Filling your cup with more than coffee

Wilmington-based shop offers disabled employees business and life skills, garnering community support and a national spotlight

WILMINGTON — Walking inside Bitty and Beau’s Coffee, the open-air space and smell of beans invites you in. You’ll come for the coffee and stay for the people. There you’ll find new friends in Matt, who shares newly developed smoothie recipes; Elizabeth, who calls your order and gives a hug; and Mike, who skillfully makes the perfect frappe.

“This place brings people into our world and helps them get to know that we are more alike than different,” said owner Amy Wright.

Bitty and Beau’s Coffee employs people with intellectual and developmental disabilities offering them the opportunity work, make a difference and earn an income. All the while, giving customers a chance to engage with people they might not have otherwise.

“Eighty-five percent of people with intellectual disabilities are unemployed. The school systems will support them until the age of 22, but after that, many fall off the cliff,” said Wright.

In the beginning of 2016, she opened the doors of Beau’s Coffee in a 500-sq. ft. building. Six months later she moved the business into an old Hummer dealership and added Bitty’s name to the shop. A mom of four, Beau, 12, and Bitty, 7, are her two youngest children, both of whom were born with Down Syndrome.

“They don’t need jobs now, but 10 years from now they will. “Many individuals with intellectual disabilities participate in activities and volunteer, but there is nothing like having a job which gives you a sense of purpose and identity,” said Wright.

Wright knew nothing about coffee or running a retail store when she began. Instead, she had an idea brewing, a drive to accomplish it and a lot of passion about it.

“I simply wanted to change the way people felt about people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and help employ those in our community,” said Wright.

She employs 40 people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and has two managers working with the team. Employees are given jobs that best fit their talents whether it’s taking orders, making beverages, selling merchandise, restocking supplies, or greeting customers.

“We want them to feel confident in their task,” said Wright. “People are scared of the unknown. I was before I had Beau. The coffee shop gives people a tangible way to lean more, interact and become comfortable with people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. They have just as much value as anybody else.”

The coffee shop continues to grow in popularity and now welcomes 2,000 people a week.

“It’s 5,000-sq. ft. of awesomeness,” said Matt Dean, 27, of Wilmington.

Dean has a book of ideas for drinks and is credited with been the visionary behind the Strawberry Sunrise, a strawberry and mango smoothie (It’s not on the menu, so be sure to ask for it.) as well as the Wonder Woman in celebration of the comic book character.

“We had a celebration of the movie and sold the drink. It is raspberry flavored with whip cream and blue sprinkles,” said Dean.Dean takes your orders at the register and is also the Director of First Impressions, frequently answering questions from visitors and groups on field trips.

“I get to help out and see so many wonderful customers,” he said. “I work five days a week and love coming here. I even visit when I’m not working. We have great customers, staff, boss lady and atmosphere.”

Dean will introduce you to his good friend, Elizabeth Johnson.

“I love seeing her cheerful smile. We call her ‘Hugs’ — it’s her nickname,” he said.

Johnson, 22, of Wilmington, gives our hugs and enjoys dancing to Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling” during their morning dance party at the shop.

“I call out the cards,” said Johnson. “The King of Hearts is my favorite.”

Customers are given a card from the deck when their order is placed. Johnson has the matching card and will call out the suit and number when the orders are ready. Employees are given a free drink at the end of their shift. Johnson always chooses the Cookies and Cream Frappe made by another friend, Mike Crossman.

“I make the frappes, smoothies and lattes,” said Crossman, 22, of Wilmington. “I’ve made new friends here. Everyone is very kind, sweet and helpful.”

Frappes are popular. In addition to cookies and cream, there’s caramel, cotton candy and java chip.

“Getting paid for my job makes me feel awesome,” said Crossman. “Getting my paycheck, I feel accomplished. I’m going to get my driver’s license and am saving up for a car.”

Bitty and Beau’s Coffee has felt the love from within and around the world. There’s a wall of post-it notes employees where they write positive messages to each other and a map where customers and pin where they are from. The coffee shop is expanding to add a second location in Charleston, South Carolina and they are the official coffee of the Rachel Ray Show.

“We are appreciative people support what we are doing in finding a tangible way to support people with intellectual and developmental disabilities,” said Wright.

As their slogan goes, “It’s more than a cup of coffee.”

It’s a cup of joy, a cup of love, a cup of friendship, a cup of wonder, a cup of hugs and a cup of friendship.