OHIO alumnus partners with Patton College, creates Ornery Vets Cafe
Joel Laufman has many passions in life, but two of them — drinking coffee and helping veterans — have a new business brewing in Athens.
Laufman, an Ohio University alumnus and Vietnam War veteran, has partnered with the Patton College of Education’s Restaurant, Hotel and Tourism (RHT) program and Passion Works Studio to create Ornery Vets Cafe. The cafe, which is located on 30 E. State Street, is having its grand opening on March 11, 9-11 a.m.
“I’m pretty ornery but so far we are a good partnership,” Laufman joked. “Both of my partners bring a lot to the table. Let’s hope we dine well together.”
Laufman, who has a master’s degree in Educational Administration from OHIO, served in Vietnam from 1968-69 and suffers from PTSD. He wanted to provide a sober and therapeutic communal space for veterans and other individuals to meet and help one another.
“I wanted a place where vets, first responders, and anyone with PTSD can congregate and share their stories with others who care,” said Laufman, who owns the cafe and the building. “Many of us older, experienced vets can hopefully point some of the younger vets in the proper direction to get the help they need.”
Laufman, a former teacher, pitched his idea to Passion Works Executive Director and OHIO alumna Patty Mitchell, who in turn reached out to Patton College’s Assistant Professor of Instruction Thom Stevenson to collaborate on the creation of Ornery Vets Cafe. The Patton College and Passion Works have collaborated on projects in the past.
“Like people come together when good intentions are at hand,” Stevenson said. “Joel had heard through Patty that we wanted to create a space that embraced healthy eating and communal gathering in a community and for a population that needed it. Joel stepped up as great community leaders do, and we worked collaboratively to bring the project to fruition. Our hopes are that this intentional space creates safe spaces for veterans, persons with developmental differences, and the general community to meet, socialize, and nourish themselves in a multitude of ways.”
OHIO Restaurant, Hotel and Tourism (RHT) students worked together to help prepare the space. They created menus, facilitated tasting opportunities, helped with the cafe layout, and provided ongoing training and hands-on leadership for cafe employees. Retail and Fashion Merchandising (RFM) students helped with visuals and cafe aesthetics, while students from Russ College of Engineering and Technology designed equipment to create a human-centered space that will accommodate the needs of all people and include a stage for live entertainment.
“Student learning is at the very core of this project,” Stevenson said. “We seek to create a social support space that is inclusive in nature. The cafe is universally designed to benefit full participation of all.”
Earlier this year, the cafe planning team hired Mercadies George, a previous sergeant in the Marines and current Ohio University student, as the new general manager. The goal is that after two years of sweat equity, and upon graduation, George becomes the owner of the State Street cafe. Recently, George, who is working toward the Bachelor of Specialized Studies, presented to the Center for Entrepreneurship and was awarded a small seed grant to install an automatic door opener to increase accessibility to the cafe.
The cafe is located a few doors down from Passion Works, a collaborative community arts center in Athens that celebrates the power of creativity, connection, and purpose, and has a core group of practicing professional artists with developmental differences.
“We will be a partner in developing work options for people of all abilities,” Mitchell said. “We will welcome vets to volunteer and visit Passion Works and will be selling art and product in the space.”
Supporting local businesses is also a priority. Ohio companies are providing the tea and coffee, which include Solstice Coffee and Storehouse Tea, both out of Cleveland. River Willow Catering, owned by local business owner Katie Mosher, is providing healthy made soups, salads, and pastries for the cafe. The equipment came from Columbus-based The Wasserstrom Company. And many more local vendors will be added to the list. The seasonal menu will focus on locally-made items with an emphasis on healthy eating options created from locally sourced, in-season ingredients.
All partners believe the cafe will have a positive impact on the community. Laufman, especially, knows how important a space like this can be.
“I had no help from anyone for many years after Nam,” he said. “I was a member of the VVAW [Vietnam Veterans Against the War], but that was political, not therapeutic, as were other groups that I joined. I really didn’t start getting serious help from the VA [for PTSD] until about 10 years ago. I don’t want young vets to wait 40 years like I did.”
Laufman, who is from Cleveland, arrived in Athens in 1971. He taught grades 5-12 at Alexander Schools in Albany, Ohio, and spent the last 10 years of his career teaching high school history and government.
“I loved it all,” he said. “Kids are our future.”
Upon retiring, however, PTSD — “the monster,” Laufman says — began to rear its ugly head again. After his wife passed away, Laufman leaned on others for support.
“My PTSD group really helped me cope, and I learned how important this work is to the vets community,” he said. “I thought it was about time to try to give back to my brothers and sisters in uniform and all those who suffer from this insidious illness.”
In addition to healthy food, the cafe will offer meditation and yoga, among other healthy group activities. Laufman wants to improve lives, but he also wants to save them.
“About 20 vets a day choose suicide,” he said. “If we can help vets find the assistance they need in a community that [cares] about them, we all win.”
For that reason, Laufman hopes to expand the Ornery Vets Cafe business model to create franchises across the U.S., providing opportunities for veteran entrepreneurs to own their own cafes.