Located around the corner from Dekalb Farmers Market in Decatur, Waller’s Coffee Shop aspires to be more than just the neighborhood coffee shop. Owned by Jason Waller, a musician on a “mission to break the stigma” surrounding mental illness, this unique spot is part coffeehouse and music venue and part community center, serving as much compassion as it does java.
Two years ago, then 38 year-old Waller found himself in what he now recalls as “a really dark place.” Having suffered from undiagnosed depression since his teens, the father of four and frontman for the Waller Band had recently stopped touring due to mental health issues and family obligations.
He was at a crossroads in both his life and his career.
“I was writing a lot of songs at that time, maybe one or two a day. One day, I wrote a song about drifting into traffic,” he explains. “It really scared me. While I now know the difference between suicidal ideation and suicidal thoughts, I knew then it was time to get professional help.”
Waller received an official diagnosis of clinical depression, and treatment with therapy and medication soon followed.
Realizing there might be others struggling silently with mental illness, Waller began filming a series of YouTube videos talking about his depression, dubbing himself “DAD,” or “Depression Awareness Dude.”
Eventually, he started including fellow musicians in his videos, inviting them to share their stories to help break the stigma of mental illness.
“Honestly, knowing that there’s a name for what you’ve been feeling and what you’re going through is half the battle,” he says. “If you don’t know, you just think this darkness and lethargy is how the world is and that everyone feels this way, and that’s simply not true.
Having found professional help as well as support in fellow musicians, he wanted to share his story with others and find a way to give back to the community that had given him so much in his time of need. Waller wanted to get people talking about mental health and to understand depression is “no different than a cold or a broken arm.”
Why a coffee shop?
A few months into his D.A.D. Presents project and overwhelmed by the positive reception from others, Waller decided he needed a place to film his videos. Waller’s mind kept returning to his affinity for quality coffee and his touring days, when he loved the relaxed atmosphere and community vibe of performing in coffee shops.
His vision was a neighborhood coffeehouse and wellness center where he could offer live music, a family-friendly environment, and support systems for those struggling, like him.
All Waller needed was the right space.
While walking his dog in his Decatur neighborhood during the summer of 2017, Waller says the universe sent him a sign; a retail space for rent at 240 Dekalb Industrial Way, nestled on an acre of land with a large creek and nature area out back.
Waller signed the lease on August 1, 2017, and immediately took a crash course in coffee and in business. He met monthly with mentor and business consultant Jonathan Pascual, owner of Kirkwood’s Taproom Coffee & Beer, who’s been assisting people launch coffee shops and other small businesses around Atlanta for over a decade.
“Jason was so easy to work with because he had a really concrete vision of what he wanted his shop to be; a place for community and mental health awareness with a focus on music,” says Pascual. “He has a lot going for him, and that sets him up for long-term success.”
The two worked together to refine the concept behind Waller’s, develop a menu, plan its layout, and source equipment for the shop. Pascual also connected Waller to Atlanta coffee roastery Batdorf & Bronson.
As Pascual explains, “a roasting company is the key partnership for any coffee shop. They don’t just supply your coffee, but also train your staff and offer you support as you launch and grow your business.”
While Pascual no longer actively consults with Waller, he’s been a regular customer since the shop opened this past February.
In addition to selling coffee and standard cafe drinks like lattes and cappuccinos as well as offering a small food menu of sandwiches, pastries, and a DIY waffle bar, Waller’s has a stage for bands playing jazz, bluegrass, and country, and hosts regular open mic nights.
The space looks more like a friend’s well-loved living room than a trendy coffeehouse, featuring cozy seating, games, books, and a children’s play area.
A series of monthly Saturday wellness events serves as the centerpiece for Waller’s mental health initiative. The day’s workshops include everything from Qigong practice (movement and breathing) and crystal healing to Zen meditation and social-emotional learning programs for children.
According to Tamara Vrooman Lucas, a frequent patron at Waller’s who helps organize some of these events, the coffee shop is “really invested in people getting together and talking about wellness, whether that’s physical or mental, for kids or adults.” She says the workshops and events at the coffeehouse are meant to be about a “supportive community,” where people are welcome and feel safe discussing “challenging topics.”
In addition to the more formal wellness events — all listed on Waller’s website — the coffee shop has become an informal gathering place for various neighborhood support groups, like new mothers suffering from postpartum depression and widows and widowers dealing with the recent loss of a partner or spouse. Waller’s also offers a large natural area and creek behind the building with seating and family Sundays for games, face painting, crafts, and other children’s activities.
Waller, who recently hired an events manager to help him coordinate programming and scheduling of musical performances and workshops, says his goal is to eventually provide more mental health support groups and seminars at the coffeehouse as well as child care and office space for therapists and mental health practitioners.
“It’s so cool to see this place becoming what I envisioned it to be,” Waller muses, “a coffee shop, music venue, community center, and a place for wellness, where people gather to take care of themselves and each other.”
If you or anyone you know is considering suicide or self-harm or is anxious, depressed, upset, or needs to talk, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text the Crisis Text Line at 741-741. For international resources, here is a good place to begin.
Open Monday - Friday, 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.
240 Dekalb Industrial Way, Decatur. wallerscoffeeshop.com.