Northwest Philadelphia entrepreneurs Arielle and Robert Ashford are extending their “Unity” brand and growing their geographic footprint with a new Tex-Mex taqueria and a coffee shop in Roxborough.
The couple, both of whom are in long-term recovery from substance use disorder, also are staying true to the mission of the Unity Yoga studio and the Unity Recovery community services center they opened in neighboring Manayunk in 2019. Last year, they established a second Unity Yoga in Chestnut Hill.
“Recovery is good business, and we are about creating opportunities for people in recovery and for ourselves [as businesspeople] because we think it will pay off,” Robert, 34, said during an interview at Unity Taqueria.
The 46-seat restaurant with outdoor dining opened in June on the 5400 block of Ridge Avenue; the Ashfords expect their nearby Unity Java will be up and brewing in time for National Recovery Month in September.
“We’re using capitalism to do a lot of good,” said Robert, who also is the CEO and cofounder (with Chris Hart and Brent Canode) of Recovery Link. Launched in Manayunk in 2019, the tech firm provides community organizations with digital tools to support telehealth and recovery services.
“We use our for-profit companies to help fund the work that needs to be done in Philadelphia,” Robert said. “Our guiding true north is helping the community, and especially, the recovery community.”
The cluster of commercial and not-for-profit enterprises the Ashfords have established in Northwest Philly reflects their professional backgrounds, personal interests (healthy eating, yoga, meditation), life experiences — in addiction as well as in recovery — and above all, their commitment to social and economic justice.
“I’ve always had a knack for surveying the landscape and noticing what’s missing, what could be done better, and what’s never been done before and would be fun to do. I’m the ideas person,” said Arielle, who’s 37.
“The community center, the yoga studio, the taco shop, and the coffee shop were my ideas, but I’m not a details person,” she said. “Robert has a miraculous operational brain. Plus he makes great enchiladas.”
The Ashfords also are committed to hiring people in recovery as well as those who, like Robert, have been involved with the criminal justice system due to substance use-related or other offenses.
“We employ people who have been told no by other employers, people for whom opportunities don’t exist in large parts of society,” said Robert, who was convicted of a felony DUI charge in Texas in 2013.
More than 100 people involved in recovery, reentry, or both have been hired by Unity since 2019, most recently during a job fair cosponsored by the city. Starting pay is $15 an hour; workers have free access to Unity Yoga classes as well as a menu of peer support and other services available through Unity Recovery.
The synergies are intentional, said Arielle, citing $30,000 in scholarships, partly funded by Recovery Link, that are available to provide 10 aspiring yoga teachers the training to qualify for professional certification. Similarly, the taqueria on Tuesdays donates a share of proceeds to a Philly nonprofit involved in fighting food insecurity.
Being in recovery is not a job requirement — and customers come from all sorts of backgrounds. “We have good people who are attracted to this mission, and that’s what makes it successful,” said Arielle.
Tricia Vasinda, 40, is a shift manager at the taqueria. “Recovery is not my personal struggle, but I have many friends in recovery,” she said.
“My husband and I live in the neighborhood and we like to support any sort of business that has a secondary purpose like this. I’m super excited to be part of it.”
Prep cook Dan Meuschul, who’s 42 and lives in Roxborough, said there have been “some bumps in the road” since his recovery began in 2013.
“This job is a great fit for me, and I definitely like the idea of educating the public about what recovery is, and maybe getting a little bit of the stigma gone,” he said.
At Unity Yoga, ”I learned that trauma is something that happens to everyone to some degree, and their bodies hold on to that, as a protective mechanism,” said Bouvier Servillas, the studio coordinator.
“Other studios are more physically based, but Unity is very much recovery-informed, and trauma-informed,” said Servillas, 36, who lives in King of Prussia.
“Everyone is treated with respect and a lot of thought goes into how to speak to students, how to obtain their consent for physical adjustments. No assumptions are made about who they are or why they are coming in.”
Arielle teaches yoga and meditation classes and said both can be useful to people in maintaining recovery and connecting with other people after the profoundly isolating experience of addiction.
“A lot of folks who have mental health or substance-use issues may not have good relationships with their bodies,” she said. “The hope is that with yoga and meditation we can reshape or reform the relationship with the body, which is not the enemy.
“People need more than just treatment,” she added. “You get treatment, you get out of crisis, but then what? You still need a job that pays you a living wage. You still need a community that supports you holistically.”
According to a 2017 study by the Recovery Research Institute, nearly 23 million Americans are in some form of recovery. Amid the continuing epidemic of opioid use — and soaring overdose numbers in Philly and elsewhere — the fact that people can and do get better is a welcome reality check.
But individual success stories, however inspiring, can still seem like a rare exception. The toxic and racist legacies of the “war” on drugs endure. And people who have lived in addiction, including to alcohol, are still judged and “otherized” by many people, Robert said.
“Recovering people are everywhere,” he said. “But there are no brands or companies saying, ‘We see you.’ Nobody else is doing what we’re doing. When you do things for a community that has been invisible for a long time, they support you.”
Eric Marshall, whose company, MGMT Residential, is the landlord for both the taqueria and the coffee shop, said the Ashfords “have a really great story, and we felt [their businesses] would be great” for Roxborough.
“They’re really pioneering,” he said. “We hope more businesses start to spring up in Roxborough, so it’s no longer like a little brother to Manayunk.”
“Everybody has some kind of a connection” to people in recovery, said Michael Devigne, executive director of the Roxborough Development Corporation. “Everybody has a family member or a friend who has faced these challenges.
“What [the Ashfords] are doing is very important. It’s hard enough to start a small business, and I commend them for the excellent job they’re doing. Unity tacos is a good sign of things to come.”
The Ashfords met at a 2015 White House summit on addiction and have a 2-year-old daughter named Penelope, aka Penny.
“I wonder, What would happen if our daughter develops the same disorder I did?” Robert said. “I don’t want her to live in a system where the deck is stacked against her in any way.”
So Penny plays a role in Unity’s expanding presence.
“Our values and our mission are not just feel-good buzzwords,” said Arielle.
“We live them day-to-day,” Robert said.