In some respects, Bitty and Beau's is like any other coffee shop — there's the smell of coffee brewing, the pastry case of croissants and muffins, a handful of people sitting at tables in front of steaming cups.
Yet there are other signs that this is someplace different. There's the bubbly cashier, Jesse Guillaume, who has cerebral palsy and wears a flower crown every day, and only takes a break from chatting to ring up customers’ coffee orders. There's Matt Dean, who has autism and is bent on selling Bitty and Beau’s totes to everyone who walks in the door — "It's perfect for summer!" — in between helping out behind the bar, where workers churn out frappes and cappuccinos.
And then there are the occasional dance parties in the center of the coffee shop, often led by 22-year-old Trevor Jefferson, who has Down syndrome and dreams of being a Hollywood actor. He shakes his hips to Justin Bieber and Katy Perry, blowing kisses at the smartphone cameras recording his moves.
“You kind of see a lightbulb go off in people’s eyes,” Ben Wright, who co-founded the shop with his wife, Amy Wright, told TODAY during a recent visit. All of their 40 employees have some form of disability, with the exception of two managers.
“The whole point is just to show people who come in that people with intellectual and developmental disabilities can do a lot more than you think they can,” Wright added.
The couple opened Bitty and Beau’s in January 2016, in a 500-square-foot store in Wilmington, North Carolina. They quickly outgrew the location and moved into a former Hummer dealership a few miles away — 10 times the size of their original space. This fall, they’ll open a second outpost in Charleston, South Carolina.
“This dream has unfolded so quickly and with so much support behind it that we never saw this coming,” Amy Wright, who runs day-to-day operations at the coffee shop, told TODAY.
The Wrights have four children; their youngest two, Bitty, 7, and Beau, 12, the coffee shop’s namesakes, have Down syndrome. They opened the shop in part so that their children would one day have a place to work.
“You know, twelve years ago when our son was born, we were immediately thrust into this world of folks with special needs … I call it a subculture, because it is sort of like that,” Ben Wright said.
“And we saw the folks who had graduated high school and most of them, we found, just basically had not a whole lot to do,” he continued. “Very few had jobs, and if they had a job it was just for an hour or two a week. And to be fair, some folks can only work an hour or two a week and that’s fine. But we didn’t want things to just go radio silent for them once they graduated high school. So we thought, let’s try to do something about it.”
The Wrights knew nothing about coffee — or the restaurant industry, for that matter — before opening the coffee shop. Ben Wright runs an investment advisory company and Amy Wright previously ran a performing arts studio. Then again, they pointed out, they knew nothing about Down syndrome until Beau and Bitty were born.
“We found that when you’re passionate about something you can learn whatever you set your mind to,” Amy Wright said. “And for us it was coffee.”
They’re well aware of the “crushing need” for employment opportunities for people who have disabilities, Ben Wright said. In 2015, only 17.5 percent of people with a disability were employed, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But slowly, other companies are coming around.
Recently some businesses have realized the benefits of hiring workers with autism, including a car wash in Parkland, Florida, that found the repetitive nature of the job is uniquely suited for those on the autism spectrum. Earlier this year, TODAY covered a Wisconsin woman who opened a small cupcake shop where her son, who has Down syndrome, works. She hopes to hire other employees with disabilities in the future.
The Wrights said they were “flooded with applications” when they opened Bitty and Beau’s.
“It’s been overwhelming, just how many people need jobs,” Amy Wright said.
They believe the first step to solving that problem is changing the way people with disabilities are viewed. And they see that happening every day at Bitty and Beau’s.
“You just watch (customers’) faces and you sort of see this progression they go through,” Ben Wright said. “And when people leave, I think they leave changed.”
Customers notice it, too.
“It’s a happy place,” one regular, Charlie Baker, told TODAY. “I walk out, and my day is immediately better.”
Baker, who has been frequenting Bitty and Beau’s since it opened, said he’s formed friendships with some of the employees and has enjoyed watching their personalities grow.
“They know you, you know them,” he said. “It was neat to see some of them open up, (from) kind of hugging the wall to suddenly coming out and just cutting up with you … sticking their hands up for high fives, and when you try to do it, they pull away and say, ‘Gotcha!’”
Those relationships are what Ben Wright loves about the place. When people give each other a chance, barriers "come crumbling down," he said.
"It doesn't take reinventing the wheel," he added. "It just takes some compassion and some common sense and a little bit of creativity."