Street, set his notepad on the table and sprung into casual conversation imbued with purpose. It wasn’t the awkward posture you might find at a restaurant where a server squats down close to your table to affect a faux familiarity or enthusiasm. Anderlohr came ready to share.

The Round Rock native battled addiction for years before finding a home at the residential Serenity Star Recovery just a few miles up the road. He had a few months of sobriety under his belt this time. This go-around, with the help of his new community, he felt it was gonna stick. And we soon learned we’d play a small role in his brave act of self-discovery and recovery.

Comfort Cafe, he told us, is the only donation-based restaurant in the state, and the money donated from each plate ($10 is suggested) goes directly to the programs of Serenity Star Recovery, a nonprofit, peer-to-peer program of which Anderlohr is one of 60 residents. Consider Comfort Cafe the metaphoric and figurative hearth of the Serenity Star Recovery program.

Married couple Linda and Teri Lopez, who met on their journey to sobriety in an outpatient recovery program in 2005, moved to Smithville from New York just before Christmas of that year. A licensed alcohol and substance abuse counselor in New York, Teri had felt drawn to the town following a visit to her relocated mother.

The charismatic and indefatigable couple arrived wanting to change lives. They thought their mission to aid fellow addicts would take years. But the universe apparently had other ideas.

The women started hosting meetings near Smithville at the Wildfire Cafe, and soon thereafter moved their efforts to a small resource center they opened in 2009, offering 12-step meetings, meditation classes, yoga and art therapy under the umbrella of their newly formed 501(c)(3) organization. Locals seeking help for themselves or friends and family almost immediately overwhelmed the tiny staff and their limited resources. Teri and Linda made ends meet in support of their mission by holding garage sales on the weekends. But they were about to get an assist.

The owner of the nearby Patio Cafe, whose son was attending meetings at Serenity Star and who would later join the recovery program, decided to close her restaurant and offered Teri and Linda a sweetheart deal on the place.

“She left the biscuits in the oven and ketchup on the table,” Teri said. “We used to say that when she helped us she didn’t know it would actually help save her son’s life.”

Every dollar the women made at the restaurant they rebranded Comfort Cafe flowed directly back to their charity work, so Teri and Linda decided after about six months to turn Comfort Cafe into a donation-based restaurant that could help support Serenity Star. It didn’t take long for them to realize that move would be the catalyst to expand their outreach.

“I think it first began when we opened as donation-only and people were paying, like, $100 for a hamburger to support us and we realized people really will show up when they know what’s going on,” Teri said.

Customers would come in and talk to the women about their own relatives or friends, and the Lopezes understood what a healing place Comfort Cafe could be.

“What happened for me is the shame around addiction disappears somewhat around the kitchen table,” said Teri, who spent years cooking for her large Italian family in New York. “Italians talk a lot around the kitchen table, and there’s not a lot of secrets. There’s a lot of emotion, so to bring that into the community that is riddled with shame and being able to really talk about it in a way that is loving and family-supported makes a difference, I think.”

The mission's heart had found its home.

Linda and Teri didn’t initially intend to have a restaurant serve as a training and healing ground for their members, but it became evident that the dynamics of food service, from the regimented teamwork of the kitchen to the table-side interactions, resonated with their mission.

The cafe provided a new framework and context for their residents to flourish. Instead of feeding their addiction in isolation, the residents, who originally lived in a rented house (men) and a building adjacent to the cafe (women), found community in serving as team players in the kitchen and on the floor. They also found a place where they could learn a new skill, make mistakes and gain feelings of self-worth.

Residents working at the Comfort Cafe navigated social discomfort and anxiety, and in the process felt encouraged to share their stories while releasing self-judgment and shame, according to Serenity Star director Ashley Nicole, Teri’s daughter.

She could relate. Nicole, who has served on the Serenity Star staff since its inception, got sober a month before her mom and Linda established the nonprofit.

“They’ve lived in so much darkness and so much fear,” Nicole said of the residents. “The cafe became an open door for people to come and quietly share their story. The cafe is a huge support in helping break the stigma of addiction.”

Comfort Cafe became a safe harbor for the staff that has grown to number about two dozen, as well as a place where visitors could find comfort and connection. Chris Homer arrived at Serenity Star, now home to 60 residents, following an episode he says pushed him to the brink of suicide.

Self-deprecating and witty as he recounts hitting bottom, Homer said he was initially taken aback by the outpouring of love and encouragement he received from the people he met when arriving at Serenity Star. But he soon came to see the life-changing benefits that extended from staff to customer at the Comfort Cafe and discovered the concept of self-love for the first time.

“The thing I love about the cafe is that it’s the face of Serenity Star. People from the community get to see who we really are and what we’re about. They feel safe enough to share their own struggles,” Homer said. “And I have the opportunity in that moment to release my own shame of being an addict. And I have the opportunity to show them that addicts do recover. We get to help people now, and I get to help reframe that for them.”

The weekend-only restaurant that serves a thoughtful and well-executed menu of breakfast and lunch classics has cultivated an extended family of regulars and attracts a large percentage of its crowd from people visiting from places such as Austin, Houston and San Antonio.

Rich and Betty Boyce, who live just outside of Smithville, have been dining at Comfort Cafe since around the time it opened. Having experienced the pain of addiction in their own family, the couple felt an immediate affinity for the residents of Serenity Star.

“We know the need for the service. And after being there a number of times, you can really see how successful they are at doing their work,” Rich Boyce said.

The Boyces, whom many Serenity Star residents refer to as family, bring ice cream cakes to Comfort Cafe to celebrate their own birthdays and anniversaries and have also been known to bring cakes for staffers’ birthdays.

“We feel like we’re the grandparents of a lot of the kids who have come on the scene and of the staff members,” Rich Boyce said. “It’s great.”

The Boyces are among many who have entered Comfort Cafe and had their hearts touched by the mission of the restaurant and Serenity Star. One customer whose family had been affected by addiction created the cafe’s logo and constructed its signage, and another sold to the Lopezes — under generous terms — the nearby 10-acre ranch that began housing Serenity Star residents in 2013.

The money raised at Comfort Cafe, known by repeat customers for its various eggs Benedicts, pancakes, French toast, burgers and curry, pays for about two-thirds of the Serenity Star program, which currently includes 30 men, 13 women, five families and 17 staff members. Other funds come from private donors from across the state and beyond Texas’ borders.

Austin hospitality veterans William Ball, owner of Garage Cocktail Bar, and chef Philip Speer, a distinguished alumnus of Uchi, are both in recovery, and when Ball was introduced to the work of Serenity Star through an acquaintance, the two men decided they wanted to help however they could. Ball and Speer briefly operated an Austin food truck that donated proceeds to Serenity Star, and they will host their second annual (sold-out) Serenity Star fundraising dinner at East Austin Italian restaurant Juniper on Monday. Last year’s event raised $25,000.

"William and I both had the privilege of going to for-profit treatment centers, and it was so impactful to us that we are 100 percent behind the idea and the fact that Serenity Star provides this help to anyone that has the need," Speer said.

The Comfort Cafe represents a small but important portion of the work being done at Serenity Star, which has shepherded about 1,000 residents since its inception. The Lopezes built the program around self-love and acceptance and inner-child healing.

The nondenominational program is 12-step-based, though not affiliated with any 12-step program, and one that helps residents find their own personal connections to a higher purpose.

“We do not tell anyone who their god is,” Nicole said. “We help guide them to find their own inner voice, their own inner god, to explore their own different avenues. They create their own understanding and their own god consciousness. We shape their program to what their need is and help people through sacred pain. Guide people out of fear and into love.”

Serenity Star staff conducts over-the-phone assessments with prospective residents, most of whom never pay a dollar for the program despite the suggested monthly donation, and help them find medical detox, if needed, before joining the community at the ranch. The biggest requirement for acceptance into the program?

“The willingness to change and have an open mind,” Teri Lopez said. “Because we spend a lot of time trying to show them how the way they think doesn’t work.”

Each day at the Serenity Star ranch takes its own unique shape, with time spent in meditation or yoga classes guided by Nicole, along with music classes, journaling, group talk therapy and service work such as gardening or construction projects that can also provide income for the Serenity Star community. A nonprofit that takes no government money and functions more like a church or the Salvation Army, according to Teri, Serenity Star takes a peer-to-peer approach, with all of the staff members having worked and continuing to work the program.

The ranch, which started as a residency program for men and recently expanded to include housing for families and women in buildings donated by the Smithville Hospital Association and renovated by Serenity Star staff, continues to incrementally build on the vision Teri and Linda had almost a decade ago.

“Every time it gets bigger, we’re still behind it going, ‘Wow,’” Teri said. “As the need continues to grow, we grow."

The couple hope that what started simply as a handful of addicts lifting each other up on their roads to recovery will one day include a 10,000-square-foot community building, tiny houses for families and staff and capacity for 100 residents.

It is an ambitious goal given the modest beginnings of the program started by the couple who married in 2016. But Linda and Teri have seen their faith and good deeds supported at every turn, as they work each day to help people find a path to recovery and an opportunity to be seen by the world and themselves anew.

“You know that saying, ‘When you take care of God’s children, God takes care of you?’ I am living that. When we started doing the work, we started being taken care of,” Linda said. “We’re big believers in that if we’re doing the work and staying out of our own way, that spirit energy will always provide.”

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