WILMINGTON, N.C. — It’s the morning rush for a cup of joe at Bitty and Beau’s. The coffee shop is like any other, except for one thing: its employees.
“I love working here,” said Trevor Jefferson, as he manned the cash register.
He has Down Syndrome. Bitty and Beau’s mission is to employ people with intellectual and physical challenges.
“Actually, I don't drink coffee, which is funny,” said Matt Dean, one of the coffee shop’s employees.
The idea of Bitty and Beau’s was born out of a personal connection for founders Amy and Ben Wright.
“Ben and I have four children and our two youngest—Bitty and Beau—both have Down Syndrome,” Amy said. “And while Bitty and Beau were young, we started thinking ahead and thinking, ‘What does their future look like and what do we want it to look like?’”
At first glance, the future didn’t look too bright.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, people with disabilities remain overwhelmingly unemployed, about 8 in 10.
It’s only gotten worse during the pandemic.
The most recent numbers show 19.3% of people with disabilities had a job in 2019. By the end of 2020, though, that number shrank to 17.9%.
“To us, the root of the problem is people with intellectual developmental disabilities are not valued and because they're not valued, they're not accepted,” said Ben Wright, “and because they're not accepted, they're not included in culture and society and in the workplace.”
So, they decided to create that workplace. With that, Bitty and Beau’s became a reality six years ago.
“They order a cup of coffee, they wait for it - and through that whole experience, they're spending time with people with disabilities,” Amy Wright said. “And we think there's a little bit of psychological reconditioning that's going on through that process.”
It’s an idea that is gaining traction.
“What you're seeing is just a very uplifting experience,” said Pierre Naudé, president and CEO of nCino, a cloud banking company.
When nCino’s new headquarters called for an in-house coffee shop, they opted for a Bitty and Beau’s.
“This is such a tremendous impact on people with disabilities and how you can help them and make them productive members of society, that I think this is a win-win for every CEO to look at this concept and evaluate if it works for their business,” Naudé said.
Amy and Ben Wright say that is part of the goal: to get businesses to reexamine what it means to have employees with disabilities.
“The business world just needs to find ways to begin to feather in people with disabilities into the workplace, so that it doesn't become the exception, it becomes the rule,” Ben Wright said.
One way they made a slight adjustment at Bitty and Beau’s is through the system used to match a customer with their order.
There is no writing down names on a cup there, just the use of a simple deck of playing cards to help employees match a customer with their drink.
“It's also another opportunity for the person with a disability and the guest to have another moment together,” Ben Wright said.
The coffee shop’s employees say having a steady job has made a world of difference to them.
“I used to be shy and reserved before working here,” said Matt Dean, who began working at Bitty and Beau’s, when it first opened. “I gained confidence, but I've also gained great friends here. It's like a second family.”
While Bitty and Beau’s started out in Wilmington, North Carolina, they’ve now spread to 22 locations in 11 states and Washington, D.C., proving their business model, with disabled employees, can work.
“This is a for-profit business,” Amy Wright said. “They earn a paycheck. They save for their futures. They want to be a part of the fabric of the economy in our country.”
Ben Wright added that they can’t do it alone.
“It's going to be up to other businesses to agree with us and say, ‘Yeah, you know what? They're right,’” he said.
However, there is one last thing that sets Bitty and Beau’s apart.
“On a regular occasion, we actually have dance parties,” Matt Dean said.
They are dance parties where everyone in the coffee shop is invited to join in and celebrate the possibilities.