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- Photo by Sadie Thibodeaux
Love Coffee, Love INC’s new social enterprise, plans to open on the Business Loop later this month.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate among individuals with disabilities was 8% nationally in 2018, more than twice the rate for those without disabilities.
What can be done to help improve employment and independence among those with disabilities? One answer is social enterprise, a type of entrepreneurship that uses its business model to alleviate a societal problem. This is exactly what Love Coffee hopes to do.
The idea for a coffee shop that employs people with disabilities came to Chuck Crews more than two years ago. The Columbia philanthropist is best known for starting Tigers on the Prowl, an art auction to benefit local charities, as well as a cookie baking fundraiser at The Crossing church. He was spurred on to pursue his idea when he learned about the success of Bitty and Beau’s Coffee, a small chain of coffee shops on the East Coast that employs people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Since 2019, Chuck has served on the board of Love INC, a nonprofit that helps disadvantaged people get on their feet and make their way toward independence and self-reliability. Chuck took the coffee shop idea to Pat McMurry and Jane Williams, the co-founders of the organization, more than two years ago.
The idea wasn’t to make money as a coffee shop, but rather to create a gathering place for those with disabilities and others in the community. They spent 18 months trying to secure a location on Rangeline, but it never worked out. The current location, at 15 Business Loop 70 E., seems fortuitous — it happens to be right next door to the Love Seat, another enterprise of Love INC.
An Ideal Training Ground
“One of the things that makes a coffee shop appealing is that they’re great places to hang out. It’s a lot like a bar,” Chuck says. “There’s also a wide variety of jobs for a wide variety of abilities, and the social aspect of interacting with customers, bussing tables, and washing dishes is at the core of this, as well.”
Love My Job Training Center is the coffee shop’s 501(c)3, which officially formed in early 2019 and has raised about $90,000 to secure a location and to hire full-time food services manager, Micah Baker.
Micah, a native of Ithaca, New York, has been a professional baker for 18 years. He got his start in an iconic New York bakery, and for the past five years, he’s been the head pastry chef at The Broadway hotel. His wife, Stacey, is a Columbia native and MU graduate. Seven years ago, the couple moved to Columbia to be closer to her family.
“Stacey introduced me to Jane Williams, who then asked me if I was a baker, and when I said yes, she said we have to have you [for our new coffee shop]. When Jane explained the concept to me, I knew I had to be a part of this,” Micah says.
The 3,000-square-foot cafe will seat 30 to 40 people and will house overflow furniture from the Love Seat that is available for purchase. (The shop will also provide additional seating.) The hope is to employ 10 to 15 part-time staff members who will learn new skills while building their resumes and references for other jobs in the future.
“Baking is very repetitive — it doesn’t change, and it will hopefully be an easier skill to learn than something that is always changing,” Micah explains. “There’s a lot of stability and comfort for our employee base in doing the same thing over and over.” Micah says when he was hired for his first pastry chef job in New York, he didn’t have any experience and his employer took a chance on him. With Love Coffee, Micah hopes to pay that opportunity forward.
Bread of Life
Micah has been busy developing the menu, which will include breakfast and lunch. The coffee will be sourced by Kaldi’s, which will also provide the barista training. Micah hopes Kaldi’s will roast a special blend just for Love Coffee.
Micah catered the annual Linking for Love event this year, which benefits Love INC, and guests got a taste of the menu with Micah’s signature chicken salad on freshly made croissants. Because bread making is Micah’s core passion, Love Coffee will feature breads all made in-house.
There will also be an SSLT (smoked salmon with lettuce and tomato) on freshly made multi-grain bread, a mixed fresh veggie sandwich on chive and roasted garlic focaccia, freshly made cinnamon buns, stuffed fruit scones, cheese Danish, whole wheat waffles, fruit yogurt parfaits, fresh crepes, and two soups du jour. Everything will be made to order. Micah hopes to source food as locally as possible and operate as eco-friendly as they can.
Chuck also hopes the coffee shop will be able to offer community-building activities in the evenings, like karaoke, open mic nights, or crafting. Through coaching teams for Special Olympics, Chuck has met many individuals with disabilities who he says are very coachable and ideal for Love Coffee jobs. Two such Love Coffee hopefuls are Isaac Welch and Aaron Hudlow.
“A person who has disabilities is still a person,” says Isaac, 23, who is on the autism spectrum. “It’s hard for a guy like me — school was hard for me. I wasn’t like other kids.” Isaac has worked two other jobs before, and though they didn’t work out long-term, Isaac values the fact that “they gave me a chance.”
Aaron, 19, has an intellectual disability and also hopes to work at the coffee shop. “I’m most excited about learning new skills like baking and working with others who have disabilities [like me].”
“We need more patience than we get,” Chuck says about individuals with disabilities in the workforce. Love Coffee hopes to extend that patience and bolster a population that deserves to work and live independently. The shop’s goal is proudly in line with Love INC’s mission of “loving people forward.”
15 Business Loop 70 E.
Love Coffee opens doors and hearts for those who have intellectual or developmental disabilities that hinder their ability to find meaningful employment. We do this by providing job and life skills training in an atmosphere of love and compassion.
Board of Directors:
Pictured from left to right above: Café manager David Wilson, volunteer Ray Batt, board member Chuck Crews, staff member Aaron Hudlow, Love INC executive director Pat McMurry, and food service manager Micah Baker.