A Cafe with a Cult Following

Source: A medium corporation

Go to the profile of Tracy Ratledge

Tracy Ratledge

journalist/ singer-songwriter/ world traveler

Nov 10, 2015

In broad daylight, a local sheriff is cuffing a hoodlum in a non-descript white t-shirt and pants hanging low enough to allow his forest green plaid boxers to take center stage. It’s just another Friday afternoon in Downtown Vista. Middle school mini-bikers and skater punks are loitering to watch the arrest. Why aren’t they in school, you ask yourself? Behind it all: a mural of a cat in an astronaut suit, floating around like it’s the last scene of Gravity among a hodgepodge of planets in no scientific order. Off to the side, a local Instagrammer is frolicking in his natural habitat. There’s always at least one. He can’t resist the photo op, and quickly snaps a few pictures from various angles. Nearby, an abstract statue that seems to be a cross between a detective and the Tin Man is plopped at the edge of the parking lot. His eyes seem to follow you around the corner where you arrive at The Yellow Deli.

A vine-wrapped pergola invites you in to meet the gatekeeper. Today’s gatekeeper looks like he’s in his early 50s; his weathered olive skin is highlighted by wire framed glasses and a grizzly beard. His salt and pepper hair is parted in the middle and tucked away in a neat low bun. He’s preoccupied with writing guests’ names on the wait list. He looks up after he’s finished asking Michael, who works upstairs, about availability. He shifts his gaze to the latest hopeful to apply for a table, and asks, “Have you ever been here before?”

Our House Is a Very Very Nice House

The Yellow Deli is a hotspot for an array of North County San Diegans. Old friends in their twenties come to reconvene for weekend brunch around 10am-1pm; middle-aged men and women alike tend to gather for gregarious lunch breaks on the patio during weekdays from 11am-1pm; and college students corral the indoor seating and the coveted study room from 10pm-3am.

The adobe style exterior and accented wooden paneling distinguishes the Yellow Deli from its surrounding concrete jungle. It looks less like a food establishment and more like an elaborate boarding house with its plethora of rooms, a dumb waiter, and a jarringly narrow staircase. The downstairs includes an outdoor patio with bonfire pits, tables and chairs festooned with iron-welded daisies, and a couple of murals for good measure.

One of the murals is on the outside wall of the second story. It shows a side profile of pale brunette woman with the Yellow Deli’s philosophy painted across her face in a faint powder blue: “Even longer ago, and even farther away, the idea actually sprouted up of a society where people could work together and live together in peace and harmony. The ‘utopian’ ideal of a society of complete sharing has come and gone across the face of history over the years, but few realize that the roots of this type of living was demonstrated most vividly in the ‘First Church’ as they practiced complete communal living… Somehow it must have appeared to them to be the perfect way to live out all the demands of Love, going the ‘extra mile.’ So, why not live that way today?”

The second mural shows the Morning Star Ranch in Valley Center, CA, a vast yurt-dotted expanse of land where Yellow Deli employees reside, farm and practice sustainable agriculture. The idyllic mural depicts the Morning Star Ranch’s property “lined with palm, trees leading to the persimmon orchard where the cows graze,” fields and red barns, all framed by a vignette.

Gargantuan mahogany front doors transport you into what seems like a southern plantation. The windows in the front room are draped with yellow gingham curtains to give some indication that the Yellow Deli’s roots are in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The booths are miniature bungalows; each one is enclosed in its own little niche along the walls with hanging stained glass lamps that match the front door.

Then your eyes shift to waiters and waitresses buzzing around with trays piled high with yellow mugs and tantalizing entrees. Most of the employees could probably be thrown together in a last minute production of Hair without any help from costume and wardrobe. Men and woman alike have long hair parted down the middle and pulled back into either a ponytail or bun. The women are dressed in a variety of parachute and harem pants paired with a neutral peasant tops and sensible Mary Jane walking shoes. Similarly, the men are usually clothed in a flannel shirt, well-worn denim and hiking boots. Although you might wonder if the Yellow Deli employees shower regularly, they clearly don’t intimidate newcomers with their Woodstock-meets-comfort attire. Their homogeneous outfits hint at how the employees work exchange for clothes, shelter and other goods provided by the community.

My Yellow In This Case Is Not So Mellow

The last chorus of a hymn sung in three part harmonies:

“Restoration of all Things”

On the 1st and 3rd Wednesdays there’s a live band congregating around the bonfire pits from 7–9pm. It’s a gospel folk jamboree; the band is made up of a guitar, mini guitar, violin, zither and an upright bass. They strum a hymn that sounds dangerously close to a reprise version of “Come On, Eileen,” but obviously with very different lyrics. After they are done playing their set, an open forum takes place upstairs where anyone can be informed on the Twelve Tribes and its credos.

The open forum is basically open recruitment to the Twelve Tribes, an over zealous apocalyptic religion founded in 1972 by Eugene Spriggs in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Even though the Tribes use a lot of Hebrew and follow certain Jewish traditions, they differ from Judaism in their belief that the Messiah, Yashua (Jesus), has come to earth. Spriggs is known as Yoneq within the group (Hebrew for young plant), and was initially involved in a teen ministry group called the Light Brigade. The Light Brigade then decided to live communally in order to recreate the Twelve Tribes of Israel that Paul spoke of in Acts 26:7 and renamed themselves accordingly. In 1973 the first of eventually eleven Yellow Delis opened its doors in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Over time, the other ten locations sprung up in California (Vista, Valley Center), New York (Oneonta, Oak Hill), Vermont (Rutland, Island Pond), Tennessee (Pulaski), Colorado (Boulder), Canada (Chiliwack) and Australia (Katoomba).

This particular open forum’s theme is “Marriage: The Supper of the Lamb.” Paul, a member of Twelve Tribes, leads the discussion. The subject of marriage isn’t discussed much beyond noting that among Twelve Tribesmen, the community must approve a couple before they can even begin a relationship. Also, Paul mentioned that the bride and groom are separated for a week before the wedding. Paul mainly answers the questions of two inquiring high school girls who appear to be interested in joining the Twelve Tribes. He joined the Twelve Tribes with his family in 1979. His parents divorced and his father took custody, so he didn’t return to the community until he was 22 in 1992.

Paul stresses that the “nucleus of our life is living together.” The Twelve Tribes believe that by living together they are “putting greed and envy under their feet.” Which is saying something, because the alleged enemies of the Tribes are pride, lust, greed and selfishness. Paul claims that Christians are not as apathetic as the Tribes because they are waiting for God. He argues that God is waiting for something to happen on earth that will call him to return. And that something is seeing people love one another and live in communities according to Isaiah 49:6.

“You should be my servant to raise tribes”

Paul seems to avoid aspects about the church that don’t involve dancing, drum circles and choruses of kumbaya. He doesn’t mention that upon joining the Tribes, you’re required to give all your possessions to the community. Nor does he share that after joining, members rename themselves in an Old Testament flower child-like manner with names like Zahara. He doesn’t disclose that the community abstains from mind-altering substances including alcohol. When asked about the use of technology, his face grows serious, departing from his previous animated state, and he says that “as a culture we don’t want to be corrupted by technology and would refuse any donation of items such as iPads.” The group noted Paul’s changed demeanor from wide eyed to disgruntled after technology was brought up, leading one of the guests to discreetly tuck away his Kindle fire.

Brian, a portly middle-aged man with mousy brown hair dressed in a faded green polo and jeans, arrives late to join the group. His affiliation with the church is that his daughter joined when she was 26 and a single mom. Ostensibly many single parents join the tribe in order to obtain the community’s strong sense of family. It also doesn’t hurt to have an arsenal of babysitters on hand to help raise their children. Brian says he’s not a part of the community because he’s “got his own thing going on.” He clearly deviates from at least one pillar of the Tribes’ doctrine by periodically checking his smart phone. He chuckles and says, “Well, if the police were after me, this (the tribe) is where I’d go.”


A round of Yerba Mate is served.

After a few sips, Paul goes on to tell how the first Yellow Deli in Chattanooga, Tennessee came to be. From the way he describes it I wouldn’t be surprised if birds decorated the window displays and mice swept the floor. The story begins with Eugene Spriggs, the man who founded the community in Chattanooga, Tennessee in 1972. Eugene’s wife, despite her agnosticism, used to gush about the community while she was waiting tables, long before the Yellow Deli came to be. Apparently, the restaurant she worked at didn’t appreciate her proselytizing for the community on her shifts. Therefore, she thought, it only seemed logical that she and Eugene should open up a deli for her to talk freely about the community.

According to Paul, Eugene allegedly just waltzed home with a pair of keys to a vacant building. Eddie Wiseman, a carpenter, happened upon the premises and decided to lend them his services. They repurposed the building with “junk” and barn wood. Oodles and oodles of yellow paint were miraculously donated. That’s how the yellow falls into the picture. Maybe it’s the years of oral tradition, but Paul’s storytelling makes the construction of the first Yellow Deli sound like it was part of the week of Creation rather than a Burning Man-esque collaboration.

Paul alludes to there being thousands of Yellow Deli locations; yet their website only features eleven (nine in the US, one in Australia and one in Canada). The story of the construction of the Vista location doesn’t follow the magical tone of the first Yellow Deli in Chattanooga, Tennessee. On the website, the tribes complain about the seven years of figuring out building permits and working with architects and engineers. Impressively enough, they built it from the ground up and crafted their own windows, doors and cabinets.

The Yellow Deli might be above a lot of things but they aren’t above merchandising. Besides the profits from the deli, they make their living by selling their produce at various famers markets around North County (most prominently in Vista and Leucadia) as well as their wooden crafts at Commonwealth Millworks in Vista.

The House of The Rising Yeast

There’s a basket on every table containing menus and a laminated letter about the bread. The letter from the bakers reads, “Here at the Yellow Deli we bake our own bread. It’s very good, but we have come to learn that some consider themselves allergic to wheat. That is sad and we have tried to make something here that will meet their need. As Bakers we are accustomed to using wheat but we have made a pleasant dough with rice instead that seems to please our customers with this allergy. It does not have the quality of “stick-togetherness” that our good bread has, so xanthan gum is added to hold it in place. It works ok… not well. Thus it is hard to compare it to our regular ‘bread’ in using for our sandwiches. We are not so sure how good that xanthan gum is for our customers, but because we are asked so often, we are putting on our menu. BUT BEWARE: Our bakery is FULL OF GLUTEN, SO WE CANNOT ASSURE OUR DEAR CUSTOMERS THAT A FLAKE OF GLUTEN MIGHT NOT HAVE FLOATED INTO OUR RICE CAKE…Thus for the really allergic we would recommend that you should not feel comfortable eating your meals in a bakery that specializes in nice sourdough and yeasted breads.” This hilariously passive aggressive PSA against the gluten-free fad is the first of many suggestions that Yellow Deli isn’t your run-of–the mill natural food cafe. Don’t be fooled by their sassiness and talent for tongue and cheek, though; their humor begins and ends at their menus.

The other trademark item on the menu is the Green Drink. The Green Drink is composed of kale, rainbow chard, wild spinach, collards, grapefruit juice and specially imported Yerba Mate from Brazil. It’s the best way to inhale a salad without having to go through the mundane exercise of using a fork — plus it has a nice jolt to it. The Green Drink also comes in bar form. The Green Bar is “packed with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and blood building chlorophyll.” Weighing in at a whopping three ounces, the Green Bar is assembled with the same green vegetables in addition to organic oats, rice krispies, peanuts, peanut butter, local honey, maple syrup and carob chips.

Jesus Freaks Out in the Street, Handing Tickets Out For God

Paul explains the magic of Israeli circle dancing, a dance that occurs at holidays and festival times. He recounts the most famous example of circle dancing at a Grateful Dead concert on April 3, 1989. The Peacemaker bus, a double decker maroon and cream colored bus with leather detailing, rolled up to the Dead concert and the police stopped them. The police warned them that a riot was breaking out and that it wouldn’t be safe. Their driver proceeded without taking heed of the warning. Then they got off the bus and starting dancing in the riot. Sure enough the riot dissolved instantly, and everyone was dancing, dancing in the street. The policemen present called the tribes members “peaceful peacemakers.” Or so they allege.

The Twelve Tribes propaganda has a long association with 70s musicians, specifically The Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan and Pink Floyd. In the past the tribes would tour around on the Peacemaker bus to meet concertgoers and invite them to take part in their communal way of life. The deli offers a few newspapers analyzing Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You’re Gone,” and Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall.” They use these songs and artists to draw comparisons between the lyrics and the tribes’ beliefs. One of their newspapers asserts that Dylan was a pseudo-spokesperson for their beliefs from his declaration that “people who believe in the coming of the Messiah live their lives right now as if he was here.”

Cult Fiction

Part of what draws people to the Yellow Deli is a morbid curiosity about what goes on beyond closed doors. This curiosity is mainly driven by the controversy the Twelve Tribes stirs up. While they pride themselves on being set apart from mainstream society, their unorthodox practices tend to deter people, rather than wrangle them into the Morning Star Ranch.

Over the years, the Twelve Tribes have been charged with labor code violations, child abuse, gender inequality and racial discrimination. Dorian Hargrove’s 2013 exposé in the San Diego Reader clarifies that “all work is performed in exchange for food, shelter, and clothing.” Labor commissioners have inspected both the Vista location and the Valley Center location for not conforming to minimum wage requirements. Their investigation concluded that employees were not being properly compensated. The tribes were fined a grand total of $14,000 for this violation. The tribes argued that they were a “tax exempt religious community…allowed to operate business ventures” and those who were working were not employees but “volunteers.” When volunteers are working eighteen-hour days without pay, the state will ordinarily intervene. Edward Sifuentes’ article in the Union Tribune shows that “the San Diego judge agreed with the Labor Commissioner that the Yellow Deli and Morning Star businesses were set up by individuals, with individual owners, and therefore not eligible for exemption under the IRS code 501 (d), religious communal organization.” Since their workers were listed as volunteers instead of employees, the Tribes tried to argue that they didn’t have to be held to the same restrictions. But in the end, the Tribes caved in to “modifying the way they ran their business” in order to avoid a lawsuit by the state.

Furthermore, the Tribes have racked up countless allegations of child abuse and extreme child rearing policies. Testimonies from formers members online indicate that a thin bamboo rod is used to punish children at least daily. On September 5, 2013, police in Germany caught the tribe on film “persistently beating children for the most trivial offenses,” resulting in forty children being rescued and put into foster homes. Children aren’t allowed to own commercial items like Hello Kitty or Raggedy Ann, or engage in “time wasters” such as watching television or playing video games. A similar raid occurred in Island Pond, Vermont, but the children were returned to the tribe due to lack of sufficient evidence to embark on an investigation.

The overtly patriarchal aspect of the Tribe doesn’t adhere to gender equality. James R. Lewis’ Encyclopedia of Cults, Sects and New Religions divulges “each local community is ‘covered’ by a council of male elders (one from each household). Decision making appears to be a collective process by listening to the qualms of community members, group prayer and the Bible.” Women are forced to wear headscarves during “church and gatherings to demonstrate their submission to their husbands and male elders.” Moreover, a website called TwelveTribe-ex.com (a hyperlink from The Yellow Deli Truth Facebook page), unearths a traumatizing experience from an anonymous source, recounting how her friend’s father sexually abused her with the notorious “punishment rod” when she was about six years old.

An essay on the Twelve Tribes’ website called, “Multicultural Madness” sheds light on their skewed view of coexistence. The essay exclaims, “Let’s face it. It is just not reasonable to expect people to live happily alongside others who are culturally different.” It continues to criticize society’s rejection of discrimination by questioning why “integration must be forced upon people” and reaffirming that “it’s completely normal to find your own culture the most desirable.” Their lack of tolerance doesn’t end at race. The tribe “does not approve of homosexual behavior.” They “do not regard it as a genetic variation, a valid alternative lifestyle or a mere psychological quirk.” Like many other religious groups that do not condone homosexuality, they cite Leviticus and “embrace what God says on this subject regardless of political correctness.”

However, the tribe’s labor code violations and bigotry are not without precedent in Southern California. Another eccentric religious group that has gained similar notoriety is the star-studded Church of Scientology. In 2012 the Los Angeles Times’ Maura Dolan revealed although the Sea Organization sect of the church “failed to pay the Headleys, two former members who later sued the CSI (Church of Scientology International),” the CSI won the lawsuit against them because the Headleys had “plenty of opportunities to leave the church.” Likewise, Lawrence Wright’s New Yorker piece, “The Apostate,” examines renowned movie director Paul Haggis’ struggle to remain in the church with its anti-gay sentiment. He was distressed that the Church and community where he once found solace were using homosexual slurs and considered homosexuality a perversion. To make matters worse, after his daughter came out, members of the Church began slandering her as a 1.1; 1.1 “refers to a sliding Tone Scale of emotional states that L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology, published in a 1951 book, The Science of Survival.” Hubbard states that a “1.1 is the most dangerous and wicked level.” The witch hunt against his daughter combined with vehement disagreement with the Church’s stance on Prop 8, the 2008 amendment that banned same sex marriage in California, led to Haggis resigning from the Church His letter of resignation from the Church circulated in the media at the time due to his previous staunch defense of the Church.

Goodbye Yellow Deli, Where the Dogs of Society Howl

Exiting the Open forum makes you feel like the Von Trapp Family Singers fleeing Austria through the Alps to neutral Switzerland. The Deli is a mere ruse to gain more members. The sheer amount of fliers, pamphlets and weekly open forums reveal a dedication to recruiting members that clearly outshines the restaurant’s passion for cuisine. The rose colored glasses are off and what may have passed as Berkeley co-op at first is clearly cut from a different and much more conservative cloth.

There are plenty of people who are not in the know about the Twelve Tribes’ affiliation with the Yellow Deli. In fact, most San Diego regulars at the Yellow Deli just think the restaurant is a little quirky, and appreciate a healthy alternative in the 24-hour dining category. While the tribe advertises that they welcome anyone into their community with open arms, there are clearly some limitations. You can live with them in peace and harmony — as long as you’re willing to sell all your worldly possessions and hand over the profits to the church. You’re free to do as you wish, as long as your wishes include adhering to strict dress codes, abstaining from technology and enforcing subordinate roles for women. It becomes a debate on what place the cult has in society. Does the cult’s existence infringe on everything a progressive society holds dear, and therefore should be expunged? Or does the cult simply not affect anyone who doesn’t willingly get themselves involved?

As you leave the forum and the Yerba Mate lounge, a chill runs down your spine as the brisk winter breeze and the truth behind the deli hit you all at once. On the patio, shadows dance around the flickering flames of the fire pits. Close by a young brooding man attempts to read an autobiography of Kurt Cobain while his wispy shoulder length hair keeps blowing into his field of vision. The live music is long gone and replaced with the drone of arpeggios being plucked on a Spanish guitar. The repetitive background music blares through the speakers planted in every corner. The families that were once gathered around the fire pits earlier have been swapped with college students clad in sweatpants. All eyes are glued to smartphones while waiting impatiently for a spot to open up in the study room. The aroma of carrot cake and cinnamon rolls waft through the air as the night grows later and the allure of empty calories goes stronger.

I sip my last few drops of apple cider out of my yellow mug, and head out past the astronaut cat to my car, wondering if this should be my last Yellow Deli visit for a while. I don’t know if I’m willing to let my hair or guard down, and join the circle dance anytime soon.

One Comment On “A Cafe with a Cult Following”

  1. I think The Twelve Tribes cult should stand trial for the laws they broke and continue to break in reference to children’s physical and mental welfare.

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