Trading crack for caffeine in St. Pete

Staying sober at the Lionheart Café

click to enlarge KEEPING BUSY: Phil Bernard and Billy Wainwright, both clients of Lionheart Recovery, work the coffee bar at Lionheart Café, St. Pete's newest, and only nonprofit, coffeeshop. - Alex Pickett
Alex Pickett
KEEPING BUSY: Phil Bernard and Billy Wainwright, both clients of Lionheart Recovery, work the coffee bar at Lionheart Café, St. Pete's newest, and only nonprofit, coffeeshop.

On a recent weekday morning, the Lionheart Café, 2803 38th Ave. N., was doing surprisingly well, despite the business' badly scrawled sign and lack of advertising.

In the span of a half hour, a middle-aged man on his way to work stopped in for a coffee, and a younger woman on her way to an office cubicle paid for a bag of potato chips. This is an improvement from the days when there were no customers at all, says the café's main barista, Phil Bernard.

"Some days it's slow, but Open Mic Thursdays and the weekends are good," says Bernard. "The coffee isn't that cheap, but it's better than Starbucks."

Bernard, like the other baristas at the coffeeshop, works there as part of the Lionheart Recovery program, a St. Petersburg-based alcohol and substance abuse program that uses the familiar 12-step program advocated by Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous.

Bernard, who has been in the recovery program for seven months, credits the coffee shop with keeping him busy while he recovers from years of alcohol abuse.

"This is the best place to be for me right now," says the former housepainter. "I'll fall back into the drinking business if I paint. This coffee shop is keeping me sober."

That was exactly the reason why Lionheart Recovery co-directors Bruce Wright and Chris Ortiz created the spin-off café.

"We were thinking to ourselves, 'Those guys don't have a place to hang out where those addictions aren't present,'" Wright says about the decision to open up the shop a month ago. The money customers spend at the coffee shop goes back into running the café, giving addicts a chance to regain faith in themselves and others.

Coffee shops are nothing new to Wright. From 1993 to 2000, he ran Joe Mocha's in downtown St. Pete, hosting performances by local and national punk bands. The outspoken homeless advocate has blended all of his interests into his new coffeeshop, too — providing help for the addicts he oversees, a venue for local musicians and a platform to spread progressive politics. He stresses the café is not just for those involved in recovery, but for music lovers, poets, students and families.

"St. Pete desperately needs a place for people to go to that doesn't have that corporate, commercialized, mall rat atmosphere, but is also accessible to the average Joe," he says. "There's not enough of that artsy cultural flavor going on. It's all being codified and corporatized."

Right now, the café only serves coffee, tea, soda and chips. But Wright says he plans to add locally roasted coffee beans, an espresso machine and cold sandwiches to the menu. If things go well, he will turn the shop into a full-fledged restaurant. With nearly 1,200 square feet, the Lionheart Café certainly has the space. And with 58 beds in several halfway houses throughout the city, Wright will find no shortage of addicts to help out.

"It's a slow process, because a lot of them are beginning to learn again what it's like to be trusted and gain some responsibility," Wright says. "I think they deserve a chance. They're not criminals. They're addicts."

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