Amy Wright has hired 40 workers with intellectual and developmental disabilities at her Bitty & Beau’s coffee shop, which is named after her two children with Down syndrome.
Something special has been brewing at this North Carolina coffee shop, and the world is drinking it up.
Amy Wright and her husband Ben have hired 40 workers with intellectual and developmental disabilities at Bitty & Beau’s Coffee, their cafe named after their two youngest children who were born with Down syndrome.
And on Sunday, CNN named Wright its 2017 Hero of the Year and granted her $100,000 to continue her mission to serve more than coffee. She’s opening a second shop in tourist-heavy Charleston, S.C., and hopes to expand globally next.
“It is so validating to have this recognition … but the greatest reward that has come out of this is just raising awareness,” Wright, 46, told Moneyish. “We’re getting this exposure to a global audience that can hear our mission and take something away from it, where maybe they go into their workplace, look around and say, ‘We really should hire somebody with a disability.’”
Advocating for disabled workers became the mother of four’s crusade after her son Beau, now 13, and daughter Bitty, now 8, were born with Down syndrome.
“When you become the parent of a child with Down syndrome or any other disability, you thrust yourself into it and start educating yourself,” she said. “And it became clear right away that all that child or person needs is love, and once you accept them for who they are and embrace that, there’s just wonderful possibility.”
And after the Wrights learned that about 70% of adults with disabilities are unemployed, Ben quit his job at a Wall Street bank to start his own financial investment practice, hiring nine associates with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDDs) in the process to take a step in the right direction, and to raise awareness.
But this didn’t reach a wide enough audience. “These associates weren’t getting a lot of face-to-face time with clients, and the whole idea here was to bring people together,” said Wright. “And that planted the idea for the coffee shop.”
They fundraised and tapped their savings to open Bitty & Beau’s Coffee two years ago in a 500-square-foot shop, and word-of-mouth built up so much buzz that there was a line around the block on opening day. “We grew into a 5,000-square-foot space within six months,” she said.
But the existing coffee shop sustains itself with customers coming from all over the world for its feel-good vibe, as well as a staff of workers with Down syndrome, autism and cerebral palsy who are totally capable of taking care of business.
“There was no criteria for the hiring process. It was, ‘Do you want a job? Will you be dedicated to your job? Do you have a good attitude?’ And once we brought them in, we found out what they were comfortable doing, or what they were good at,” Wright explained.
And it’s working. “Most of them have never had jobs before, yet they are extremely qualified and capable of doing them,” she said. “They are so grateful for the job, and they approach the work day with a lot of gratitude, and it’s infectious. When you have a serving staff that is positive and grateful, the customers pick up on that and they leave with a good attitude. It is a very happy, positive place.”
Their cafe is the exception to the rule. Only about 20% of people with disabilities work, and about 3% of them (approximately 195,000 workers) are being paid subminimum wages. And that’s been legal ever since a 1938 provision in the Fair Labor Standards Act that let employers who apply for a waiver pay lower wages to people with disabilities.
But the Wrights are making a difference one hire at a time. “We pay them all above minimum wage, which starts at $7.25, and they have the potential for raises and tips,” said Wright. “We try to set an example here that their work is just as worthy as typically-developed people. And they have dreams they want want to work toward. One helped his family put down a payment on a house. Another is saving up for a car.”
Beau and Bitty adore coming to their namesake cafe. “They love coming in, and our employees like to think of themselves as trainers,” Wright said, such showing Beau how to take orders on the iPad, or Bitty loves putting on an apron and cleaning the shop. “They talk to customers and take pictures with them, and they feel very proud of the shop.
“The best is when a family comes in with when a young child who has a disability, and I believe that they come for some hope, and to see what their child’s life might look like in 20 or 30 years, which is so important,” Wright added. “When Ben and I had Beau, we did not have that glimpse of hope right away. And I hope that people who hear our story and visit our coffee shop, that they see what is possible.”
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