Claire Sumadiwirya grew up in Bellevue, but the plan to open a cafe in her neighborhood was actually born in Shanghai, China.
Six years ago, Sumadiwirya was working in public relations and marketing and traveled to Shanghai for a brief job assignment. Everything was going as planned until her six-month-old son got sick. A heart-wrenching two weeks would be spent attending to him in the hospital.
“I was so lonely because I had no friends there and because I didn’t grow up there I was considered American, even though I speak Chinese. Even though I looked like them, I was an outsider,” Sumadiwirya said.
Then, she recounted the most pivotal night of her hospital stay. She was aching for the comforts of a hospital coffee shop, but those aren’t commonplace in Shanghai. So, when one of the hospital janitors stopped in to give her a cup of coffee from 7-Eleven and a bowl of soup, she was transformed by his kindness.
“His wife made it, and she looked up the American chicken noodle soup recipe,” Sumadiwirya recalled. “It gave me perspective, how people don’t know you but they’re so kind to you.”
With a desire to bottle that feeling and bring it back to the states, she decided it was time to open a coffee shop of her own — not far from Overlake Medical Center. While the Seattle area is full of coffee shops, Sumadiwirya had something unique in mind.
“At Bellden Cafe, we partner with local charities, not just as donors, but as partners,” Sumadiwirya said. “We inform people about these charities and help educate people about what their neighbors need.”
When Bellden Cafe opened in 2017, Sumadiwirya says it was the only woman-owned, minority-owned coffee shop on the East side. She recalls many barriers-to-access in opening her business — from securing the location to hiring staff. But she pressed on and kept her goal in sight.
“Giving back is my first priority,” Sumadiwirya said. “Our goal at Bellden Cafe is not making a profit. My goal is taking care of my staff and taking care of my community. Give back first, then break even.”
Unsurprisingly, Bellden Cafe has multiple avenues that they use to give back to the community. The first of many is that the cafe always features a rotating specialty drink, from which 25% of all sales go to a local charity organization. Furthermore, any pastries that are leftover at the end of the day are always donated. Oftentimes, Bellden Cafe is a sponsor for annual charity events and helps to raise community awareness. Lastly, Sumadiwirya pays her staff for seven hours each quarter to volunteer at an organization of their choice.
“Missing a whole day of work to volunteer can be a big decision to make, especially with the high cost of living here,” Sumadiwirya explained.
Overall, the cafe has grown tremendously over the last three years, and Sumadiwirya is so deeply proud of the community that she and her staff have lovingly cultivated. She says that there’s many regulars who come back on a daily basis, and that it only takes “six times to say hello to somebody” before you establish a friendship.
“We had a customer who came on opening day when she was pregnant, and now she’s having her second baby,” Sumadiwirya said proudly.
Part of Sumadiwirya’s community support efforts also include supporting other small business owners. Some of her favorite spots to #SpendLikeItMatters include vegan, woman-owned Thai restaurant, Araya and local coffee shop, Dote.
“The owner, she is a mom as well, and she has corporate experience, too. She and her daughter come to my coffee shop all of the time. We don’t see each other as competition, we’re just doing what we want to do,” Sumadiwirya said about the cafe in Lincoln Square Food Hall.
Bellden Cafe is always evolving, and has just started to serve wine and beer alongside their usual offerings of coffee and healthy breakfast foods. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the cafe continues to be a stronghold for the community. In addition to offering takeout, Bellden Cafe has been hard at work delivering coffee, pastries, and masks to the Bellevue Police Department and Overlake Medical Center.
As always, they are continuing to make contributions to local organizations via their coffee sales. But to further expand their contributions, Bellden Cafe even released a special #togetherwearestronger water bottle, and 100% of the proceeds went to Overlake Medical Center, Vision House, and Jubilee REACH.
Amid the crisis, Sumadiwirya remains hopeful.
“With the Coronavirus, people are scared […] but there are ways to show love without touching,” she said. “We want to promote the human connection better through local business partnerships and collaborations. Bellden Cafe has evolved to a place that’s really solid, especially with the virus going on. It’s an example of how strong community is.”
As the third anniversary of Bellden Cafe comes to pass, Sumadiwirya says she’s feeling like the cafe has taught her an overwhelming amount of life lessons and given her many opportunities for connection.
“The staff always tell me their lives and ask me to support them,” she said. “It’s a privilege to do that, to have people trust me and share their stories. It’s a privilege that people who work for me can trust me as their mentor. It gave me more patience, grace, and empathy. I understand that people have different stages of their life, different upbringing, even with social and cultural differences people see things differently. It’s made me a better leader.”
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