It's tough enough to run a small business. Jake Kamaunu has to do it while blind.

by Kelly Guava Jelly
August 25, 2018

Jake Kamaunu. Owner of Justus Cafe. Photo by Kelly Guava Jelly.

After passing through the security checkpoint at the Seattle Superior Courthouse entrance on 3rd & James, visitors are greeted by a convenience store that, at a quick glance, seems rather ordinary. A small sandwich board humbly informs guests that it’s called Justus Cafe – the name doesn’t appear anywhere else. Inside, the space is basically a short hallway with a deli counter at the back and shelves of chips and candy on either side. You’ll also find the cafe’s owner, Jacob Kamaunu, restocking the shelves and cleaning the floors. At a glance he, too, seems just like any other shop owner. But with closer attention you’ll start to notice that this is no ordinary cafe.

For example, there’s a money reader that tells Jake whether he’s holding a $5 bill or a $10. His register talks to him and the credit card machine also uses voice technology. You might notice that he is touching and feeling around the cafe to organize things, asking if there’s someone in his way. You won’t see him navigating with a cane in the cafe but, behind the dark glasses, Jake is completely blind.

“I have to be very vigilant,” Jake explains. “I have to touch everything, feel everything, know where everything is at and know what’s going on at any given time of the day.”

Jake’s days start very early. Each morning he is up before 4 AM. From his home in Auburn, he takes a taxi to the train station, making a stop at Safeway to get things for the shop. It’s a thirty minute ride from Auburn to King Street Station where he hops on a bus and gets off at the first stop downtown. By six he’s at Justus Cafe to prep for a 7 AM opening. The grind of running a small business doesn’t change for anyone. But Jake is no stranger to hard work.

Jake Kamaunu cleaning the floor of his cafe. Photo by Kelly Guava Jelly.

Born and raised in Honolulu, Hawaii, Jake grew up in a single-parent household with four other siblings. His first job in high school was as a janitor and later a parking attendance. Then a cousin’s boyfriend from the mainland introduced him to marble masonry and he found that he had a real knack for it. When the market got slow in Hawaii, he moved to Washington state to find work. Solidly established in his career, he started a family. In 2007, two decades after arriving in Washington, his life suddenly turned on its head.

Just after Jake’s mom passed away, he started noticing problems with his vision. Floaters and flashers were blurring his eyesight but, having no medical insurance, he didn’t seek treatment. The symptoms progressed to where shade and light were so intense that he couldn’t function normally. He finally saw specialists who, after three months, diagnosed Jake with VKG (Vogt-Koyanagi-Harada), a rare inflammatory, autoimmune deficiency disease that attacked his retinas. Within eight months, Jake had lost all sight. Still, it wasn’t the last of his torment.

He decided to move his family back to Hawaii to stay at his mom’s house. When he got there with his four kids and pregnant wife, his brother had taken over and basically “put them out on the streets.” In the span of a year Jake had lost his mother, his sight, his job, and a place to live. But he never lost his will to thrive.

While in blindness training at Ho’o Pono Services for the Blind, Jake’s wife decided to move back with the kids to Washington to be close to her parents. He stayed to finish his training and learned mobility, braille, home and personal skills, and how to be independent and self-sufficient as a blind person. He got a job as a cashier at the airport and excelled in his role but, missing his family, he decided to move back to Seattle.

He got another cashiering job and later enrolled in more training at the Business Enterprise Program through the Washington State’s Department of Services for the Blind. He learned to be an entrepreneur in the food industry and entered into biddings for government building facility contracts. About a year after completing his training, an opportunity arose for a space at Seattle’s King County Superior Courthouse. Jake presented his business proposal, Justus Cafe, and was awarded the contract.

Like any small business owners, Jake works tirelessly, often ten to eleven hours a day. In addition to the usual challenges of running a business, he has to find ways to navigate them without the use of his sight. But with Justus Cafe coming up on its three year anniversary, there’s no doubt Jake has what it takes.

When he’s not working, Jake is part of the Tacoma Typhoons goalball team, a silent soccer-like sport designed to be experienced without sight. Most of all, he loves spending time with his kids and grandbaby.