Bellden Cafe: Building Community at the 'Nicest Place in Washington'
From serving up a notoriously-delicious avocado toast to being named the Nicest Place in Washington, Bellden Café has quickly solidified its title as a neighborhood favorite while becoming a hub for the community at the same time.
We caught up with owner Claire Sumadiwirya to dive into the story behind Bellden and learn how this Bellevue-centric café came to be:
BDA: Claire! Tell us, how did you find yourself starting a coffee shop and café? What inspired you?
CS: Right after I had my first child, I was sent to Shanghai for a job assignment. Due to the heavy pollution in the city and his particular sensitivities due to a premature birth, he became very ill requiring us to stay in the hospital for weeks. In Shanghai, cafes are not located inside hospitals, and without family and friends nearby to help, I was exhausted and lonely with no immediate access to a simple cup of coffee or meal. If I wanted to nourish myself, I had to leave my baby alone in the hospital to go get food elsewhere. Then, one day the hospital staff surprised me with a cup of coffee and homemade soup. Their unconditional support and kindness inspired me to help two hospitals open their own cafes inside (which was a new idea at the time).
After I returned home to the US, I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do for my future career. I knew I wanted to build a social enterprise that would make a difference and bring the love I felt when my son was ill. During the process, I volunteered a lot with different charities and was truly surprised about how much our community needed help. From the homeless population that is in desperate need of basic living arrangements to low-income families whose kids can't afford education, I felt I needed to do more. And not just volunteer, but provide like the hospital staff in Shanghai did for me when I needed it most. Then, everything just clicked! I realized I could create a mission-driven cafe that partners up with local charities to support and build the community.
BDA: That’s amazing. But, did you have experience in the restaurant industry? What have you learned by creating and growing a small business?
CS: Actually, I didn’t have any experience in the restaurant industry other than a summer job when I was 15. But my passion for hospitality stemmed from my travels and my upbringing. Growing up, going out to a restaurant to enjoy a meal together was one of the rare ways we spent quality time since my parents were very busy with their careers. I am so thankful for everyone who works in the service industry because they are the key facilitators of those treasured memories. And that is what I want to provide to every customer who walks through the door at Bellden.
There are so many things I learned by creating and growing a small business, but with the unique mission of Bellden I learned that we all need to do something in life that we love and are so proud of. So, I say go follow your dreams and passion, even when others don’t support you. Only you know what is right for you. Love yourself by giving yourself space to learn, reflect, and grow. It is completely okay to be wrong sometimes. Learning from errors can lift you up way faster to your next goal in life than ignoring it. Make an impression on each person you meet, because your positivity and calmness are contagious. You never know, your smile might save a life one day.
BDA: Such a great sentiment. So, as you’ve grown, Bellden has also built a community of its own… what do you think cultivated that?
CS: First, I’d say our mission of loving people through wholesome products and sincere hospitality. Most of our ingredients at the cafe are all house-developed and made fresh daily. Our team goes through very thorough training on hospitality during each stage of growth. The goal is to make each customer feel loved and cared for, like the way I was treated both when I was young and when I was overseas taking care of my child. Second, our commitment to giving back to our community through volunteering, charity donations, and marketing partnerships with local charities. We believe strongly that only a purpose-driven business will strive in any economic condition. Giving back is not just an option, it is the way we live at Bellden.
BDA: And on that note, Bellden was recently named Washington’s Nicest Place! Tell us about that and why you think Bellden got the title.
CS: Yes, we were voted the Nicest Place in WA by Reader’s Digest. Every year, Reader’s Digest holds a contest for the Nicest Places in America, and each state will have a finalist. One of my previous team members, Anne, actually nominated us! Here is an excerpt from Anne’s submission that I think sums up the reason why I think Bellden got the title:
“When news of the economic impact of COVID-19 hit, instead of protecting her assets and her business, she chose to sacrifice her profits to continue to support the community. Bellden Cafe has been open every single day since the mandated closures offering the full menu of items for takeout, delivery, and a new contactless service program: curbside pick-up. She has kept her team employed and offered them unemployment benefits if they didn’t feel safe working. Despite the financial difficulties caused by a decrease in daily customers, Claire continues to offer 25% of proceeds to her charity partners. On top of that, she has raised money from her customer base to deliver weekly coffee and pastry donations to frontline workers, as well as gather and deliver diapers, groceries, and other necessary items to organizations in need. Recently, she even collected a number of letters and drawings from the community to deliver to a local nursing home. Claire has done all of this while continuing to make specialty coffee, delicious toasts, and soul-filling smoothies; and then returns home at the end of the day to parent and homeschool her three children.
Her positive morale has been steadfast as she offers a warm welcome to customers, as well as open her doors to shopless bread bakers and flower farmers to sell their creations in her brick and mortar to continue to support their businesses. She has kept her customer base happy and healthy by creating encouraging social media content including Bellden’s first music video, newsletters, and other fun and inspiring messages to keep people’s hearts light.
Lastly, she realized the clever idea of creating Bellden’s first coloring pages to keep kiddos and adults calm and creative during this challenging time of quarantine. Bellden Cafe, with Claire as its owner, has truly been a model of servant leadership displaying her commitment to the community in this time of crisis. I am proud to be her employee and her friend and to really live Bellden’s motto that #TogetherWeAreStronger.”
BDA: That’s really cool, and well deserved! So, about Bellevue… how did you find yourself in our City?
CS: When my parents decided to move to the US more than 25 years ago from Shanghai, we couldn’t decide on where to live because every state is so unique. So we did a cross country trip through twenty-some cities, and found Bellevue had the most welcoming community and the most beautiful outdoor spaces. After I graduated school, I traveled extensively for work both domestically and internationally with my young children. We were even relocated in different countries for a long period of time, but the further away we were from Bellevue, the more I wanted to come home to create a community that is based on kindness.
BDA: What do you love about the Downtown community?
CS: What I love about our community is its strong passion for giving. We as a community care about each other. For example, this year is our third operating and it was supposed to be our best one yet – we had plans of expanding in size and services, but it was paused due to the economic downturn caused by the pandemic. To be honest, in the first week when the pandemic hit our state, I was prepared to lose everything. Each customer that ordered from us brought us so much surprise and joy because we literally felt like we won the lottery with each order. The most interesting story happened three months into the pandemic: one of our beloved regulars, Howard, showed up at the cafe with his wife Judy (they are both in their late 80s). They ordered their usual latte and tea, but this time it was to-go because we were not open for dine-in yet. And then the most heartwarming thing happened: not only was that day the first time they left their house since the pandemic, it was also their 59th wedding anniversary! When they were trying to decide how to celebrate this big milestone in love, they chose to celebrate with us at their favorite cafe. On top of that, they gifted us with a $500 check to support our business and mission through this hard time.
BDA: That’s such a great example of generosity! The holidays are right around the corner… is Bellden offering any specials? Celebrating in a new way?
CS: We are so excited about this holiday! At Bellden, we are celebrating in two special ways: we are gathering and assembling 150 holiday hygiene bags with handwritten cards for the men at Congregation for the Homeless. And we will also be donating 50 Christmas gifts for children whose families are receiving support at Vision House (one of our long-term charity partners). We also just launched our limited edition Holiday Gift Boxes! They come with wine, a puzzle, chocolate, coffee, masks, greeting cards, flowers, charity items and so much more. 10% of all sales will be donated to our charity partners, and all products are made with love in small batches. Anyone interested can use our online ordering system.
BDA: Where do you like to shop and dine Downtown? What other businesses or places do you enjoy in the city?
CS: Bellevue has so much to offer! Some of my favorite places to enjoy my time are Whisk, Dote, The Lakehouse, and Monsoon. I love spending time with my children at all the parks, especially the Bellevue Botanical Garden. During the quarantine, we have developed a passion for staycations. Our favorite places to stay have to be the Westin and the W Hotel – their sincere hospitality and attention to detail made us feel so safe and at home at the same time. One other place that has really helped me to stay positive and hopeful is Jubilee REACH, which is one of our other long term partners. Each week, they are feeding more than 700 families in Bellevue that have been impacted dramatically by the pandemic. I love volunteering there to be part of this amazing community that showcases Bellevue as a world class city.
Next time you're in the Heart of Bellevue, check out Bellden Cafe for a taste of your own!
The Season of Cheer presented by Symetra is part of the Heart of Bellevue: our campaign to showcase local businesses while connecting you with stories of activity, creativity and recovery. Find out about our campaign and explore more of what’s happening around Downtown.
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