Lindsay Wrege didn’t even drink coffee when she opened a coffee shop with fellow N.C. State University student Michael Evans her freshman year in 2017.
Technically, the “shop” was a folding table they’d rented from the student union. The coffee — which was “sold” to students for free — was brewed in a coffee maker bought from Target.
But it was a start, and coffee was a viable product for Wrege’s ultimate vision: a store that employed individuals with disabilities.
Growing up, many of Wrege’s closest friends at Green Hope Elementary in Cary had disabilities. By the time Wrege was inching toward high school graduation, she began to see a difference in her life trajectory and her friends.
“I got to think about college, and I got to tour N.C. State and I got to think about studying abroad, and do you want a summer internship and all of these next potential steps,” Wrege, 24, says. “But for my friends that had disabilities, that was not their reality.”
One of her friends with a disability had a job in high school. When Wrege offered her kudos, the friend’s response proved memorable: “Thanks, but all they let me do is clean bathrooms.”
The comment showed Wrege that “not only is it really hard for people with disabilities to get jobs, but the jobs that they were sometimes getting weren’t meaningful.”
That was an impetus for what became 321 Coffee, which now has four Triangle locations and more than 60 employees, most of whom have disabilities. The name represents the third copy of the 21st chromosome of individuals with Down syndrome.
Wrege began studying at N.C. State as a pre-med student. But as the folding table pop-up shop began building traction with the help of Wolfpack alumni, professors and fellowship programs, she began to envision a different future.
“I want to turn this into something, and I want this to be where I really focus my time and attention,” she recalls thinking.
Now, 321 has two more locations on the way — and a 321 storefront that will open on N.C. State’s Centennial Campus early next year marks a full circle for Wrege, Evans and the brand. 321 also has business-to-business partnerships, including a café at Pendo’s Raleigh office.
“I’m just so impressed by how many steps our team has taken and how we have navigated growth,” Wrege says. “We’re still not yet at the scale of Starbucks or Port City Java, but we’re not in the dorm rooms anymore.”
The company started as a nonprofit but re-launched as a for-profit company in 2021, raising $350,000 from friends and family.
Wrege wants 321 to succeed not just as a business, but by showing off the capabilities of employees with disabilities. In 2022, the unemployment rate for persons with a disability was about twice as high as the rate for persons without a disability nationally, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the employment rate for individuals with a disability that year was 21%, versus 19% in 2021.
Coffee is central to 321’s mission because the industry is based around community and conversation. “You never know who’s going to walk in that is a hiring manager at another food or beverage concept or retail space or really any industry,” Wrege says. “I want people to understand why it matters that we employ people with disabilities.”
She also wants people to understand the importance of supply chains and strong ethics, too, and why a cup of coffee might be priced at $3, $4 or even $5.
“Yes, you can get a cup of coffee that’s $1 or $2 some places,” Wrege says. “There’s reasons for [321 Coffee products] being more expensive — part of it is quality, but another part of it is making sure that people throughout your supply chain are paid a strong and fair livable wage.”
Recruiting, training and performance evaluation at 321 also emphasize accessibility, Wrege says. The team has designed job applications to make sure no one feels ineligible for a certain role.
“A lot of times job descriptions ask for a certain number of years of industry experience,” she says. “Is that really necessary? For us, it’s not — I want someone who wants to learn and wants to grow.”
321 Coffee asks applicants about their preferred method of communication, which recognizes that traditional verbal interviews may not work for everyone.
The team also knows that not all employees learn the same way. They created training videos on how to brew espresso, for example, which enables employees to learn at home without distractions. “We want to set our people up to be successful,” Wrege says.
Other businesses can become more mission-driven, she says, by considering team representation, embracing supplier diversity and making decisions that impact social good.
“Individuals want to be part of a team that matters, and they want to work for a company that isn’t just out here to print money,” Wrege says. “So I think it’s time now for companies — if they want to have top talent — to do right by their people and also show that they are taking care of the world.”
That’s something consumers also look for when choosing where to spend their money, says Ken Bernhardt, who taught marketing at Georgia State University for more than 20 years. The internet and social media have made it easier for consumers to understand how businesses treat their employees, communities and the environment. That’s particularly true for younger consumers who are “forming their buying loyalties” and “taking this kind of information into account,” says Bernhardt.
Wrege has seen that at 321. “So much of our growth and success is credited to the fact that we are mission-driven because it resonates with people, and it brings people together and it makes people want to help.” ■