In September, a new coffee shop will replace the Starbucks on Dock Street. Bitty & Beau’s Coffee is, like Starbucks, a chain, but smaller and with a very different mission. Amy and Ben Wright, the Wilmington, N.C.-based founders of Bitty & Beau’s Coffee, named their coffee shops after their son and daughter who have Down syndrome, and primarily employ people with disabilities.
“But it’s not just about creating jobs and opportunity for people with disabilities,”
says CEO Amy Wright. “It’s about the customers’ experience and their takeaway. We’re trying to reach people and change people’s perceptions about people with disabilities. It’s amazing to see people come in for a cup of coffee. A lot of people who have maybe never spent time with someone with Down syndrome or autism have a transformative experience.”
Starting three and a half years ago, in their hometown of Wilmington, the Wrights have been steadily expanding on the southeastern seaboard and opening Bitty & Beau’s Coffee in Charleston, S.C., Savannah, Ga., and now Annapolis.
“We like to plant ourselves where there’s a lot of tourism and foot traffic,” Wright says. They’ve chosen to open shops in cities and towns where “you have your community and you also have the influx of tourists that come in.”
This, she says, increases the reach of Bitty & Beau’s Coffee’s mission.
“Those customers go back to their workplaces and look around and say, ‘Wait a second, why don’t we have somebody working here who has a disability? Let’s do something about that.’” That ripple effect, Wright says, is what’s “going to really create change in our country.”
Amy and Ben met while enrolled at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. It was, Wright notes, “love at first sight,” and they moved quickly. After meeting in September 1992, Ben proposed that New Year’s Eve in Times Square, and the two married in May 1993.
Five years later they had their first child, Lillie, and 19 months later, welcomed another daughter, Emma Grace.
Their world changed when, five years later, their son, Beau, arrived. “Though we had an idea he might have Down syndrome, we did initially go through that shock and sadness in the beginning days,” Wright remembers. “It was something that didn’t last too long for us. After we got through grieving the son we thought we were going to have and embraced the son we were given, it was just a wonderful, freeing light-bulb moment that really changed us as people.”
Just as the Wrights felt as though they were “learning the ropes” as parents of a child with a disability, they became pregnant again and welcomed a daughter who also had Down syndrome. Bitty’s given name is Jane but, Wright says, earned her nickname “because she’s always been itty-bitty.”
“When Bitty was born it was like a Mack Truck hit us,” Wright says, explaining that she and her husband came to think “this was bigger than making sure the world was good and welcoming for Beau and Bitty. We’ve been trusted with a job here. We need to find the best platform we can to advocate for people with Down syndrome and other intellectual disabilities. That’s when the soul searching started. We tried a lot of different things: benefit concerts, walks, blogging, a variety of things in our community.”
The idea to open Bitty & Beau’s Coffee “hit me like a lightning bolt,” she says. Just like their whirlwind romance-engagement-marriage two decades before, just a few months passed between the idea and its fruition. Wright’s idea came to her in November 2015, and they opened their first shop in January 2016.
“It was a real risk for us,” Wright says. “We didn’t know anything about coffee shops. We were creative people, but we just educated ourselves on every aspect of it.”
The whole family got involved, “whether it was painting the walls or putting furniture together or marketing,” she says.
For its first six months, the coffee shop operated out of a 500-square-foot spot. The risk paid off:
“We had a line out the door from day one. It was originally called Beau’s Coffee. We hadn’t even given too much thought to naming it. Beau was with me and I said, ‘This may be someplace you want to work someday, Beau.’”
When they moved into a 5,000-square-foot former Hummer dealership, Beau requested the shop be renamed to include his sister.
It’s been “a whirlwind” three years for Bitty & Beau’s Coffee, says Wright, and the support they’ve received for their shop in Annapolis has been “overwhelming. We felt welcomed in Charleston and Savannah, but this was unlike anything we had so far.”
Hundreds of people have reached out to say they want jobs, she adds. They plan on having a hiring fair and spending a weekend interviewing candidates. There’s no requirement for employment at Bitty & Beau’s Coffee other than a “willingness to learn, a great attitude and a willingness to be part of the team,” Wright says.
Bitty & Beau’s Coffee’s mission is, in part, a response to what she calls an “unemployment epidemic that faces people with disabilities.” According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 80 percent of people with disabilities are not in the workforce. Kids with disabilities “get all this support through school, and all these teachers are invested in making sure kids are prepared for the workforce, and then there are no jobs,” Wright says.
But she advises parents of kids with disabilities to stay optimistic about their child’s future. “Parents of children with special needs are really good at advocating for their children to find their place in the world,” she says. With that momentum, “good things can happen.”
And spend a couple minutes in the coffee shop to see what’s possible, she says. “Not just for individuals to work in coffee shops. That’s not the point. They can be in any place of work, shoulder to shoulder with typically developing people.”
“I do feel a shift in our country,” she adds. “I feel like people are beginning to see value in these individuals. I think the coffee shop has shown our country what is possible for people with disabilities.”