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Empowered Coffee Only Hires Intellectually Disabled Employees

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One local coffee shop is serving up employment opportunities for intellectually disabled individuals in Austin.

By Emily Benson, Photos courtesy of Empowered Coffee

Located in the heart of Austin, Empowered Coffee has found early success thanks to a special group: its staff. With a team comprised of intellectually disabled individuals, Empowered Coffee is backed by unwavering support from the local community. It’s a model that has enabled this quaint coffee shop to flourish since its opening in March.

Prior to opening Empowered Coffee, Kim Davis founded RunLab Austin, a training and educational facility catered toward runners of every background, size and experience level. Davis works with a wide array of individuals, including professional athletes, recreational runners and those with special needs, to help improve and encourage physical fitness in the community.

“We worked with a girl who has Down syndrome and helped her train for the Austin Half Marathon,” Davis says. “Her name is Kayleigh Williamson and she was the impetus for starting a group called Kayleigh’s Club, which was a group for people with special needs who wanted to work on their physical fitness and run alongside typical runners.”

Davis and her team wanted to continue working with the special-needs community and create a for-profit business through which disabled individuals could have meaningful employment. From this vision, Empowered Coffee was born.

This unconventional coffee shop exclusively hires those who are intellectually or developmentally disabled and pays employees higher wages than most coffee shops in town. The warmth emanating from the staff has created a loyal fan base of supporters who routinely visit to catch up with their favorite baristas.

Haley McDaniel, an easygoing 22-year-old with a knack for baking, has garnered quite a group of devoted weekend regulars. When she’s not at work, McDaniel follows Davis’ core principles, making sure to prioritize fitness and her physical health. This summer, she will compete in tennis and powerlifting events at the Special Olympics.

While Empowered Coffee employees build a connection with the community, they also acquire valuable life skills.

“They’re learning accounting, customer service, quality control, ordering supplies, appropriately managing the stock—aside from also knowing how to make coffee,” Davis explains proudly. “We’re starting [to sell]gift baskets online. They’re now learning e-commerce. Really, they do all of it!”

When asked about the greatest challenge the coffee shop faces, Davis notes the gap between the viral attention Empowered Coffee has received online and people actually making it into the shop.

“In the short amount of time that we’ve been open, we’ve had support from the community on social media,” Davis shares, “but at the end of the day, that doesn’t translate to revenue to support the business. There is a disconnect from people following us virtually and actually coming into our shop and buying coffee from our kids.”

Despite an informative online video that now has more than a million hits, Empowered Coffee is still establishing its reputation in Austin. However, Davis anticipates the notoriously socially conscious Austin community will turn out in increased numbers as word spreads.

The spectacle of Empowered Coffee on social media has piqued the interest of many Austin residents, and those who decide to meander into the shop on a crisp morning are often pleasantly surprised by the friendliness of the staff.

“People who haven’t been exposed to special-needs [individuals] will come in and say, ‘This is amazing. I had a great cup of coffee served by somebody who was happy to see me and remembered my name when I came in,’ ” Davis says. “That’s not something that happens [at other coffee shops]on a day-to-day basis.”

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