As with any java house in any town in America, Beau’s Coffee is alive with the warm aroma of roasted beans and pastries, with the lively din of customers and the quiet whir and hiss of a cappuccino machine.
But something much more distinctive than a good cup of joe and casual conversation is brewing within Wilmington’s newest coffee shop.
Inside the cozy corner of a small strip mall at 4414 Wrightsville Avenue is an opportunity for a very special group of people to find gainful and meaningful employment.
The counter of Beau’s, which opened Monday, is manned by adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD), including Down Syndrome, autism and Cerebral Palsy. The shop has a staff of 18, with five additional employees serving in support roles.
It’s the brainchild of Amy Wright and her husband, Ben, a business borne from a personal place. The couple’s two youngest children, 11-year-old Beau–for whom the coffee shop is named–and six-year-old Bitty have Down Syndrome.
“They’re not looking for employment just yet but my husband and I are acutely aware of the need for employment opportunities for people with intellectual disabilities,” Wright said.
Last year, Wright founded Able to Work USA, a national initiative aimed at pairing individuals with IDD and businesses willing to hire them. She said currently, about 85 percent of adult Americans living with IDD are unemployed. Beau’s, a 501(c)(3), operates under the non-profit Able to Work.
“After doing that for about a year, I decided I wanted to kick things up a notch and actually create opportunities for employment. I think businesses sometimes are afraid to think outside the box and find a place for someone with IDD,” she recalled. “This idea just came to me to create an environment where not only can you employ people but people can come in and see and interact.”
That kind of interaction, Wright hopes, will lead other businesses and corporations to employ people with IDD.
And the benefits of employment, she added, go beyond a regular paycheck for people with disabilities. At Beau’s, she can see firsthand how a part-time job can bring pride, can provide social stimulus, can build confidence.
“They go to school, where they have a lot of support. But when they graduate from school, they can fall off the radar…and that can lead to, in some cases, just sitting home a lot,” she said. “We all know what a job can do for self-esteem and self worth.”
Of course, earning a few dollars doesn’t hurt, either.
That’s one of the perks for J.R. Clark, who, at 28, has his first job at Beau’s. While he said making coffee is his favorite part of the gig, he does like making his own money for the first time.
“It feels good. It feels great,” he said.
A savvy saver, Clark said he plans to put his paychecks in the bank.
With a playing card in one hand and a brewed cup in another, Clark was busy Monday afternoon calling out orders. Beau’s gives customers the cards to make it easier for employees to match orders.
Clark wasn’t the only one working hard on opening day. A handful of employees, led by a couple of helpers and Wright herself, flitted back and forth between machines as waves of coffee drinkers flooded in. Wright said Beau’s served 200 customers within the first hour.
And although Beau’s just opened its doors, it has already gotten some national attention. Wright said she has received calls from people in Charlotte, Indiana and California, among other places, hoping to create a similar business for people with IDD.
“One day, you may see Beau’s all over the country,” she noted.
For now, she is hoping to add more Beau’s locations in the Port City. In addition to the opportunities it provides, Beau’s also offers up an all-local menu, with custom-roasted Kaldi Coffee blends and muffins and sweet goodies delivered fresh daily from Farmin’.
The coffee shop is open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Friday and 8 to 3 on Saturdays.
Hilary Snow is a reporter at Port City Daily. Reach her at email@example.com.