It’s been a year since swarms of people waited in line at A Special Blend coffee shop on opening day. The non profit is located on West Market Street in Greensboro and staffed by employees with intellectual and developmental disabilities. But what’s most special about the coffee shop, according to owner Deedee Ungetheim, is how impactful it has been not only for customers, but for her staff, too.

An employee at A Special Blend stands behind the counter ready to take coffee orders.

The idea for A Special Blend came from Ungetheim’s experience stopping in at Bitty and Beau’s coffee shop in Wilmington. When Ungetheim saw Bitty and Beau’s business model, she realized just how many opportunities for connection and community were possible for adults who are differently abled.

Emily Merrit interacts with a customer and takes their order.

“I was starting to realize how few choices there were for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities,” Ungetheim said. “I was finding out things like 80% of adults with disability are unemployed and I’m like, ‘Oh my goodness it’s no way for people to live.’”

In North Carolina alone, 664,961 adults between the ages of 20 and 60 years-old were registered with a disability in 2018. And of that number, 39% were participating in the labor force. Nationally, however, 20% of people registered with disability are participating in the labor force.

As a parent of a child with an intellectual developmental disability, Ungetheim said that people aren’t unkind, but instead rather awkward when interacting with people who have disabilities. When Ungetheim saw how Bitty and Beau’s was fostering better relationships between community members, she became obsessed with the idea of opening a similar shop in Greensboro.

“What captured my attention more than anything was this lovely interaction between the customers and the employees,” Ungetheim said. “This sense of getting to know one another, breaking down walls.”

After her trip to Bitty and Beau’s in Wilmington, Ungetheim said she began figuring out how much it would cost to open her own store. To have A Special Blend properly fitted with equipment and furniture, it was going to cost upwards of $300,000. Raising this money, however, was not a problem because the community in Greensboro was in full support of A Special Blend. In just 15 months, the money was raised from donations and Ungetheim was ready to begin opening the store.

Shirts for sale at A Special Blend in Greensboro, N.C.

Ungetheim remembers many special moments as the store was opening, like when the sign was officially put up or on opening day when 1,200 people circled the store for nine hours straight. Ungetheim said that experience, watching the lines move, was just thrilling.

Ungetheim said that with so many new shops opening up around the state, like in Cary, Greenville and Raleigh as well as the nine already operational, she believes the business model and idea has “really taken root.” Ungetheim said she gets calls from all over the county asking for advice on how to build their business models to incorporate employees who have disabilities. Because of the national interest, she wants to develop a seminar series to share among the network of shops what has worked, what hasn’t and how to be as successful as possible.

“We did not know what we were doing when we started this. We just kind of jumped into the deep water and didn’t know how deep it was and have figured it out.”
— Deedee Ungetheim, A Special Blend

Looking ahead to the future, Ungetheim said she is considering opening either opening a second store potentially in High Point or Burlington, or even a mobile coffee truck. She wants to do more and be able to create an employment network where employees can grow and progress to different jobs.

But it’s not just coffee shops in North Carolina that are providing more opportunities for people with disabilities. There are other networks and organizations that help integrate those with special needs into the greater community to help them get situated in the working world.

According to their website, OE Enterprises has been functioning in North Carolina for over 30 years to help provide individuals with disabilities opportunities through community-based work experiences, in-house contract work, volunteer work serving the community, and community integration. Their services include evaluation, work adjustment, job placement, job coaching, long-term employment supports, career counseling, transitioning from school to work, retirement and sheltered employment.

Senior community employment team leader at OE Enterprises Tommy Hill knows this process well as he has been working with OE Enterprises to help community members with disabilities find work for over 15 years. Over time, Hill has seen a rise in organizations and businesses offering employment to people with disability in North Carolina. Right now, Hill said, coffee shops like A Special Blend are trending across the state. Hill says that this could be because people have seen how similar businesses have succeeded in the past and hope to do the same.

“The thing that I would like for everybody to know is everyone is capable,” Hill said. “Depending on what their disability is, whether it’s minor or major disability, they, everyone can do something that could be beneficial to most companies.”