The arrival of fall brings local apples, changing leaves, and perhaps most importantly — colder nights.

Sunrise Cafe, located in the basement of the Episcopal Church of St. Paul and St. James at 57 Olive St., offers free breakfast Monday through Friday from 7:30 am to 9:30 am; donated clothes and bags of food are distributed on Saturday. The wide-open basement door, accompanied by Sunrise Cafe’s no questions asked policy and indoor heating, is a welcome relief to many of New Haven’s struggling citizens.

Devine, a middle-aged man I met drinking a steaming cup of Sunrise Cafe’s coffee on the church steps, praised this young effort as, “not only a place to get breakfast, but a place to get warm.”

The warmth of Sunrise Cafe seems to come from those who keep it running as well. As he waited in line to get a meal, another customer, Tommy, described the tireless efforts of the people keeping the Sunrise Cafe’s doors open six-days-a-week. “Helen is a blessing,” he said, pointing toward a woman in a blue apron speedily taking an uninterrupted stream of orders from customers. When asked about the food, Tommy gestured toward a neighbor’s tray filled with cups of fruit juice, bananas, granola bars, toast, and cereal and asked, “Where [else] are ya gonna get food like that for free?”

Sunrise Cafe is reminiscent of a high school cafeteria, but with the added luxuries of tablecloths, flowers, and paintings decorating the walls. At least eight tables stand throughout the finished basement, and most mornings it’s hard to find a vacant chair. The food is served on bright red lunch trays that occupy most of the tables’ surface area. The remaining tabletops are strewn with morning newspapers, books, and jackets — discarded temporarily while customers soak in the basement’s cozy temperature and enjoy breakfast.

Sunrise Cafe_Table4One of the cafe’s dedicated volunteers, Victor, has adopted the nickname “Shaw” because of the overwhelming number of customers with the same name who pass through Sunrise Cafe’s doors every morning. On a short break, “Shaw” sank into a seat and told me what makes Sunrise Cafe unique:

“It is the only place [that serves free food] that allows or encourages people to come and still lets them feel like a patron ordering their food.”

He stood again to straighten out table number four. Like Tommy, he also feels the determined staff are the foundation of the cafe’s success:  “Staff here is awesome…It’s the intent to bring compassion into the world…[in a way that] doesn’t take their [the patrons’] integrity away.” “Shaw” praises the Sunrise Cafe’s ability to do “a lot for the morale of people.” Glancing at the remaining customers, he remarks, “they’re human, they can only take so much.”

The Sunrise Cafe serves as a model of soup kitchens for the future — one that consistently offers hot dishes with a large side of dignity and inclusivity for customers who come from communities that often feel ignored and dehumanized.

On my way out of the cafe, I spoke with a few more men about their feelings toward the Sunrise Cafe. When asked whether they found the location accessible or not, a younger man wrapped in two coats looked at his friend, laughed, and said, “All you gotta do is walk right down Chapel.”

The Sunrise Cafe, funded primarily by private donations, is short of volunteers. Helen spared a second from her seemingly-continuous work to express her excitement at the prospect of extra helping hands. She led me into the kitchen, where six or seven other volunteers of all ages were laughing, talking and listening to music while directing tray after tray to waiting patrons. The fun doesn’t seem to detract from their work ethic as more than 150 trays are served during each breakfast session, amounting to roughly 11,000 meals served in the six months since Sunrise Cafe opened it’s doors.

As always, new customers are always welcomed at the Sunrise Cafe. However, new volunteers interested in serving their community are especially encouraged to take an early morning walk “right down Chapel” to get their own glimpse of one of the city’s newest breakfast joints.

Sunrise Cafe

Episcopal Church of St. Paul and St. James at 57 Olive St.,

Serving free breakfast Monday—Friday from 7:30 am to 9:30 am; donated clothes & bags of food distributed on Saturday.

To volunteer, contact Liberty Community Services (203.495.1779) or show up at 7 a.m., entering on the inclined path at Chapel and Olive.