From the outside, the Yellow Deli does not appear controversial. It is nestled between the shops on a busy street in the heart of Rutland. Large yellow signs advertise its hostel for Appalachian Trail hikers and its 24-hour, four-day-a-week policy. Surrounding the restaurant are bookstores, a theater and an alley where local musicians play live music.
The vibrant energy continues in the charcuterie. A bustle not often seen in sleepy Vermont is contained within the painted walls. Customers come in and out at any time, day or night. Everything about the interior design is unique. Roofs (made from salvaged barns) cover the cabins, the specialty menu is hand-drawn, and the ornate wooden tiled ceilings are original when the building was constructed in the early 20th century. The lights bathe everyone in a warm orange-red glow, and every inch of the wall is covered in art.
The eye-catching yellow paint advertises a “market and saloon” past a hallway. A boardwalk leads to a shop selling yerba mate, handmade soap, and body care products. Although it may seem like a typical, albeit quirky, restaurant, the Yellow Deli is actually part of an alternative religious community that spans the globe.
The community, called the Twelve Tribes, was founded in the 70s during the Jesus movement and after the end of the hippie movement. They came together around the idea of a collective life outside the majority society in order to better practice their religious beliefs.
According to their website, there are 15 Yellow Delis in the United States, a handful in Canada, and one in Japan, England, Argentina, and Australia each. They have communities in Brazil that cultivate the leaves to make their yerba mate. Another group of them owns a farm in Vermont, making their soaps and body washes.
Steven and Barkai are the two managers of the grocery store. Between them, Steven has been there the longest. He joined the Rutland community and the Yellow Deli in 1996. Feeling the need for a spiritual connection in his life, Barkai found the North Carolina community working on an organic farm and joined them in 2009 before moving to the Vermont.
Everyone in the Rutland section of the group works at the deli in one way or another. Steven and Barkai explained that community members provide all the services for the restaurant, including electrical work, carpentry, and murals. They explained that each member partially owns the grocery store — they are all “shareholders”. “We’re like family,” Steven said.
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While they don’t impose their beliefs on visitors, they are eager to share their way of life when asked. The group believes that living together and forming its own rules and laws is the only way to achieve its spiritual and religious goals. “There were the separatists and the puritans,” Barkai said, identifying with the urge of religious groups to separate themselves ideologically from the outside world. They do not believe that their preferred way of life is fully compatible with modern society.
The original North Carolina deli began 24-hour service after, they say, receiving a sign from an angel telling them to. This tradition has continued in all current Yellow Delis, although hours may have been impacted by the pandemic. “We get a lot of firefighters and police late at night,” Barkai said, explaining that the deli has become popular with emergency services.
The Yellow Deli works toward its goal of serving the community through simplicity. In 2008, the group remodeled the restaurant, reviving a quirky, simpler ambience, opting for an open design so everyone could see inside.
While this openness helps make them a staple of their community, the reception of Twelve Tribes has not been uniformly positive. Journalists produced documentaries, articles and books about the community – racial justice organizations investigated the twelve tribes, as did the FBI.
In late 2021, Middlebury alumni released a YouTube series called “The Deli People”. The show satirizes the deli and members of its community by portraying them as sin-obsessed white-robed cult members. Asked about it, the managers grimaced. “The filmmakers of ‘The Deli People’ obviously never saw our community,” Barkai sighed.
When asked to comment on the Yellow Deli and their show, the creators of “The Deli People” posted this message:
“We recently learned that some members of the Twelve Tribes have seen The Deli People and are disappointed in what they believe is an inaccurate portrayal of their beliefs. For this reason, we would like to apologize and offer a brief word of clarification:
Although we strongly condemn some of the alleged beliefs and actions of members of the Twelve Tribes, our series was never intended to serve as an accurate reflection of those beliefs or actions. We encourage anyone with an interest in the group to conduct independent research into the matter.
Teasing a group about their collective life and separation from society is one thing, but it misses a deeper issue regarding the Twelve Tribes and their communities. They have a disturbing vision of homosexuality. “We don’t condone homosexual behavior. We don’t consider it a genetic variation, a valid alternative lifestyle, or just a psychological quirk. We embrace what God says about it without regard to political correctness. Homosexual behavior is immoral and can be deadly dangerous,” their website states in an FAQ section. These beliefs are difficult to reconcile with their welcoming attitude in person at the deli.
Despite the opinions of the Twelve Tribes, the steady stream of customers shows that the restaurant is undeniably a Rutland staple. Walking through the restaurant and its small businesses, there are waiters or customers on every corner. People come in and out. Rutland congregate here to eat, socialize and shop. The Yellow Deli doesn’t seem to be leaving soon.