Slicing bagels at Brueggers. Bagging groceries at Food Lion. Folding pants at American Eagle. For most of us, first jobs happen in our teenage years as a regular part of life. They fund movies on weekends or help save up for the latest video game. For those with developmental or intellectual disabilities, however, getting a job has never been a given.
Two new businesses in Greensboro are looking to change that.
At just past 5 p.m. on a recent Saturday evening, A Special Blend in Greensboro, a new coffee shop off Market Street which opened earlier this month, is bustling with activity. A young man greets visitors as they walk through the doors, escaping the blustery weather outside. Behind the counter, half a dozen employees serve cappuccinos, smoothies and various baked goods. For many of them, this is their first job.
According to a report by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2017, only 18.7 percent of persons with a disability were employed, while for those without a disability, it was 65.7 percent.
“For some of these guys it’s the first time they’re receiving a paycheck,” says Jo Hughes, one of the board members of the shop.
The shop, which employs 40 people, has 22 paid staff and 18 volunteers. All are considered essential parts of the business.
“We want to push the idea that everyone is trainable,” Hughes says.
She says the idea came from Bitty and Beau’s, a Wilmington coffee shop which employs those with disabilities. Opened in 2016, the business has been extremely successful with the owner even winning CNN’s Hero of the Year in 2017. Hughes says they were inspired to open a similar business here.
“No one had run a coffee shop before,” admitted Hughes. “We’re all just misfit volunteers chipping in.”
But for Hughes and her husband Dave, the experience is more personal than that. The two have a 20-year-old daughter, Maddy, who has Sotos Syndrome, a genetic disorder that causes her to have intellectual and developmental disabilities. Hughes says her daughter works at the shop as a volunteer employee and that she loves it; it’s her first job.
When asked what having a place like A Special Blend means to them as parents, Dave begins to choke up, tears welling behind his glasses. Jo chimes in.
“There are no words,” she says. “Every person deserves to feel useful and needed and this place gives the opportunity to have that. It’s priceless.”
Grey Cockerman, who’s 56 and describes himself as a slow learner, says he loves working at the shop.
“The customers make us feel welcome and speak to us and ask us if we’re having a good day,” he said. Cockerman used to work at UNCG but said that “they put a lot of people with special needs in the dish room.” This job allows him to interact with customers.
“Greensboro should have more jobs for special needs,” he added. “We’re a part of the community and the community should be a part of us.”
In addition to the coffee — which is roasted by the owners of Green Joe’s on Battleground — A Special Blend offers locally baked goods, smoothies, tea and even a rentable meeting space.
“We’re really trying to give people as much reason for coming as we can,” Hughes says.
On opening day, Hughes says about 1,200 people showed up, creating a line that wrapped around the building. She says one family made a lasting impression.
“It was a young family coming with a child with Down’s Syndrome,” Hughes says. “And I remember the mom saying, ‘You know, it’s not bad for people to wait for this group of people, to teach them patience.’”
A few miles away in downtown, a number of people huddled inside Chez Genèse, also waiting, practicing patience.
The new French restaurant, which opened last month, occupies a space at the end of Elm Street near Mellow Mushroom and also employs those with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Kathryn Hubert, the owner of the restaurant, says that French cuisine is the perfect way to express their mission.
“The French know how to serve and really value the connection that happens around the table,” Hubert said. “Our hope is that you feel transported when you walk through our doors and that our space invites community and encourages relationships to be built.”
The restaurant offers a breakfast menu featuring classic French dishes like quiche, crepes and a variety of omelets and eggs while lunch options include soups, salads, sandwiches and cheese boards. And of course, there’s always the flaky, buttery croissants.
On the wall next to the front door, a sign reads, “The place of new beginnings.”
Hubert, who trained in France for a year, says that she opened the restaurant because she wanted to give people a second chance or a first opportunity. Hubert, who has three cousins with autism and has worked with Autism Society of NC and in special education classrooms, says Chez Genèse employees 22 people, 12 of whom have disabilities.
“Our goal is to be an inclusive work environment,” said Hubert in an email. “There is no visual differentiation between our staff members. We are all on an equal playing field because we believe that everyone has a skill set to contribute and we celebrate that.”
She says she hopes that the restaurant helps its employees gain skills that could be taken to other jobs as well.
“We are focusing on independence, multi-tasking, learning how see the big picture, how to say no and stand up for yourself,” Hubert said.
She says only two of the employees have prior experience working in a restaurant.
“It’s important to value people,” she said. “It’s a good thing to see the world through someone else’s eyes and to recognize the many ways that beauty can be manifested.”
And for parents like Hughes with loved ones with intellectual and developmental disabilities, places like A Special Blend and Chez Genèse are more than just feelgood businesses.
“It gives hope to families,” Hughes says. “It lets them know they’re not in the shadows anymore and that there’s a future.”