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Inspiring Conversations with Robert Riley II of Coffee Culture

Today we’d like to introduce you to Robert Riley II.

Robert, we appreciate you taking the time to share your story with us today. Where does your story begin?
In 2008, I was released from federal prison after years of addiction, incarceration, and living in misery. I was 20 months sober when I was released and with some sobriety under my belt, I knew I wanted a different life for myself and to make a positive difference in the world. I grew up in Orange County California, but my mom was living in Saint Louis with her husband, so this is where I went when I was released; I was really fortunate to have the support of my family. So many people getting released don’t have that and I can’t imagine how difficult it is.

Immediately, I embedded myself in the 12-step recovery community and began working a program of recovery. I was lucky, and a plant manager, Mike , decided to take a chance on me and gave me a job, and the more I put into my job the more they invested in me through training and advances in position. Having the support of my employer gave me the consistency, stability, and foundation I needed and was instrumental in allowing me to start a new life.

In 2011, my best friend and I saw that we were losing friends at an alarming rate to accidental drug poisoning from opioids. We did what we thought was the natural thing to do and started handing out Narcan to our friends that were in active addiction and struggling with the misuse of opioids. That did not go over well at first. We received a lot of negative pressure because of the stigma associated with addiction when we were handing out the Narcan. People lost their minds and told us we were enabling. We told them we are enabling … we are enabling them to breathe and live another day to possibly find recovery. My friend and I went on to write and advocate for the passing of all of our laws that remove the barriers to people having access to the lifesaving drug Narcan.

Dead people don’t recover. Period.

The next thing we decided to tackle was housing. We saw there was a huge need for recovery supportive housing in our area, so we started opening recovery supportive houses. It’s difficult to achieve sobriety when you’re constantly worried about where you’re going to sleep night after night. Today we have three men’s houses and two women’s for a total of 51 beds. Most of the sober living agencies at that time would discharge an individual if they returned to use and we thought that was a crazy system. We thought it was counterproductive to kick someone out when they are struggling and need us the most. So, we took another approach, one that was designed to support them through that time but also keep the rest of the residents safe.

There was still more that needed done. After we had addressed completely unnecessary deaths from opioids to the best of our ability, and addressed basic transitional housing needs while in recovery, we needed to address the issue of addiction directly.

In 2019, I co-founded a new treatment center called Sana Lake Recovery Center, a recovery center that didn’t only focus on immediate detoxification and 30 days of rehabilitation but addressed what happened after members got out. We have outpatient programs for our members once they leave, these provide a continuum of care and give our members the continued support they need to stay in recovery – including transitional housing for those who need it.

Would you say it’s been a smooth road, and if not what are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced along the way?
None of this has been smooth, and I’m grateful that it hasn’t been. Most of my initial personal challenges were issues from the past that I needed to overcome. For instance, when I got out of prison, I owed $180,000 in back child support. I was also on supervision with 14 felonies, and looking for a job, and a place to live. What most people don’t realize is that once you have a felony simply finding stable housing and a job is a challenge. I was lucky in that I had family support while I began to build the foundation of a sober life, not everyone does.

It still wasn’t easy. I paid hundreds of dollars in credit application fees and spent months looking for a place to live before a lady named Cindy, who owned an apartment building, looked beyond my record, and asked me if I was serious about my recovery and getting my life together. That was a big one to overcome.

The thing about recovery is that it isn’t something any of us in it can take for granted. In January of 2021, after 14 years of continuous sobriety, I found myself returning to use for about 10 months. I was on top of the world, and I stopped doing the things I needed to do to take care of myself and maintain my recovery.

I needed time to regroup and get back to the core practices of sober living. I left the day-to-day management of Sana Lake Recovery to be able to focus on my sobriety, but at the same time, I needed to set one more program in place to help people in recovery – employment.

My experience as a formerly incarcerated individual living in recovery trying to build a life of my own -free from addiction – contributed to all the projects that I’ve been involved with along the way. Having that job given to me by the plant manager Mike at the printing company was so instrumental in my success and is why I am starting The Cookie Hustle and bought the Coffee Culture Truck. My goal is to have recovery supportive workplaces throughout our region that really support individuals in recovery in safe environments while they build the lives that they deserve.

A few months after I had regained my sobriety, dear friends of mine, Brandi and Shaun told me they were selling their coffee truck business, Coffee Culture, and I had already been planning to start The Cookie Hustle. It seemed like a no-brainer. With The Cookie Hustle, I was planning to provide a place where people in recovery could work and learn a trade in an environment that would be good for continued recovery. Adding the Coffee Culture Truck to it simply made sense. I mean who doesn’t want to own their own coffee business? I saw it as a great way to train people in recovery as bakers and in customer service. With Coffee Culture I am also able to train them as baristas. This way they could have skills to be employable anywhere.

Seeing people in recovery learn that they have value and that they can succeed in recovery is one of the most amazing things I’ve ever witnessed. Sometimes we just need someone to believe in us especially when we don’t believe in ourselves. I’m just carrying the message that we do recover. I’m grateful to be of service every day to my friends. It’s where I found my freedom.

Alright, so let’s switch gears a bit and talk business. What should we know?
Coffee Culture, is a mobile coffee company engaged in preparing and serving the St. Louis area with the “Third Wave” of globally grown, roasted and packaged coffees and teas. Coffee culture mobile coffee truck is community oriented, and our main objective is to shower St. Louis with the third wave of coffee choices for St Louis and surrounding cities to enjoy while increasing convenience and affordability.

There are different types of coffees, teas and ice cold drinks you can find on our mobile coffee truck. Some of them are Brew of the Day, Espresso, Macchiato, Nitro Cold Brew, Cappuccino, Cortado and Lattes. Non-coffees include Tea of the Day, Matcha, Chai, Hot Coco, purified bottled water, whipped cream, 2% milk, coconut milk, almond and soy milk and syrup flavors of vanilla, caramel, hazelnut and mocha.

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