In the specialty coffee industry, the roasting sector has traditionally been structured in ways that bar access to people with all types of disabilities, from the mobile to the sensory to the intellectual to the neurological. Upending that dynamic completely is South Carolina-based York Coffee Roastery, a job training roastery and storefront for people with intellectual disabilities, head and spinal cord injuries, and autism. The roastery and attached storefront opened just this month and are already seeing a wave of community support for their mission and work.
Born out of the residential and vocational support nonprofit MaxAbilities, York Coffee Roasters launched as a solution to a much larger problem. Typically, people with lifelong disabilities can get help through Medicaid, but the system also has huge gaps in coverage. “When you’re sick you get specific types of support, which are usually temporary,” explains Mary Poole, executive director of MaxAbilities and York Coffee Roastery. “But when you have a lifelong disability, you need things above and beyond a hospital stay or a particular medication. You need residential and vocational support, you may need physical and occupational therapy, and you’ll need those things well beyond your childhood years.” Those services come with long waiting lists, and not all individuals with lifelong disabilities have access to Medicaid, so MaxAbilities works to house and job-coach folks who fall through the cracks and create sustainable living situations for them as they reach adulthood.
York Coffee Roastery started as a way to provide concrete job training and placement using coffee as the vehicle. “Our goals are to give people skills, confidence, and a resume. Then, we utilize our job coaching services and find a job for those folks in the community. We’re trying to do all that without government funding,” says Poole. While workers are doing the real work of roasting, bagging, and serving coffee, they’re also developing a number of soft skills, like customer service, cleaning, and the ability to take criticism and follow a specific schedule. Trainees also learn basic computer skills on-site with coaches, developing resumes, and filling out online applications to get their next, more permanent job placements once they’ve been successfully integrated into a real-life work environment.
“It’s a job training center; the coffee is the vehicle that we’re using to help them understand what a job is. After roasting coffee, they might go be a janitor somewhere, or they might go and bus tables somewhere,” says Poole. After York Coffee Roastery, folks may never work in coffee again, but they learn skills that will allow them to do any job properly with the right training.
Unlike a lot of traditional coffee roasting setups, the roasting work is neither particularly physical nor dangerous; workers roast two-pound batches on four Sonofresco air roasters. The tables in the space are all height-adjustable so that workers of different heights can all access them with ease. “The coffee part is all new to me,” says Poole. “It’s been incredible to learn about the coffee side of things while using it for our larger mission.”
The cafe also tries to streamline coffee service as much as possible for a maximum focus on transferable skills; featuring batch brew, cold-brew, and a cappuccino/latte/espresso machine with pictures of drinks, the goal is less to train baristas and more to train workers. “Folks are cleaning the tables, learning about the drinks, but also just learning to interact with people they may not have interacted with otherwise,” says Poole. Just as crucial to the mission, the community also learns to interact with them. “We can sit here and say we want people with disabilities to have jobs all day long, but if business owners aren’t able to see the value of employing our folks and seeing all that they can bring to the table, they’re never going to get those jobs. The community needs to be just as invested in the mission as we are.”
In just the short time since York opened, they’ve seen an enthusiastic community response, including coverage from several local news stations. “Every time a piece goes out, our orders go through the roof,” says Poole. They’re currently selling retail bags online, in their storefront, and in a local farmer’s market, but have submitted the necessary applications to start selling their coffee wholesale as well.
“We’re trying to be innovative in our approach to job training,” says Poole. “Our folks are really enjoying the work; they really enjoy being there. We need to bring other people into the storyline—it can’t be about our mission existing in a vacuum. I think we can do it and we’re going to try.” In the specialty coffee world, we too need to think differently and focus on bringing everyone along. York Coffee Roastery offers a valuable precedent for a different way to think about coffee roasting spaces.
Photos by Michelle Shaffer unless otherwise noted.