In most ways, 321 Coffee looks like any other trendy café on a busy Saturday afternoon.
Sunbeams filter through full-length windows. Pops of turquoise, mustard yellow and scarlet punctuate the shop’s interior. Twenty-somethings and young families fill the tables, bundled up to ward off the January chill. It’s hard to believe that the shop on Morris Street—321’s third storefront location— just opened its doors in December.
While the drinks and pastries are scrumptious, what sets the shop apart is its deep commitment to inclusivity. The vision for 321 Coffee was brought to life in 2017, when co-founders Lindsay Wrege and Michael Evans went into business together. The pair first launched a pop-up coffee stand out of a dorm room at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. After opening two successful shops in Raleigh, they expanded to the Bull City.
By hiring adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, such as Down syndrome, autism spectrum disorder, and sensory processing disorders, 321 is paving the way to a more diverse and welcoming workforce.
As 321 regular Celia-Bess Cotton said, “It brings visibility to a community that feels invisible.”
Taryn Ryder, a young barista with dreadlocks and bright red fingernail polish, stands at the counter at 321, beaming as she takes orders on a touch screen. To her side, manager Sarah Roberts slips in some quick reminders. She’s there to make sure that the little things — a customer’s milk preference, for instance — don’t fall through the cracks.
As a former public school educator, Roberts has had years of experience working with people with disabilities. She carried her skills from the classroom to the coffee shop when she began overseeing day-to-day operations at 321’s Durham location. Her favorite part of the job is watching members of her team gain confidence.
“We’ve had baristas who would be at the register and would completely shy away when customers would come in. Now, they want to stand right at the register and greet,” Roberts said.
“Even if it’s a potential customer walking by, they’re like, ‘here comes a customer’! So just to see the change, and to see them build confidence and take pride in something and be excited to come to work.”
For Wrege, a 23-year-old with chestnut-brown curls and a sunny smile, inspiration for the coffee shop came from close to home. After she switched schools in elementary school, the first students to truly welcome her had intellectual disabilities.
Emma Wissink was among these “first friends.” Wissink, who has Down syndrome, immigrated to North Carolina from the Netherlands in fourth grade. At Green Hope Elementary School in Cary, she and Wrege became fast friends, playing together at recess, carpooling to dance, and going on family vacations. Their bond has continued into adulthood, and they now work side-by-side.
Wissink, who has worked at all three 321 storefronts, loves her job. She first learned the craft of coffeemaking in a high school occupational readiness class. Now a seasoned barista, she was quick to recommend the shop’s iced lattes (which was delicious, as promised).
She has felt a warm welcome from the Durham community so far.
“How [customers] embraced me was kindness. They were really kind to me, and they didn’t judge me at first,” Wissink said. “I was kind of happy about that, too, because usually people judge a person with a disability, but … it felt different.”
The stigma Wissink described may help explain the employment gap between adults with intellectual disabilities and other Americans.
For the more than 6.5 million American adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, finding consistent employment can be difficult. A 2013 survey found that only 30% of working-age adults in this group are in the labor force, compared to 76% of adults without disabilities.
Though 321 hires folks with and without disabilities, they make a special effort to include a community that is often left behind.
The Durham storefront currently employs nine baristas and three managers. In total, of the more than 60 employees across 321’s stores, Wrege estimates that over 50 have disabilities.
When people with intellectual disabilities do find jobs, they often work part-time and for lower wages than their non-disabled peers. Those jobs are often unskilled, said Cotton, who works with Triangle Disability & Autism Services, a nonprofit that supports children and adults with disabilities.
“It’s difficult to find jobs for our population that aren’t considered menial,” said Cotton. “You know, low-level jobs where it’s either, they’re busboys or they do sweeping and cleaning and that kind of stuff in a supermarket setting.”
In her professional role, she helps clients with day-to-day tasks, including healthcare, social skills, and budgeting.
For the past two years, she’s worked alongside Thomas “Tommy” Preston, a 41-year-old with Down syndrome. Preston struggled to hold a stable job before becoming a barista at 321 in Durham.
“This job, well, I thought was really quite suited for him because Tommy is a fast learner, as long as you present things to him in a way that he can understand,” Cotton said. “It’s a good thing for him.”
As Cotton spoke, Preston filled coffee orders and wiped down countertops and tables.
He says his favorite parts of his job are, “My friends, and my coworkers, and my teammates —you know, a lot of people here in the shop. I like to make coffee.”
Cotton has witnessed Preston’s self-esteem blossom since he found employment. He’s been able to achieve longstanding goals, such as a night to himself at the luxurious Washington Duke Inn & Golf Club. After saving up his earnings, he recently booked a room, just shy of his upcoming birthday in February.
Preston and several other 321 employees regularly attend programming at Reality Ministries, a Durham-based nonprofit that serves adults “with and without developmental disabilities.” When the Morris Street shop opened, the organization, which partners with 321 Coffee, shared the news with its participants.
Between Reality Ministries, media attention, and word of mouth, the 321 shops across the Triangle were soon flooded with job applicants. They now have a waitlist of more than 150 people. Wrege described the high demand as “bittersweet.”
“I’m really proud to have created a place where people want to work and feel like they could be really supported and contribute in a meaningful way,” she said. “But at the same time, it’s really sad to recognize that every other retail company right now is like, ‘labor shortage, no one wants to work.’ And it’s like, okay, no, there are people who want to work, but they’re not being considered.”
In the restaurant industry, which has suffered significant labor shortages, adults with disabilities can be loyal and capable employees, Wrege said. Even as workers across the nation left their jobs during the pandemic, 321 Coffee’s Raleigh locations retained the vast majority of their employees.
“A lot of [adults with disabilities] have really great attitudes towards work,” Wrege said. “They want to learn, they want to grow, they want to contribute. They want to show up in the morning, and again, that’s not something that you always see. So I think there’s so much value that you will get as a business owner by being inclusive in your business model.”
Still, operating a business like 321 Coffee has its challenges. Roberts, the manager, said “every day is different” when working with her team. On busy days, the shop can sometimes feel overwhelming.
“It kind of just depends on what’s going on with each person, given the day,” she said. “Sometimes they’ll come in and they’re very distracted by something that’s gone on before they’ve gotten to work.”
The job can also pose physical challenges for some. To support those who struggle with fine motor movements, 321 has made some traditionally hand-operated devices, such as coffee grinders and steam wands, automatic. Some machines are on wheels, to make them easier to move. The baristas, managers, and owners collaborate during staff meetings to create solutions that work for all members of the team.
By bringing community members with and without disabilities together, businesses like 321 can dispel misconceptions and foster understanding, said Mary Pratt, a volunteer with Reality Ministries.
“When you hear disability, intellectual disability, it doesn’t mean that they’re not smart,” said Pratt.
“In reality… they have capabilities far beyond what most people can think they do. And it’s important for the world to recognize that.”
Pictured above (from top): Barista Tommy Preston serves up a cup of coffee; Taryn Ryder smiles from behind the register; Celia-Bess Cotton is a regular at 321 Coffee. Photos by Abigail Bromberger — The 9th Street Journal