The Yellow Deli Cult: All About the Twelve Tribes

By: Sascha Bos  | 
Despite the nickname, this group's defining characteristics do not include an obsession with meat, bread and mustard. Sam Armstrong / Getty Images

No, the Yellow Deli cult does not worship sandwiches. They do, however, operate restaurants around the world that fund their controversial religious group.


The Yellow Deli

The Yellow Deli is a restaurant chain with locations throughout the United States and in Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Japan, Spain and the United Kingdom. Its first location opened in 1973 in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

But the Yellow Deli isn't a regular restaurant — according to its website, "We all actually live and work together." Workers at the Yellow Deli aren't employees; they're volunteers who share "a pure and holy life."


The Yellow Deli serves food, but it also serves another purpose: press for their religious group.

"We hope that through having an open and hospitable place like our Yellow Deli, people will be able to see that we are not really strange and scary, but just friendly folks who love God and our neighbors," their website reads.


The Twelve Tribes

You won't see the Twelve Tribes mentioned anywhere on the Yellow Deli's website, but this community — or as the Southern Poverty Law Center calls it, "Christian fundamentalist cult" — owns the Yellow Deli, and its workers are Twelve Tribes Members.

The Twelve Tribes community was founded by Elbert Eugene Spriggs (known as Yoneq) and his wife, Marsha Spriggs, in the 1970s in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and has spread around the world. The group has gained notoriety for its extreme beliefs and allegations of child abuse.


Although the Twelve Tribes preach a message of love, some of the group's teachings and practices are disturbing to outsiders and former members.

Bob Pardon, cofounder of the New England Institute of Religious Research, told the Southern Poverty Law Center:

"Once we got those teachings, we knew there was a very seedy underbelly to the group. We began to realize that this was a really heavy thought reform environment; there was a lot of behavior control over the members’ lives."

New members surrender their possessions when they join the Twelve Tribes communities, and outside media — books, internet, music, TV — is heavily regulated.

According to FBI interviews, it is "against the rules for community members to associate with others outside of the community" and new members receive "public relations training" that discourages talking to police.



The Twelve Tribes has been the center of numerous controversies in its half-century of existence. The Yellow Deli claims that "fear ... has caused some to circulate unfounded rumors about us."

Some of the allegations regarding the Twelve Tribes include:


Child Abuse Allegations

Allegations of Child Abuse on Twelve Tribes compounds have made headlines since the 1980s. In 1984, police and social workers raided Twelve Tribes locations in Island Pond, Vermont, planning to examine the children for signs of physical abuse.

However, a judge ruled the raid unconstitutional, and the children were returned to their families.

Decades later, a similar raid took place in Germany after hidden camera footage revealed parents regularly caned children in German Twelve Tribes communities. The 40 children removed from the Twelve Tribes were placed in foster care, a decision the European Court of Human Rights upheld in 2018, according to AP News.

The Court found that the Twelve Tribes promoted “a form of institutionalized violence against minors” and called caning "inhuman or degrading treatment, which is prohibited under absolute terms under the European Convention."

The Twelve Tribes admit to using corporal punishment, which is illegal in some countries, but not in the United States. ("We spank them with a small reed-like rod," the Twelve Tribes' FAQ page reads.)

Some former members allege the beatings are more violent than the group suggests: In 2018, former member David Pike told the Southern Poverty Law Center he "saw some kids gettin' switched till they bled."

Twelve Tribes members are under intense pressure to physically discipline their children. One former member told the Denver Post: "If you are not beating your kids, you are going to be in big trouble.”

According to AP News, there has been at least one incidence of a Twelve Tribes member going to court over child abuse allegations: In 2000, a Connecticut couple pleaded guilty to charges of third-degree assault and cruelty after hitting their children with a fiberglass rod.

Labor Allegations

Members of the Twelve Tribes are expected to work (without pay) for their community. This necessarily raises questions about the group's labor practices. "The Twelve Tribe members work members to death," one former member told the FBI.

The group has also been found in violation of child labor laws. In 2018, The New York State Department of Labor found multiple violations at a Twelve Tribes cosmetics factory in Washington County, NY, according to the Times Union.

Drug Allegations

The Twelve Tribes claims "drug and alcohol use is an attempt to fill the emptiness and soothe the pain caused by a bad conscience" and "they have no place in our life because we are forgiven."

However, multiple former members of the Twelve Tribes alleged to the FBI that they were unknowingly drugged. According to the FBI interviews, "there is drug use at the commune through baking drugs into 'ritual' bread. LSD and hallucinogenic plants are usually used."


On its FAQ page, the Twelve Tribes responds to the question "Are you racist?" with "No. Inside the Community, Yahshua's death for our sins removes all hostility between the races."

Some ex-members see things differently. In his memoir, "Better Than a Turkish Prison: What I Learned From Life in a Religious Cult," Sinasta Colucci describes how Black Twelve Tribes leader Yohanan Abraham (formerly John Stringer) "believed that Nathan Bedford Forrest was a righteous man, and he believed that the KKK, in its early days, had a righteous purpose."

(Nathan Bedford Forrest was a Confederate general who led a massacre against Black Union troops; After the Civil War, he became the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, a white supremacist terrorist group.)

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, one of the Twelve Tribes' teachings is that “[i]t is horrible that someone would rise up to abolish slavery. What a marvelous opportunity that blacks could be brought over here to be slaves so that they could be found worthy of the nations.”

One FBI interviewee claimed that "[Redacted] has a slave named [redacted]. The slaves are Black."

Sexual Abuse Allegations

In collected FBI interviews, there are multiple allegations of sexual abuse within Twelve Tribes communities. Law enforcement has received complaints of child sexual abuse from Twelve Tribes locations in Hiddenite, North Carolina, and Manitou Springs, Colorado.

One interviewee alleged that "punishment within the cult is being beaten with a rod and having your wife or children sexually assaulted by cult members."


The Twelve Tribes community is openly homophobic. Their website reads: "Homosexual behavior is immoral and can be mortally dangerous."

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Twelve Tribes founder Elbert Spriggs taught that “homosexuality is a capital offense.”


The Twelve Tribes is a patriarchal society. On its website, the group states: "In reality there is practically nothing that [women] 'can't do,' but we choose not to do certain things."

Former Twelve Tribes member Jenny Lynn Fiore told the Southern Poverty Law Center in 2018: "I saw very controlling, overbearing husbands treating their wives pretty badly, and there was no real recourse… they were basically kitchen slaves."

According to the Twelve Tribes website, "many of us [women] run household kitchens that are the equivalent of sizable restaurants, organizing the serving of home-cooked meals at least three times daily, not to mention hospitality for guests and special gatherings and meetings at a moment's notice."