BY HANNAH LESTER
FOR LIVE LEE MAGAZINE
In the last six years, Bitty and Beau’s has grown from a singular coffee shop to a chain across the United States. And now, it is open in Auburn.
“[Bitty and Beau’s] employs people with intellectual and developmental disabilities,” said Amy Wright, who started the coffee shop chain with her husband, Ben Wright. “The inspiration behind the coffee shops came from our two youngest children, Bitty & Beau, who have Down syndrome.
“As we started thinking forward about our children’s futures, we were just astonished to learn that 80% of people with disabilities are unemployed in our country. And so, we wanted to be part of the solution.”
Bitty and Beau’s first shop opened in 2016 in Wilmington, North Carolina. “When we opened our first shop, we started welcoming people from all over the country to see what was going on in this little coffee shop in Wilmington and realized very quickly that we had captured people’s attention and people started saying to us, ‘we need this in our town,’” Amy said. “‘Please bring this to our community.’” Over the next five years, they opened two more in Wilmington and opened shops in Charleston, South Carolina; Savannah, Georgia; Annapolis, Maryland.
In 2021, Ben and Amy began franchising the business; Auburn is the seventh franchise and the 13th shop in total.
Part of the benefit of franchising is teaching others how to bring this to their own communities, Amy said.
“Franchising is a whole new world,” she said. “It’s a very highly-regulated industry. So just learning how to teach, and operate within the parameters of a franchise agreement is a little bit different. Ben and I have personally vetted every family that we have selected to be franchisees and feel that it’s really important to identify people who get our mission and who are excited about that and align with us on many different levels.”
Bitty and Beau’s Coffee employs over 350 people with disabilities including Down syndrome, autism and cerebral palsy across all of their shops as well as a “typically-developing support staff”.
“We can’t open enough coffee shops to absorb this unemployment epidemic that exists in our country but what we hope we do every time we open a new shop is create a portal for every guest to come into and see what’s possible so that they go back to their place of business and consider hiring someone with a disability,” Amy said. “The most rewarding part is just those ‘a-ha!’ moments when guests come in and see someone with Down syndrome or autism being really successful at their job and maybe they go back to their place of work and hire someone with a disability as well.”
When franchise owners are learning the process of opening a Bitty and Beau’s, Amy said that she and Ben are very involved with support.
“Our kids’ names are on the sign,” she said. “So protecting the brand’s reputation and making sure that everything is done correctly, and with great success is our number one priority.”
Speaking of their children, Beau just turned 18 and Bitty will be 13 soon.
“[When] we started the shop, it wasn’t so they could plug in and have a job right away,” she said. “It was to help create a community that valued people with disabilities so that someday, in the future, the opportunities would be there for them.” While they don’t work at the shop yet, “They feel very proud of it and I think it’s very much a part of their identity,” she said.
For the employees that they do have, Amy said that she and Ben are mindful of other needs, outside of just employment, such as transportation, furthering their education and becoming independent.
“It just kind of comes with the territory,” Amy said. “We care deeply about our employees and it’s definitely more than a job. It’s a lot of support in the shop and in life.”
The Auburn franchise owners contacted Amy and Ben, Amy said, and expressed they wanted a Bitty and Beau’s in The Loveliest Village on the Plains.
“We have worked with them from day one to help find a perfect spot, and find the perfect employees, and upfit the shop and be ready for this opening day that’s coming here soon,” she said.
The shop’s Grand Opening and Ribbon Cutting was held last weekend on Aug. 20.
“It is so much more than a cup of coffee,” she said. “You will be warmly greeted when you walk in, we always say ‘welcome to Bitty and Beau’s.’ There are lots of high fives. We have spontaneous dance parties and conga lines. There’s an interactive map feature in the shop where people can place a pin on the map and say where they come from. We’ve got delicious drinks and baked goods. But, I think, above all else, it’s the customer service, it’s our employees that will just make everybody’s day brighter.
“It’s a very positive, welcoming atmosphere. People love the customer experience. So, we’re looking forward to meeting everyone in Auburn and sharing that with them.”