Restaurant gives recovering addicts a chance at success

ST. PAUL — Greg Ekbom’s dream of starting a restaurant that
would give recovering drug and alcohol addicts a chance at success
began more than 35 years ago when he was a student at the former
Northeast Metro Technical College, which is now Century College.

A
recovering addict and 1968 graduate of White Bear High School, Ekbom
founded the popular Day by Day Café on West Seventh Street in St. Paul
after studying how to prepare food at Northeast Metro. The café has a
funky, art-and-plant-filled atmosphere and is a popular destination for
people who want hearty breakfasts and lunches. It does not serve
alcohol and is not open for dinner.

“I was newly sober and
excited about nearly everything,” said Ekbom, who went through
treatment in the early 1970s. “Life was not as bad as I had imagined
it, and I was ready to do something productive.”

After working
at various restaurant jobs between 1965 and 1973, including a stint at
the lunch counter in the old Snyder’s Drug Store on Bellaire Avenue in
White Bear Lake, Ekbom studied food preparation at Northeast Metro in
1974.

Then a treatment center asked him to go into a partnership
and open the first Day by Day Cafe in an old railroad car on West
Seventh Street, offering people in recovery a chance to work in an
alcohol-free environment. They named it Day by Day because it reflects
the recovery community’s philosophy of recovering from addiction one
day at a time.

Ekbom worked in the first Day by Day for about
four years, and then in 1980 bought the old brick building where the
restaurant is now located. The 1882-vintage building had been condemned
and Ekbom purchased it at an auction.

The
kitchen was upgraded in 1990 and Ekbom built an addition featuring
books and booths in 1996. A funky back deck with a fountain was added
in 1997. Ekbom and a friend did most of the work. Ekbom’s daughter,
Gena, now manages the café and his son, John, works there, too.

Currently,
about a third of the employees at the café are in recovery. Ekbom said
it used to be that 50 to 70 percent were recovering addicts. Things
changed, he said, partly because some treatment centers prefer their
clients to spend additional time at the center rather than working in
the community.

Over the years, Ekbom said a lot of “wonderful,
creative people” have gotten back on their feet while working at the
Day by Day. “It is good for them to work in a restaurant that doesn’t
sell alcohol,” said Ekbom.

Ekbom keeps in touch with a number of
former employees, some of whom lived in the six apartments located
above the café.Ekbom still attends recovery meetings and recovery
groups still hold sessions at the Day by Day.
“I like hiring people in recovery,” he said. “Once they get sober, they make world-class employees.”