Robert and Arielle Ashford embark on their latest business endeavor, The Volstead by Unity.
By Leo Dillinger
Robert and Arielle Ashford have cultivated a new and thriving community built upon trust, support, and inclusiveness throughout Northwest Philadelphia.
Since 2019, the couple has opened yoga studios in Manayunk and Chestnut Hill (Unity Yoga), a recovery community organization in Manayunk (Unity Recovery), a taco shop in Roxborough (Unity Taqueria), and a brand new vegan restaurant with a zero-proof bar on Main Street (The Volstead by Unity). They also have plans underway for a coffee shop near the Wissahickon train station later this year (Unity Java).
While these business concepts may not appear to have much in common, each holds the same deep-rooted mission focused on supporting those in recovery and offering the resources to help people reach their full potential.
“In every city in this country, this issue is huge,” Robert said. “I think for us what we’ve found is that by putting these places in public and by being available and accessible, we’re seeing people who aren’t comfortable asking for support anywhere else just happening in here organically. The amount of stories shared at this bar alone in the last three weeks, it’s comforting to see that happen because it’s hard to have that personal connection in other places to this level of depth and empathy.”
Robert (who was born and raised in Texas) and Arielle (who grew up in Utah before moving to California) first met each other at the White House. Arielle was keynoting an event on the Affordable Care Act and Robert was working as a program director for a nonprofit. Robert and his friends were accidentally led into the wrong room where Arielle was speaking. After this mix-up, Robert sent his friends back to recruit Arielle to get involved with their nonprofit. After three years of working alongside each other, they eventually moved to Philadelphia and got married.
While walking through West Philly one day, Arielle and Robert had discussed the potential idea of merging a recovery-focused yoga studio with a nonprofit recovery community organization. The idea soon began to take shape and as the concept developed, the couple started looking for an ideal location to open up shop. After looking all over, they eventually stumbled upon a vacant walk-up space at 4363 Main Street. Immediately falling in love with the area, Robert and Arielle wanted to become a part of the tight-knit community in Manayunk.
“It was the right place at the right time,” Arielle said. “We were looking for spaces and couldn’t find anything because it had to be very particular. We wanted to have the yoga studio and the recovery center so we needed to have two spaces. To try to find something that fit the layout I had in my head was damn near impossible.”
In August 2019, they officially opened Unity Yoga and Unity Recovery and never looked back. The following year, they bought a home in Roxborough and expanded to a second Unity Yoga studio in Chestnut Hill. By 2021, they had expanded the Unity Recovery center into a much larger space at 106 Gay Street and opened Unity Taqueria on Ridge Avenue. And this year, they successfully opened Philadelphia’s first zero-proof bar at 4371 Main Street: The Volstead by Unity.
“I was pretty insistent that if we were going to do this concept, we had to do it on Main Street in Manayunk,” Arielle said about The Volstead. “I didn’t know if it was going to be possible, but the location had to be right. I was walking to class one day and I saw The Diner at Manayunk had closed. I had a thought ‘Oh that could be cool,’ but you just never know if it’s going to be possible.”
“There is such a high rate of substance issues and mental health crises in restaurants and hospitality in general, whether it’s the low pay or the long hours or the work hard/play hard culture,” Robert said. “Before I got into recovery, my last job was a bar manager. The amount of friends who go through that and don’t talk about it or don’t have the support or find recovery and have to leave an industry that can really pay their bills as they continue to grow professionally. For us, it is where can we find good concepts where there are high rates of these co-occurring concerns that people aren’t getting support with so that people don’t have to leave their lives behind. They can still have living wages and good paying jobs but still being supported in their recovery in that process.”
To address these issues that run rampant in the food industry, The Volstead exclusively hire people who are in recovery, returning from incarceration, or are family members and allies of those in the community. They pay beyond a living wage as a means of empowering their employees and creating a space where they’re able to recover and thrive.
Knowing the neighborhood needed a vegan restaurant, the Ashfords teamed up with chef Frederick Morris to craft a menu that boasts big and bold flavors while focusing on plant-based, health-conscious items. While some items like Penny’s Meatballs (named after the Ashfords’ three-year-old daughter) will remain permanent staples, Robert said the menu will likely change every 90 days in order to showcase a variety of seasonal dishes, pastas, fruits, and veggies.
As for the bar, The Volstead provides an alternative space for those who don’t drink both zero-proof and nonalcoholic beverages, from authentic prohibition era-inspired cocktails (like the Main Street Manhattan and Roxborough Fizz) to flavorful beers and wines that contain less than .5% ABV. Many of the products carried by The Volstead are very new brands, with the zero-proof concept becoming more popular market across the United States over the last five years.
By offering a unique experience to both its customers and employees, The Volstead has transformed into a melting pot for people from various backgrounds and identities where they can engage in an open and honest dialogue.
“We hold a lot of stories in all of these businesses separately,” Arielle said. “There’s a trust built here when they come to this restaurant because they know we aren’t serving alcohol. People come to the yoga studio because they know they’ll feel welcome and we’re vaccinated and boosted. There’s this extra level of mindfulness of health and well-being.”
“If we want businesses like this, we’ve all got to become recovery friendly to an extent,” Robert said. “We’ve got to be much more open-minded around value that can be brought to districts, blocks, and communities to serve the people who live, work, and play here because that live, work, and play looks different to a lot of different people.”
The Ashfords have proven their mission thus far to be a success. Today, the Unity business community employs more than 150 people. Unity Recovery is doing over $3 Million in grants this year to ensure the services they are offering remain free and open to all, making it one of the largest RCOs in the United States. The recovery center now serves 20,000 people directly every year in addition to over 1 Million people who have attended online recovery meetings online from across the world. Meetings are available seven days per week both in person and online with a well trained, trauma-informed staff that help people with addiction, homelessness, and domestic violence.
“People always ask us how we do it all with a baby and a million businesses and a nonprofit,” Robert said. “We do it because we have phenomenal teams. From the leadership to the individual peers, the yoga teachers, the hourly workers and the shift leads at the restaurants, the managers, wait staff, and cooks here. The only way we’re able to do it is with a phenomenal team.”
In a country with more than 22 million Americans with past substance use concerns and more than 40 million in mental health recovery, the Ashfords and the Unity community continue to bring this issue out of the shadows and into the forefront by creating an open, accessible, and welcoming environment to assist anyone seeking assistance at any stage of their recovery journey.
“Some of the students who come to the yoga studio, they will reach out and say they know somebody in their lives who is struggling,” Arielle said. “They themselves may not identify as being in recovery, but they will ask for support to help their family. Our businesses can kind of catch these people and then we offer additional support by referring our clients and our students and our customers so they can get support from multiple angles.”
Not only did Robert and Arielle establish their business roots in Manayunk. They’ve also become two of the biggest supporters of their small business neighbors. They serve Valerio coffee at The Volstead. The wooden bar was made from Joe Donahue at Urbanburb Furniture. The furniture at Unity Recovery was supplied from TransAmerican. The Little Apple keeps their spaces smelling good. Arielle purchases her wardrobe from LILA Philadelphia.
While Manayunk’s family-friendly, walkable, and versatile nature is what initially attracted Robert and Arielle to the neighborhood, it’s the people that have convinced them they made the right choice.
“At the end of the day, what keeps us here and keeps us most excited is the types of people that we meet,” Robert said. “From the fellow small business owners to the customers and guests that walk in, I think small town charm is real here. I’m from the South and southern hospitality is huge. I know people on the block and they’ll stop in or wave from across the street whether they’re locals or business owners. This vibe is so unique to Manayunk, it reminds me of the town I grew up in.”
For Robert, Arielle, and the rest of the Unity community, the overall goal has never been saving or fixing people, but rather giving people the support and resources to succeed. Whether it’s through the self-nourishment and empowerment of recovery yoga, or a restaurant offering plant-based foods and a stress-free environment for those who don’t drink, or career opportunities and peer-to-peer work for those looking to achieve the highest quality of life. The one notion that resonates throughout all of their endeavors is to invite everyone, regardless of backgrounds and experiences, to join together and put the “unity” back into “community”.
“Some people naturally exclude themselves because they think it’s not for them,” Robert said. “I encourage anyone reading this, whether or not you identify as in recovery, or if you’re an ally of the recovery community or you’re not, the reality is the commUNITY we’re building, this place and all of our places are for everyone. No matter how you identify, what you’ve been going through, whether you think you belong or not. If you think ‘That’s not for me,’ it still is. And that’s what I hope everyone takes away from this. Whether you decide to patronize our businesses or not, if you need help or you want good food or you want good customer service and experiences, this commUNITY is truly for everyone.”