RALEIGH, N.C. — 321 Coffee — a cafe and roaster that exclusively hires people with intellectual and developmental disabilities — is launching an expanded partnership with Pendo to service the software company’s new in-office coffee bar when it opens in early 2022.

Pendo will be the first tenant in the new 301 Hillsborough tower in downtown Raleigh, occupying its top five floors when the building opens. The company, which helps businesses improve their websites and products through behavioral analytics, has used 321 as its coffee supplier since last year.

The Downtown Raleigh location will be the coffee shop’s second one, in addition to a stall at the Raleigh Farmers’ Market. 321 Coffee will run a modest operation, employing about 10 workers and only serving Pendo staff.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

But it represents a campaign to aggressively expand its operations to other sites across the Triangle with the potential to employ more than 100 people with IDD, said Lindsay Wrege, 321 Coffee’s co-founder and CEO.

“We have four new locations in the works and fun collaborations with new companies that we’re excited to start announcing in coming months,” Wrege told The News & Observer. “I’m sort of terrified but also really excited.”

Todd Olson, CEO and co-founder of Pendo, said the coffee company’s mission is “inspiring and makes our community better.”

“Not only do they roast and make amazing coffee, but they create opportunities for individuals in our community who are often overlooked,” Pendo said in a release.

Limited opportunities for people with disabilities

More than 80% of Americans with disabilities are unemployed, according to a 2021 report by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s double the unemployment rate for all people without disabilities, the Bureau reports.

“Across all age groups, persons with disabilities were much less likely to be employed than those with no disabilities,” the agency’s Labor Force Characteristics Summary said earlier this year.

Until recently, Wrege, 22, didn’t know those statistics, or that individuals with IDD are often barred from advancing their educations and careers.

“When I was in elementary school, I switched schools and didn’t know anyone in the new classroom,” said Wrege, who grew up in Cary. “My first friends were three girls in the class, and they each had a different disability. … And so that was my initial introduction into this community and just seeing what people are capable of through adaptations and modifications. We’d go surfing and swimming and skiing and to prom and it was just like, ‘OK, you may surf a little different than me, I may play tennis a little different than you, but we can still play it together.'”

The group stayed close through primary school, but when Wrege left home to attend North Carolina State University, her friends stayed behind. When she was debating whether to pursue a medical degree, they juggled menial tasks at minimum wage.

“For me, it was like the world of opportunities was next,” Wrege said. “But for them, there was a significant drop off of opportunity, especially in the professional space.”

Creating new jobs

In her sophomore year of college, Wrege and a classmate, Michael Evans, resolved to change the hiring landscape for her childhood friends. Thus 321 Coffee was born — first as a volunteer program with pop-up events, then a nonprofit shop. It finally evolved into the for-profit cafe and roaster it is today.

Coffee is the company’s product, but its mission is fostering a dignified workspace for those with all kinds of abilities.

“After high school, I was just doing odd jobs,” said Emma Wissink, 23, one of Wrege’s best friends since they were 8 years old. “They were menial, like menial tasks.”

Wissink, who has Down syndrome, folded towels for a while at her local YMCA before landing a job at a nearby grocery store. In training, she was promised a diverse role with exciting prospects.

“But once I got the job, they only let me clean bathrooms,” she said. “It really hurt my feelings.”

Now she’s “whipping out latte art” and engaging with customers at 321.

“The atmosphere is different here,” Wissink said. “They don’t really just tell you what to do. We get to work very independently mostly, and we work out problems.”

Sam Hening, 31, who has Down syndrome, had better employment experiences than Wissink. Before joining 321 Coffee as its first volunteer four years ago, he worked for a kind boss at a Rocky Mount grocery store.

“But I like this way better,” he said. “I loved the grocery store, but to me, working at a coffee shop like 321 is the best.”

Hening “does it all,” at 321 Coffee: he’s a barista, cashier, roaster and soon will help with training new hires.

“I’m on the edge of my seat, just waiting for it to happen,” Hening said of 321’s plans to open new locations. “Let’s put it this way, I have an older brother and I have three nephews and I’m one of the top role models for them if they want to talk and get any tips from me about getting a job and things like that. And I can say, you know, that I help in training others.”

And he has plenty of people to train now and in the future. 321 Coffee employs more than 30 people at its Farmers’ Market location, but demand for work is one of the company’s primary drivers for expansion. About 50 people with IDD are on a waitlist to work for 321 when more jobs become available.

“It’s amazing how the community has reached out and how it’s working,” Wrege said. “The best thing is when people tell me they drove 30, 45 minutes or an hour just to get a cup of coffee. And that means a lot because they’re choosing to support our baristas and say, ‘I want to buy coffee from you because I want you to keep having a job.'”

In a statement, Wrege said she hopes the partnership with Pendo will inspire similar arrangements in the future.

“It’s my hope that the collaboration between 321 Coffee and Pendo serves as a catalyst for other companies to spark creative partnerships and recognize opportunities to make an impact in their industries,” Wrege said.

© 2021 The News & Observer
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

Read more stories like this one. Sign up for Disability Scoop's free email newsletter to get the latest developmental disability news sent straight to your inbox.