January 23, 2018
Story and photos by Matt M. McKnight
Sunlight Cafe is Seattle’s longest running vegetarian restaurant. A group of five women opened the place in 1976, wanting to serve simple, healthy dishes at reasonable prices.
One of its longest employees is Cindy Lee, the cafe’s resident baker. She started working here in 1981 as a barista when the cafe began serving espresso. In 1990, she launched a career in baking.
“There’s no sugar in any of our baked goods, just honey or molasses,” says Lee one recent afternoon as she prepped cookies, cinnamon rolls and buns for the restaurant’s signature nutburger. “At first it was a challenge,” she explained about baking this way. “But now it’s all just second nature.”
Generations of customers visit the Sunlight, sharing meals with their children and telling stories of how their parents used to bring them here. Some even started working for the free-spirited cafe at different points in their lives.
Those employees also have a special connection. Their children first came to the restaurant because their parents worked here. Then years later, all grown, they’re now serving those same sesame crunch waffles and steaming postum lattes themselves.
Lee has connected a whole host of family and friends to the Sunlight.
“Over the years I’ve managed to get four of my kids, one grandchild, two sisters and three friends a job here,” she says. “I’m responsible for lots of great employees.”
Son Xavier Lee, 27, currently works alongside her.
“When he was 19 and living at home with me I urged him to come in and start working,” she says. “Now that I live in Tacoma, it’s really nice to still see him a few times per week. I wouldn’t otherwise get to see him that much.”
But Lee’s Sunlight routine is soon about to change. Seattle’s hot real estate market has prompted the cafe’s landlord to sell the building. The Sunlight will soon be moving out of its offbeat space with vintage wood paneling and well-worn booths and barstools. But there’s a twist to this departure story of a longtime Seattle eatery.
Sunlight owners Cheryl Richards and Adrian Noone recently completed a fundraising campaign to move the cafe to new digs in a mid-rise just across the alley. A total of $45,000 has been raised to build out the new space — with a mezzanine level, outdoor seating and capacity for a full bar — that is scheduled to open later this spring.
The move will preserve the Sunlight but a new space will mean some of that old charm of the current Sunlight won’t be the same. Richards plans to bring the years of pictures of staff and friends gathered on the walls to the new space, but the overall look will be fresh, changing just like the neighborhood.
“I’m excited about the new space but I’ll miss this kitchen,” says Lee says, working bread dough at a prep table next to a door. “I’ve always loved having this door to the sidewalk right here in the kitchen. On those beautiful summer days I keep [the door] open, it cools things off and I have a little window to the world from right here.”