This article is part of our series on small companies with a big mission in five areas: women, kids, community, planet, and hope. Click here for more articles in the series.
Standing behind the counter of 321 Coffee with her name tag and baseball cap, Lindsay Wrege looks like any other college-aged barista trying to earn a living. But looks can be deceiving.
Lindsay is, in fact, a college senior, but she’s not just a barista. Instead, she’s the co-founder of this bright and cheery little shop at the State Farmers Market in Raleigh, NC, which means she’s the one helping others earn a living – and so much more.
The employees at 321 Coffee are adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, or IDD, a population where unemployment runs as high as 80%. For this community, a steady job can be lifechanging. It’s a paycheck, yes – but also a source of community, accomplishment, and self-worth.
The Value of Belonging
On the morning of my visit, I’m served by Amanda, who greets me cheerfully, asks about my day, runs the register, and makes my drink – a perfectly crafted pumpkin spice iced latte.
When I come back to the register for some beans to take home, Amanda signs the bag proudly. Turns out, she roasted this batch herself, which means my entire experience has been practically a one-woman show.
Lindsay looks on with satisfaction, but Amanda is the embodiment of the 321 brand, which is taken from the third copy of the 21st chromosome – the genetic description of Down syndrome.
“Our baristas understand they’re the ones who make 321 unique,” Lindsay tells me while Amanda turns her attention to another customer. “They know they’re valued, and they know they belong. We have a community here.”
It’s a fast-growing community, with 21 paid employees and 40 more on the waitlist for a job. This summer the shop doubled its footprint and added roasting equipment for the first time, helping to add opportunities for folks who aren’t as naturally outgoing as Amanda.
“Coffee roasting is a different job that works with different skills and highlights different strengths,” Lindsay notes.
An even bigger breakthrough came just this month (November 2020) with the launch of an online shop. Now, for the first time, fans from across the country can support the 321 mission while enjoying great coffee at home.
“Physical visits are limited by geography,” Lindsay says, “so I’m excited for e-commerce to open up our community. So many people have visited and said, ‘I’m from Colorado or I’m from Texas, can you ship to me?’ Now the answer is yes, so we’re creating a new way to engage.”
It’s clear that 321 Coffee has come a long way from its earliest days in Lindsay’s freshman dorm room, but the seeds were planted even earlier – back in grade school, to be exact, where three of her friends had different forms of disability.
“I grew up with that inclusive experience of seeing what people were capable of when you didn’t place limits on them,” Lindsay says. “I was young, so I didn’t know anything different.”
Throughout high school, Lindsay helped her friends with disabilities get involved in adapted tennis, skiing, and surfing, but then in her senior year, she realized that their paths were about to diverge.
“I had all these opportunities ahead of me,” she recalls. “I was looking at internships and study abroad programs, but for my friends, I saw the opportunities were limited. I just wanted to create a place where people with disabilities could contribute at a high level.”
As a first-year student at North Carolina State, she started talking to people about her passion for empowering people with IDD, and before she knew it, they were brainstorming a logo and business plan. As the idea evolved, so did her career path. Lindsay quickly changed her major from biomedical engineering to business entrepreneurship, and 321 Coffee started taking more and more of her time.
“I fell in love with turning ideas into reality,” she says.
Energy, Talent, and Heart
Lindsay will earn her degree in the spring, but her biggest satisfaction comes from helping her employees find independence and purpose – people like Sam, who was there from the very beginning.
As an adult with Down syndrome, Sam had few opportunities in his small town, so he and his mom began traveling an hour each way to Raleigh to help serve 321 Coffee to the NC State football team every Monday.
“He’s their No. 1 fan,” Lindsay says, and the team quickly took note. “He became a part of their group and they saw how Sam could contribute to their community, so they ended up hiring him to work with their foodservice team.”
Today Sam lives independently in Raleigh – “a big step towards independence for people with disabilities,” according to Lindsay.
As social businesses like 321 Coffee become ever more present and accessible, she’s hopeful that more people like Sam will find a meaningful outlet for their energies, talents, and heart. “I hope that’s the future that we as a society are moving toward,” Lindsay says, adding that it will only happen when conscious consumers “use your dollars to make an impact.”
Spend for good: Check out the brand-new online shop at 321 Coffee to purchase the signature Elevate blend that’s been roasted and packaged by Amanda, Sam, or others with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
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