Dirt Coffee Bar has all the trappings of your favorite coffee shop: a farmhouse-chic aesthetic; indoor and outdoor seating; a concise menu of coffee, non-coffee, and boozy drinks, plus breakfast burritos and more locally made nibbles. What sets this Littleton venue apart is what it’s doing behind the scenes. Dirt employs a neurodiverse staff—including both people who are considered neurotypical and those with autism or intellectual and/or developmental differences—and uses its coffee shop platform to raise awareness about the abysmally low employment rate for neurodivergent individuals.

“Eighty-one percent of adults with autism or intellectual or developmental disabilities are un- or underrepresented in the workforce,” says executive director Catharina Hughey. “We really want to create an opportunity for an integrative, competitive work experience and role model that for other businesses as well.”

Dirt is the retail arm of Roots Colorado, the nonprofit bringing that mission to life. Not only does the environmentally-focused coffee shop educate and employ neurodivergent individuals through its paid internship and inclusive workforce employer programs, but the team also consults with other businesses to improve their hiring practices. “We’re cultivating intentional workspaces for the neurodivergent workforce,” Hughey says. “It’s nice to expand beyond the representation that we’ve typically been given of who’s successful and who’s not successful in workplaces.”

Dirt was born from a meeting of parents who wanted to plan for the future of their children, all of whom have autism spectrum disorder; they crowd-funded a mobile coffee truck back in 2013 (which is still around and will be hitting the road again next summer after a pandemic pause) and opened the brick-and-mortar site in 2018. “Coffee is something that’s synonymous with bringing people together,” Hughey explains.

All of the shop’s java is responsibly sourced via Denver’s Huckleberry Roasters. Syrups for said coffee are mixed in-house to cut down on sugar. And other local businesses, including Black Box Bakery and Wave the Grain, provide the food.

Support Dirt’s efforts over the holidays by purchasing a gift basket filled with Dirt coffee, candles made by one of the baristas, and other surprises; each one includes tags that explain the shop’s mission.

Need another idea for a local present with a positive mission? Wagon Coffee (a Top of the Town winner this year) was founded last year to support women in recovery from alcohol and substance addiction. The local roastery just launched Sober Christmas, a dark roast.

Founder Tami Canaday says she wanted to make the company “measurable, impactful [so people know] how their money and purchase is making a difference.” Her husband, Ryan, a pastor, has been in recovery for nearly nine years, and they set out a few years ago to find a way to help other families and couples achieve what they had. Tami immediately thought of coffee, having spent more than a decade working in the industry. Plus, she notes, 90 percent of recovering addicts and alcoholics drink java.

Wagon Coffee
Photo courtesy of Wagon Coffee

The duo launched Free, a nonprofit community that Tami says is “for addicts and loved ones of addicts and spiritual refugees.” While Ryan ran recovery meetings in their backyard, Tami made and served coffee; people liked it enough that she began selling her roasts under the Colorado Cottage Foods Act. The thirst for both grew, so the organization moved into a larger space, and Tami officially launched Wagon Coffee in October 2020 with roasts sporting uplifting names like “Serenity” and “Resilience.”

Wagon now operates out of a 11,000-square-foot site in Denver, where Free also runs a variety of addiction-related meetings and has a trauma therapist on-site. “It’s where people in recovery can come and find a safe space,” Tami says.

Wagon Coffee employs women in recovery who are at least six months sober; they run and operate the zero-emission Bellwether Coffee Roaster and are able to attend meetings and connect with the community simultaneously. There are three women currently working part-time and a number of volunteers. Women, the CDC notes, are “more susceptible to the long-term negative health effects of alcohol compared with men.”

In the coming months, Tami plans to open Free Cafe, which will be fully operated by individuals in recovery. For now, you can buy the locally roasted beans online—from white roast to dark. A subscription service is available for businesses or individuals who want a more regular caffeine supply. In other words: a gift that keeps on giving.

Dirt Coffee Bar, 5767 S. Rapp St., Littleton, 303-635-6674

Daliah Singer
Daliah Singer
Daliah Singer is an award-winning writer and editor based in Denver. You can find more of her work at daliahsinger.com.