On a chilly Saturday morning in downtown Boulder, baristas wearing black polos and canvas aprons bustle around Bitty & Beau’s Coffee, heating up breakfast burritos and preparing lattes. Customers mill about, waiting to pick up their drinks or perusing the cinnamon rolls, muffins, and other tempting sweets in the glass display case by the cash register. The nutty aroma of espresso fills the air while snowflakes fall gently outside the big floor-to-ceiling windows.

The business has standard coffee shop vibes—but this is no ordinary caffeine stop. The self-proclaimed “radically inclusive” workplace is staffed primarily by people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The Boulder location, which opened in September just steps from the popular Pearl Street Mall, is one of 18 Bitty & Beau’s in 12 states. The franchise is growing, too, with five more slated to open by the end of 2024.

Founders Amy and Ben Wright opened the first Bitty & Beau’s in January 2016 in Wilmington, North Carolina—selfishly, says Ben, to give their children a place to work. Two of their four children—Ben Jr., nicknamed Beau, and Jane, nicknamed Bitty—were born with Down syndrome, which introduced the couple to what Ben describes as “the last great human rights movement in the world.” More than six million people in the United States have an intellectual disability, but many of them—nearly 80 percent—don’t have a job. “We said, ‘Oh my gosh, when Bitty and Beau get out of the public school system, what are they going to do?’ We saw so many people who really had nothing to do,” Ben says.

A Bitty & Beau's employee stands at the counter across from a customer.
The interior of Bitty & Beau’s Boulder location. Photo courtesy of Bitty & Beau’s

Bitty & Beau’s doesn’t ask prospective employees if they have a disability. But, whenever the company announces a new location, messages start pouring in to its social media accounts from people in the area who are looking for jobs. Nearly everyone works part-time, which means each location has a big staff of around 25 total employees, but even still the coffee shops can’t hire everyone who applies.

“This can be successful anywhere because the population is everywhere,” Ben says. “It doesn’t change from city to city. We don’t have to cherry-pick and do any research as far as, is there a population with disabilities in this community? There’s always enough people. For every one person we hire, there are probably 20 to 30 people behind them.”

To help employees thrive, the company has adopted an array of easy-to-use systems and procedures, such as automated specialty coffee makers from Switzerland that make preparing an espresso drink as simple as pressing a button. Another example is how staff members communicate with customers. After a customer orders, the employee working the register hands them a playing card. When their food or drinks are ready, the barista holds up a matching card and calls out, to the best of their ability, the suit and rank.

“Some of our employees don’t write very well and some can’t speak very well—some are non-verbal,” Ben says. “But all of our employees can hold up a card and some of them can call it out. When you go up to get your drink, it’s another moment of connection that’s very simple but very powerful.”

A Bitty & Beau's barista holds up a card.
A Bitty & Beau’s employee holding up a card. Photo courtesy of Bitty & Beau’s

The coffee shops themselves are also designed to promote interactions between guests and employees. All of the coffee-making equipment sits on the back bar to keep the customer-facing counter clear. “What we really focus on is who serves the coffee,” Ben says. “We’re all about heads-up activities instead of heads-down activities. You can get coffee anywhere—and how it tastes is subjective—but you can’t get coffee served by our employees everywhere, unfortunately. Not yet.”

To that end, Amy and Ben hope other businesses will see Bitty & Beau’s as a model and begin hiring people with disabilities, too, since they can’t open enough coffee shops to address all of the unmet need.

“The best thing that can happen is that when people leave our coffee shop, they start to ask themselves the question: What is my business excuse for not having at least one or two people with a disability on staff?” says Ben. “And the point isn’t to have a token hire or to check the [diversity, equity, and inclusion] box. The point is to make people with disabilities an integral and necessary part of your business culture. We’re sort of trying to say, we can run a coffee shop staffed with a majority of people with disabilities, but you can’t hire one or two people?”

More broadly, the Wrights want to help normalize disability within society, rather than hiding it away or ignoring it. They plan to do that by fostering more face-to-face connections between people with and without disabilities. That goal is painted on the black wall behind the counter at the Boulder location in large, bright white letters: “Changing the way people see other people.”

“We think people are inherently good, we think they want to connect with people with disabilities,” Ben says. “It’s just one of those things where you don’t know what to say, you don’t know what to do… You don’t need to feel sorry for people. They are who they are. Let’s embrace that and let’s figure out how to give them a meaningful place in society.”

1468 Pearl St., Suite 120, Boulder

Sarah Kuta
Sarah Kuta
Sarah Kuta is Colorado-based writer and editor. She writes about travel, lifestyle, food and beverage, fitness, education and anything with a great story behind it.