Joel Laufman’s bright eyes and wide smile greet customers at the handicapped accessible door. Always available for conversation, his open demeanor makes all who enter Ornery Vets Café feel immediately comfortable.
Customers sit in the vibrant red chairs, snacking on USA sugar cookies and sipping on drinks with names like “Berry Happy,” “The Kermit Special” and “Orange You Smooth.” Some indulge in cinnamon rolls while the more health-conscious crunch on vitamin-packed salads. A large blue mural of the café’s logo and hand-painted symbols of each branch of the U.S. military, which represent the inspiration of the café, take up most of the wall by the door.
Laufman himself is a veteran, serving in the Vietnam War. He was later diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder from his experiences overseas.
An Ohio University (Athens) alumnus, Laufman taught high school and junior high for 35 years after receiving his master’s degree in Educational Administration. He explains that, after his retirement and his wife’s passing, his mental health again took a turn for the worse, and he was inspired to open a café to bring together the veterans of Southeast Ohio with similar struggles.
“I thought it would help me to help others with my experience as a veteran,” Laufman says. He describes PTSD as something that affects everyone differently.
“It does not matter if you are young or old, black or white, male or female, it hits everybody like a sledgehammer,” Laufman says. Opening the café and talking about his war wounds made Laufman realize that his own mental health struggles were shared with people in the community.
Not only have veterans been taking advantage of the Café, but Laufman also explains that first responders, survivors of trauma, people struggling with depression and survivors of sexual assault meet at the café in Uptown Athens.
Ornery Vets is a 501C3 nonprofit organization. “There are no profits here,” Laufman says. “Whatever we make here goes straight back into the business or goes back into providing services.”
The café got off to a rough start during the pandemic in 2020, but the community has rallied to support the venture. For instance, a Go-Fund Me page was created to pay for an espresso machine, and one local Athens woman was generous enough to donate $2,000 of the $3,000 needed for the machine.
The staff hopes to see a rise in the number of customers within the coming months. Laufman explains that their major goal is to be open during the evenings to increase profits and so that those with post-traumatic stress disorder and other survivors of trauma continue to have a meeting space.
Laufman also aims to make the café financially successful enough to donate to other organizations around Southeast Ohio. With potential and positivity, he is eager to keep pushing. “We are always looking for opportunities and open to new partnerships.”