Cafe the Lodge opens in south Bethlehem

Cafe the Lodge offers those with mental illness a place to work and a sense of purpose.

New cafe in Bethlehem opens up. It's staffed mostly by people who have been diagnosed with mental illness.

It's a perfect spot for a quiet cup of coffee and to plunk down a laptop to do some work.

In what used to be Connell Funeral Home in south Bethlehem, Cafe the Lodge also serves up made-to-order paninis and homemade soups, salads and breakfast dishes, all created by veteran chef Allen Singer.

Lining the walls of the warmly decorated and natural-light-filled cafe are large portraits of famous Americans, including Abraham Lincoln, who thrived while dealing with mental illness.

"Our mission is to take away the stigma," says Aaik Van Munster, program director of the Lodge.

What makes Cafe the Lodge unique as a business is its dedication to providing work (and a sense of purpose) for those with mental illness.

So here's some history: A supportive housing program for people living with mental illness, The Lodge, was set up in 2010 by Resources for Human Development Inc., contracted by the Northampton County Department of Mental Health.

The participants were placed in apartments in south Bethlehem.

But they needed something else — meaningful employment and a sense of purpose and belonging.

In 2011, RHD bought the former Connell Funeral Home on Fourth Street near Filmore Street and converted the building into a state-of-the-art café.

Cafe organizers took baby steps over the course of last year to set up the cafe. They gutted the funeral home and equipped it for food service.

Slowly it opened to the public and earlier this month, Cafe the Lodge held a grand opening event.

The impact of mental illness on the U.S. is undeniable. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 25 percent of all Americans have some form of mental illness.

Those who staff the cafe participate in the Lodge housing program and work flexible part-time shifts. Their salaries are paid through the profits made in the cafe (no different from any other restaurant).

While the cafe has a clear mission, it is also a business.

"We are here to attract a customer base," Van Munster says. "The coffee is great. The Cuban sandwich is great. We're not playing shop. This is not make pretend."

Singer, who was the head chef at Susan's Catering where he worked for 16 years, brought his wealth of culinary experience to the cafe. He created the menu (good food made simply and freshly) and trained the staff.

"It's been my most enjoyable job," says Singer of heading up the kitchen at the Cafe the Lodge.

Signature dishes include the aforementioned and highly recommended Cuban sandwich (marinated pulled roast pork, ham, Swiss cheese, aioli spread, served on pan de aqua) and jambalaya. For breakfast, Singer told me he also likes his spiced oatmeal. He's also known for his soups, which change throughout the week.

Cafe the Lodge also provides catering services and has a small private room for meetings. There's also a lovely outdoor space they are planning to use this summer.

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