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My visit to Bitty and Beau’s

The walls at Bitty and Beau’s Coffee in Wilmington, North Carolina, tell a story. On the one behind the cash register, there’s a chalkboard menu listing the day’s offerings — things like toasted marshmallow flavoring and java chip frappes. To the right, a “Wall of Thanks” names individual and corporate sponsors. Around the corner, there’s a U.S. wall map where customers can indicate their origins. It’s covered with pinned locations, from Lubbock, Texas, to countries like Peru, Libya and Guam. On the back wall, photos of smiling employees hang near this quote: “Changing the way people see each other.”

That in a nutshell is the mission of Bitty and Beau’s. Ben and Amy Wright founded the business in 2016 and named it after their two youngest children, both born with Down syndrome. After the Wrights appeared on The Today Show, Rachael Ray and Good Morning America, crowds have poured in. That includes a customer I met who drove three hours to check out Bitty and Beau’s. “I don’t drink coffee at all, but this is what I wanted for my birthday,” she told me. She choked up as she added, “My uncle had Down syndrome, and I’ve just got a special relationship to all this.”

The shop’s Wilmington location employs 40 workers. Twenty-eight year old Matt Dean, director of first impressions, is one of them: “I help out with the change and make sure all the customers are doing good and have an awesome experience.”

Matt is a customer favorite. He even has a signature item on the menu. “I had the Matt’s special called Matt’s Sunrise,” the non-coffee drinking customer told me. “It’s a mango and strawberry smoothie, and it was amazing.”

I caught up with Matt’s mom in the parking lot after his shift. She says he used to be shy, but not anymore: “It’s been life-changing for Matt. It’s so important for young adults with disabilities to have a purpose to get up every day like we all want to do. He’s just great at his job.

Jill is also great at her job. She was working behind the counter while I was there. It’s her job to place a fresh receipt in a clear plastic folder, which already holds a playing card. She called out the card that matched an order with the right customer: “Nine of hearts?”

A man in a baseball cap came forward. “Perfect. Thank you, Miss Jill,” he said, picking up a frothy coffee and a cinnamon roll. 

Recent college graduate Natalie Smith is a manager at Bitty and Beau’s. “Basically, the role of our managers is just to empower the employees as much as possible,” she explained. “When these guys get rolling, it’s my job to just keep the parts moving.”

Bitty and Beau’s has become a destination eatery, especially for families raising special needs kids. One young girl in line had a facial deformity. Another, 12-year-old Dalton, comes once a week. His relative told me Dalton is eager to fill out a Bitty and Beau’s job application: “They said he has to wait three years before he will have a job here.”

That kind of labor force excitement is obvious to coffee buyers.

“These kids take time to show that they appreciate the opportunity they’ve been given,” a customer acknowledged. “They value it. They love their job. I don’t think it’s a job to them.”

But it is a job, and I watched an employee named Jessie arrive for work. Her mom drove their Nissan up to the front door and Jessie, with curved legs and an altered gait, stepped out. The local homecoming queen (at Michael Jordan’s alma mater, no less) shared her story during a break.

“Cerebral palsy is tightness of the muscles. Mine is from head to toe. So basically, I feel it all over my body. It affects my brain more than people think.”

Bitty and Beau’s Coffee is teaching the public to value people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and the public is responding. In 2017, CNN honored Amy Wright as “Hero of the Year” for her work on behalf of the disabled. Ben Wright recently spoke before members of the U.S. Senate about hiring disabled employees.   

But the shop is also helping employees like Jessie see their own value.

“It took me a while to understand the mindset of my having the disability as a gift. You know, my mom always loved to preach that everyone has a disability in their own way. Some people’s disabilities are visual, and some people’s you cannot see. So, I think the challenge in my life is that is mine is visible. Nothing is impossible with God, though. I can do anything I put my mind to as long as I keep my faith and I walk by faith and not by sight.”

Bitty and Beau’s Coffee has recently opened two new locations and has hopes of further expansion.

Kim Henderson is a freelance writer. Contact her at kimhenderson319@gmail.com.