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How 321 Coffee Brings Individuals with IDDs into the Workforce and Community
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NICOLE DUNCAN

Freelance Journalist
Together We Stand NC

When the subject of diversity, equity, and inclusion arises, it typically centers around race or even gender identity. Far less often does DEI touch on people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD).

 

But it was this overlooked community that inspired the creation of 321 Coffee, a Raleigh-based coffee shop and roastery that employs staff from the historically underrepresented—and often underemployed—population. The business, which started as a humble operation out of the State Farmers Market, has grown into a multi-unit company that opened a trio of new locations last year alone.

 

“There are people out there who want to work, but there's some disconnect of either they don't feel empowered to apply or you [as a business owner] aren't considering them. And we need to address both those components,” says CEO and cofounder Lindsay Wrege.

 

And that’s exactly what she and cofounder Michael Evans are doing. For Wrege, the mission is deeply personal. In elementary school, she became friends with three girls, Grace, Anna, and Emma, who had developmental disabilities. She points out that, as children, it was easy to bond over shared interests and activities like their favorite color or dance classes. But as they grew up, Wrege noticed an expanding gap between the opportunities she had and the ones they did not.

 

“Getting to high school graduation, I’d hear, ‘you can go to college,’ and ‘we can talk about scholarships,’ and ‘you could study abroad,' and ‘you should think about an internship.’ But for them, there was such a drop-off. And that was like, what the heck? This isn't right,” Wrege recalls. “So I had the idea of, wouldn't it be so cool to have a coffee shop that focused on inclusion and creating jobs for people with disabilities specifically?”

 

Wrege was still a student at North Carolina State University when the business first took root. She’d mentioned the idea in casual conversation, but Evans, a friend and fellow Park Scholar, encouraged her to take the idea beyond the hypothetical. Soon enough, the two were serving java at the Raleigh Farmers Market, using a coffee maker they bought at Target.

 

The name, 321, refers to the third copy of the 21st chromosome, which is a genetic marker of Down Syndrome. The coffee shop’s branding and merchandise is inspired by chromosome mapping, which Wrege says speaks to everyone's uniqueness.

 

Flash-forward and 321 Coffee has grown to a team of about 60 employees whose jobs range from barista and roaster to event staff and delivery driver. What’s more, the company has a pool of more than 200 applicants. And this demand for employment among the IDD community is the driving force behind 321 Coffee’s rapid expansion.

 

The 321 Coffee system now includes three Raleigh spots (the original farmers market stall, a private cafe in software company Pendo’s headquarters, and a Hillsborough Street storefront), as well as a Durham outpost, which opened last December. Last year, the company also announced a partnership with Lenovo and the nonprofit EngageNC to build a fully accessible roastery. The new roastery will not only create more jobs but also open the door to more people being able to fill those roles, with state-of-the-art technology removing many of the physical barriers involved in the roasting process.

 

“The vision was never to grow to this 60-person company with locations across the Triangle,” Wrege says. “The vision was just, let's see what we can do to create an impact for people with disabilities.”

 

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Last year, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that only 21.3 percent of people with a disability were employed. Although the data does not differentiate between physical, intellectual, and emotional disabilities, the employment rates for IDD individuals specifically are still well below the neurotypical population. A 2013 survey by the Special Olympics found that while 44 percent of adults with IDD were in the labor force, nearly all were underemployed, working fewer hours for less pay.

 

And when they are employed, Wrege says, it’s rarely a competitive position with room for growth. She remembers how back in high school, Emma had a job at a grocery store for several years. Wrege thought it was great until she learned her friend’s responsibilities were limited to bathroom cleaning.

 

“Even for that 20 percent who are getting jobs, it doesn't necessarily mean they're being given dignified work, challenging work, something that they take pride in and have opportunities for growth and advancement,” she says. “So that was a big thing we wanted to do differently. Our people are going to be at the front, and they're going to be doing all the steps.”

 

Over time, Wrege has watched employees grow. For example, a new hire might start off reserved, doing their job but not interacting much, and then a couple months later, they’re greeting customers on a first-name basis. “When they're put in an environment where they feel safe and supported and you set the bar high, you let them rise to it,” she says.

 

Customers also enjoy forging these relationships with 321 staff members. Durham store manager Johanna Ashwell says a number of customers are eager to chat with employees, who in turn, know regulars by name. In fact, Ashwell, who joined 321 in April, says her colleagues are still helping her get to know frequent guests.

 

Ashwell stresses the importance of these interactions in building inclusion and representation at a societal level.

 

“When I was in high school, there was a lot of integration, so students had opportunities to just be with different populations. And once you step away from school, there's not a lot of opportunities to mingle,” Ashwell says. “When you can come to a coffee shop and meet people and build those bonds and relationships, it’s really an amazing thing and that's what we see happening.”

 

But beyond its vital mission, 321 Coffee is a strong competitor in the area’s burgeoning coffee market. In fact, it clinched the top spot in The News & Observer’s Triangle Coffee Bracket in March 2022.

 

“We have a trifecta of goodness. We have a great mission. We have a great product—I can't tell you how many people come in and say, ‘This is the best cup of coffee I've had in a long time,’” Ashwell says. “So we have that consistency of a quality product. And then we also are running a good price point.” 

 

Wrege says serving an exceptional product helps fight stigma, too. Sometimes customers will remark that the coffee is “actually good,” which illuminates an inherent bias, namely that an individual with IDD cannot perform their job as well as a neurotypical person. So in some ways, 321 Coffee is overturning this misperception by serving high-quality coffee.

 

“I don't want it to be the type of thing where you get your coffee, you pat yourself on the back because someone with autism handed it to you, and then you throw it down the drain because it’s actually gross and you go over to the nearest coffee shop,” Wrege says.

 

The team puts a great deal of care into selecting the beans it imports, how those beans are roasted, and what drink recipes maximize the flavor. “We want to put out a really quality product, and then there's this kick-ass social component behind it. [So] why would you not want to come back?” Wrege adds.

 

The social component goes beyond the coffee shop’s four walls. 321 Coffee hosts virtual info sessions for businesses that want to learn how to reach, hire, train, and invest in employees with IDDs. These two-hour sessions are free, but 321 also offers consulting services for companies that wish to go even more in-depth. Already it counts athletic apparel brand Lululemon among its client list.

 

What’s more, 321 Coffee is training its employees in skills that can open the door to opportunities beyond the cafe.

 

“We're going to teach you to be a great barista, but ultimately, we're going to teach you to be a great employee. We’re going to teach you how to show up when you're scheduled, how to wear a uniform, how to work as a team, how to take feedback, how to ask for help when you need it, how to troubleshoot problems. There are so many tangible work skills you're going to learn here,” Wrege says. “We almost serve as this career development pipeline.”

 

Another perk of corporate partnerships, like the one with Lenovo, is that 321 Coffee can demonstrate the value and skills of its employees. So if one of those partners is seeking workers, it could hire from existing 321 staff, or Wrege and her team could share resumes from their growing applicant pool.

 

In addition to jobs, the coffee shop is forging ties with other organizations in its respective neighborhoods. In Durham, staff members have attended after-work gatherings, including a pig pickin’ and a pizza party. The shop is located in the city’s Innovation District, but it’s also in between North Street Neighborhood, an inclusive development welcoming people of all abilities, and Reality Ministries, a Christian-based nonprofit building community among IDD and neurotypical individuals. Ashwell is making it her mission to cultivate relationships with these two organizations.

 

“One of my big projects over the next year is to rename this the Corridor of Inclusion and really run the three of us together because it is kind of magical that of all the storefronts in downtown Durham, we ended up right in the center of these two lovely communities that have existed for so long,” Ashwell says.

 

Together We Stand is also partnering with 321 Coffee to launch an Inclusive Running Club. Each month the group will work with a different running store to welcome people of all abilities to their existing run clubs. The first meeting is slated for September in downtown Raleigh (more details coming soon).

 

321 Coffee will also be at Together We Stand’s 3rd Birthday Bash at Ponysaurus Brewing on Sunday, July 16, with cold brew coffee and iced tea for the sampling.

 

Wrege says her job doesn’t really feel like work but rather like she’s making cool things happen. She’s happy to report that her friends, Grace, Anna, and Emma, all have jobs with 321 Coffee; in fact, Emma is the lead barista at the Durham store.

 

For now, growth is certainly in the cards for 321 Coffee; it’s expected to open a new location within healthcare technology company Relias’s headquarters in Morrisville. But in the end, 321’s success will be measured not by its size but rather its role in changing the status quo.

 

“The ultimate success story of 321 is that we wouldn't need to exist. [The IDD community] could get jobs wherever they want, so then there's no need for a 321 Coffee,” Wrege says. Though when pressed, she admits that demand for the award-winning coffee would probably persist.

 

“I don't know if we'll see that or when we would see that or how we would see that, but that's the goal,” she adds. “I want to create jobs internally, but I want other people thinking this way with us and becoming allies.”

 

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For more information on 321 Coffee, visit 321coffee.com.

 

Check back to learn more about the Inclusive Running Club!

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