Valley Voices

Here is why Tree of Life Cafe and Bakery closed in June, as explained by the owners

Carolyn Ocheltree, Tree of Life Cafe and Bakery owner and executive chef, holds a platter of holiday cookies in this photo taken in 2016.
Carolyn Ocheltree, Tree of Life Cafe and Bakery owner and executive chef, holds a platter of holiday cookies in this photo taken in 2016. Fresno Bee file

When Tree of Life Café closed its doors on June 6 with no prior notice, people in Fresno asked why. That makes perfect sense. When a co-worker suddenly leaves a job, a friend moves out of town overnight or a teacher leaves her classroom in the middle of the school year, we want to know why.

The short answer to why Tree of Life closed its doors so hastily is this: We had the most wonderful customers in the world! We just didn’t have enough of them.

In folksy, practical terms: our outgo exceeded our income.

There is more to the story.

And I don’t believe the story is over yet!

When we were open, I would often share the story of Tree of Life’s mission. At the end, I would add, “We hope this is the first in an orchard of Trees of Life to be planted in our Valley.” That is still our hope!

Tree of Life Café & Bakery opened on March 31, 2016, on Kern Street in downtown Fresno. We were what is known as a “social enterprise,” meaning we were opening a business that was meant to benefit the greater good in our community. Our business model included hiring men and women who had successfully completed drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs. Our employees faced many barriers to employment, including felony charges on their records, periods of incarceration, periods of no employment and lack of formal education or vocational school training. It was our desire to help our employees develop “hard skills” — the actual skills needed to perform tasks like cooking and cleaning — and “soft skills,” the skills like regular and punctual workplace attendance, conflict resolution, appropriate grooming and interpersonal communication. Once employees had gained confidence in their own skills, they would be prepared to seek employment elsewhere or to stay on as trainers for new employees at Tree of Life.

Our business model looked like a bridge, connecting the unemployed with employment. It was also meant to connect those who needed help with those who were able to offer help. This was not a one-way bridge. Our employees needed help re-integrating into society. Our customers had the financial means to help support their growth and learning. Our customers, who were job-holders, taxpayers and contributing citizens, had a desire to see a decrease in the crime rate, addiction, violence and poverty that grip our city south of Shaw Avenue. This was our customers’ opportunity to help support growth and health and end a cycle that keeps so many of our citizens trapped. It was also an opportunity to get to know men and women who had been methamphetamine addicts, gang members, drug dealers and illegal gun dealers. It was an opportunity to meet them as fellow human beings, on equal footing.

One of my favorite sights during our years downtown was watching uniformed law enforcement officers, deputy district attorneys and Superior Court judges come through the line and be served by people who had been trying to outrun them just a few years earlier.

When Tree of Life’s head baker, Salvador, appeared the last time for jail sentencing before a Superior Court judge, the judge saw something different in Salvador — a willingness to change. The judge remanded our head baker to alternative sentencing at The Fresno Rescue Mission. Tree of Life hired Salvador as he was completing his 18-month rehabilitation program at the Rescue Mission. That same judge brought his office staff to eat at our downtown restaurant. He made regular special orders from Salvador’s selection of baked goods and the judge continued to encourage Salvador to be a good employee and father.

Not only were our employment practices designed to creatively connect two different cultural mindsets, our menu choices were as well. Our business model looked like a bridge, connecting past ways of eating and using our planet’s resources with future ways.

In our nation’s past, we have relied more heavily on animal protein than we have on plant-based protein to meet our nutritional needs. As we look forward, in an increasingly globalized society, we face the need to look at changing our eating habits. Some of these changes are based on our own personal health, others are based on the health of our planet and its environment. The future points to a diet that relies more heavily on plant-based protein than it does on animal protein. Many studies show that a move in this direction will more efficiently use our natural resources.

When we decided to relocate from downtown Fresno to north Fresno last October, people asked why. At the time, we explained that many of our customers had expressed the desire for adequate free parking and a perception of safety with well-lit streets at night. Our desire was to cross that bridge that divides south Fresno from north Fresno. By relocating, we hoped to introduce the two sides of Fresno to one another. We moved to a neighborhood where more affluent Fresnans lived, people who could afford to dine out. Our hope was that we would be more conveniently located for those who are health conscious in their eating habits, can afford to dine out, and are truly concerned about ways to end the cycle of poverty, addiction, abuse and violence that plagues our city. We met many wonderful customers in our north Fresno location. And many of them were customers who found it inconvenient or frightening to go to our downtown location.

But, the bottom line was, there just were not enough customers to pay our bills. We needed about 110 customers per day. Some days we had as few as 10 customers, and we averaged about 40 to 50 customers daily.

Some people assumed that we were an exclusively vegetarian restaurant. This misunderstanding may have kept some customers from visiting our restaurant. We regularly posted on social media pictures of our food, including chile verde, chicken sandwiches and albondigas (Mexican meatball) soup. But, not everyone received the message.

Training and re-training employees also proved difficult. While some of our employees showed true desire to change and grow, others brought their bad habits into the workplace with them. Some employees did not work out, for this reason. The turnover made it difficult to create consistency and timeliness, characteristics that require adequate staff with proper training.

In spite of these setbacks, and the owners’ lack of previous restaurant experience, we still held excellent ratings on Yelp, Google and Facebook up until the day we closed. We displeased some people, but that will happen anywhere.

We are delighted to report that a number of former employees have moved forward into positions as bakers, cooks, deli attendants and dishwashers at other local restaurants and food outlets. We are very proud of their continued success.

Although we had to make the difficult decision to close Tree of Life, our three and a half years in Fresno worked toward building a bridge connecting north Fresno with south Fresno and old eating habits with new ones. Our resources ran out before the bridge was completed. Now, the job of completing that bridge is the privilege, responsibility and mission of others. And, as other creative ideas spring up, we look forward to seeing an entire orchard of “Trees of Life” in our Valley, trees that help build a bridge between poverty and wealth, addiction and health, violence and peace, abuse and compassion, past habits and future habits.

We will continue to remain available to help those who want to build that bridge.

The Biblical description of the tree of life tells us that its “leaves were for the healing of the nations” (Revelation 22:2). We look forward to seeing health and healing as others catch the vision of the Tree of Life in our Valley!

Signed with Love for Fresno and our Valley.

Steve and Carolyn Ocheltree, Fresno