Family Run

This Family Opened A Coffee Shop To Hire People With Intellectual Disabilities After Hearing 70 Percent Are Unemployed

"We like to say it’s more than a cup of coffee — it’s a human rights movement."

Each month, our Family Run series profiles amazing families who work together in some capacity. From starting businesses, inventing products, collaborating artistically, and beyond, these family members are making positive contributions to the world together and strengthening their family bonds in the process.

A cup of coffee can make any caffeine lover happy, but order one from Bitty & Beau's and you'll get much more than a pick-me-up. The coffee shop in Wilmington, North Carolina has become a popular destination because of the people it employs. Forty people with disabilities, as well as two managers who have degrees in special education, work at the cafe. 

Husband and wife Ben and Amy Wright opened Bitty & Beau back in January 2016. "Ben and I have four children," Amy told A Plus. "Our two youngest, Bitty and Beau, both have Down syndrome. We believe the first step in creating opportunity for Bitty and Beau, and others with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD), is changing the way people see people with IDD so that they become valued members of society." 

After having Beau, the Wrights were thrust into the special needs world. They learned that nearly 70 percent of adults living with intellectual disabilities are unemployed, even though many of them are willing and able to do work, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

Ben, who runs an investment advisory company, hired a few people with disabilities at his office, and Amy started the non-profit Able to Work USA, a nonprofit dedicated to helping people with IDD find employment opportunities. But they knew they could do more. So, they came up with the idea to open a coffee shop. 

Courtesy of Amy Wright 
Courtesy of Amy Wright 

The Wrights thought the shop could serve as a place for people with IDD to find jobs, and for patrons to see how hardworking and capable they are. "The coffee shop creates a path for people with IDD to be valued," Wright said. "I've learned that bringing people together is the best way to tear down walls. Bitty & Beau's Coffee brings people together and creates a culture where diversity is not just appreciated, it's celebrated." 

Ben and Amy had no experience in the restaurant industry and knew nothing about coffee. But they did know that opening a cafe would give many people with IDD the opportunity to work. 

"We took a leap of faith. We didn't know anything about coffee or running a coffee shop, but we were determined to make it work. When passion and purpose collide, anything is possible," Amy said. 

The family named the shop Beau's Coffee when it first opened until Beau revealed that his 12th birthday wish was to include his little sister's name, too. By July 2016, it was renamed Bitty & Beau's Coffee. Thanks to positive press and a supportive community, the Wrights soon had to move their shop from a 500 to 5,000 square feet location to accommodate the crowds that show up each day. 

"We actually have a U.S. map hanging in the shop that allows guests to pinpoint where they're from," Amy explained. "We have tons of regulars, but an overwhelming amount of tourists too."

Courtesy of Amy Wright 
Courtesy of Amy Wright 

The employees at Bitty & Beau have a variety of intellectual and developmental disabilities, including cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, and autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Most of them have never had a job before. 

"Not because they didn't want one, but because most businesses won't give them a chance," Amy said. "They are hard working, loyal, dedicated and capable individuals that are eager to learn. They also approach each day with gratitude. The culture of the shop is respectful and inclusive." 

The staff enjoys greeting guests, selling coffee and sandwiches, and having the occasional dance parties right in the middle of the shop. The dancing is often led by 22-year-old Trevor Jefferson, who has Down syndrome. "I love my job because I feel famous. My favorite part is dancing to Justin Bieber," Jefferson shared on the company website

"My job gives me confidence and helps me grow as a person," Jesse Guillaume, who has cerebral palsy, shared on the website. "My job brings me joy and happiness."

Courtesy of Amy Wright 
Courtesy of Amy Wright 

 "What we've come to realize is that the shop is about so much more than creating jobs — it's about creating a culture where people with IDD are valued," Amy said. "Whether or not Bitty and Beau work at the shop one day is beside the point. What we hope to do is create a world where they are valued, accepted and included." 

In addition, the coffee shop has given The Wrights the opportunity to bring their family closer together through the business. 

"Our entire family is involved with the business and we wouldn't have it any other way," Amy explained. "Our two oldest daughters have formed wonderful friendships with our employees and they love to help out at the shop. Bitty and Beau are at the shop every chance they get, too. They enjoy helping behind the counter, welcoming people to the shop, and they love the daily dance parties!" 

The family plans to open a second location in Charleston, South Carolina later this year and continue to expand. In addition, the Wrights hope to continue to advocate for people with disabilities as much as possible. Beau's older sister Emma Grace Wright recently founded the Valorem Film Festival which aims to highlight people with disabilities in film. 

Courtesy of Amy Wright 
Courtesy of Amy Wright 

There are other family run businesses, such as Rising Tide Car Wash and Finley's Bakery which both specifically employ people on the autism spectrum, that have also made it their mission to employ differently-abled people. But every company can work to do better for people with disabilities. 

"In order to accept and include people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in the workplace, businesses must first recognize their intrinsic value," Amy said. 

Hopefully, companies like Bitty & Beau's will help to combat stigma and change the statistic on unemployed people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in the future.  

"My hope is that when people encounter Bitty & Beau's Coffee, whether it's a visit to the shop or learning about us in some other way, they form a new perspective," Amy said. "We like to say it's more than a cup of coffee — it's a human rights movement." 

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