Bitty & Beau’s Coffee shocks Bethlehem: Accepting disabilities, changing the workforce

On Wednesdays at 12 p.m., Kyle Willans lingers at the coffee counter and chats with his colleagues. He is on leave but does not want to return his apron for the day.

Beside him patiently awaits Diane Willans, her mother and her return home.

“He’s finished his shifts,” Diane Willans said. “He’s been done since 11 a.m. (am), but we’re usually here for an extra hour because he just likes to talk with his friends.”

Kyle Willans is autistic. He is a beverage maker at Bitty & Beau’s, a cafe located at 74 W Broad St. in North Bethlehem. The franchise employs people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. All store employees have a disability, with the exception of supervisors and managers.

He has been working at the store since it opened in November 2021.

Kyle Willans talks with coworkers after his shift ends as he drinks a smoothie. Every store employee gets a free drink every day. (Sharon Jo/Team B&W)

“He’s really opened up and grown so much, and it’s been a wonderful experience,” Diane Willans said. “He’ll tell people all the time he meets, or in a restaurant sitting next to us, ‘Come to Bitty and Beau’s.'”

Founder Amy Wright launched the company with her husband in 2016 when she realized that her two youngest children, who have Down syndrome, could suffer the same fate as the 80% of people with disabilities in America who are currently at home. unemployment.

“We started thinking, ‘Is this the future we want for our children?’ No,” she said. “So let’s do something about it.”

The Wrights named the store after their children, Bitty and Beau. With no prior coffee or business experience, they opened their first store in Wilmington, North Carolina.

Bitty & Beau’s now has 23 locations in 13 states.

Bitty and Beau’s sell merchandise in their stores. They have shirts, mugs, and their own in-store coffee beans for sale. (Sharon Jo/Team B&W)

At a time when many companies are struggling to recruit and retain employees, Bitty & Beau’s is proving to be an exception.

Co-owner Kathi Eichman said the Bethlehem franchise received 90 registrants at its June 2021 job fair.

The wider Bethlehem business community has taken notice of Bitty & Beau’s distinctive hiring practices.

Eichman said the Downtown Bethlehem Association’s restaurant subcommittee invited Bitty & Beau’s to present at one of their meetings. The meeting focused on ways to connect and engage people with disabilities in their hiring strategies.

“We were able to help them connect with the community on how to tap into this viable, eager and underutilized part of the workforce,” Eichman said in an email.

Supervisor Creeden Kuritz said 10 months after opening, people are still coming to inquire about potential job openings.

The flood of employee interest in the Bethlehem franchise comes as no surprise to Wright.

“People with disabilities want meaningful jobs, so when given the opportunity, they cherish that job, and they are loyal and hardworking,” she said. “Attrition is close to zero.”

Employee Sean Maehrer dances along with his colleague’s performance. Bitty and Beau’s employees often sing and dance on excursions to the store. (Sharon Jo/Team B&W)

Kuritz said she had no experience working alongside people with disabilities until she joined Bitty & Beau’s. She now feels lucky to be part of the team.

“Honestly, I feel like I’m not even working,” Kurtiz said. “They all adapted to their work so quickly, it amazes me.”

Wright said the store helps its employees adjust to various roles as a cashier, beverage maker or a la carte caller.

For example, after customers order, they receive a playing card from the cashier. The drink maker creates the order and hands it to the card caller, who announces the card number and color to indicate when a drink is ready.

Wright said the card-calling technique sets employees up for success and prevents misspellings of customer names on mugs.

Emily Quist recently received a promotion from card caller to full-time cashier.

Quist said his favorite part of his role was interacting with customers.

“I love seeing all the people come in,” she said. “I love their smiles. I love when they bring their kids here. I love it.”

Kuritz also enjoys greeting customers, especially when it’s their first time entering the store.

“We can give them our pitch and then they’re like, ‘Oh, that’s so cool,'” she said. “I love seeing their reactions and their faces because I don’t know anything like it anywhere else in Pennsylvania.”

In addition to newcomers to the store, many local student groups and organizations come to Bitty & Beau’s for field trips.

Wright said she expects these visits to inspire students with disabilities to imagine a future for themselves. For others, she hopes to familiarize people with a workforce where employees with disabilities are represented.

During these field trips, it is common for Bitty & Beau’s employees to host dance parties and karaoke.

Employee Caitlin Polek sings karaoke on “We’re All In This Together.” She said her favorite movie is “High School Musical”. (Sharon Jo/Team BW)

Diane Willans said while her son doesn’t usually dance in public, at Bitty & Beau’s it’s part of his routine.

“He would never normally get up to dance,” she said. “It’s all the time here.”

Diana Willans said his son also did custodial work at a nearby church, where he was usually alone with limited human interaction.

She said the social element of her extra job at Bitty & Beau’s gave her a greater sense of community.

“Since he arrived here, he will take any open shift,” she said. “He’s really opened up socially and just feels comfortable.”

Wright said she wants more companies to realize the positive impact hiring employees with disabilities can have and hopes Bethlehem takes notice.

“There are companies all over America right now that just need to think about their next hire a little differently,” Wright said. “I say, ‘Just give them a chance. You know, you will be really pleasantly surprised.

Bitty & Beau’s slogan is “It’s more than a cup of coffee”. Diane Willans finds the appropriate slogan.

“I just got here and I don’t want to go home,” she said. “I’m like Kyle.”

Michael A. Bynum