321 Coffee Builds Community

Check out the coffee shop at the
State Farmers Market, where the service
is provided by volunteers who have disabilities.

Text and photography by Mick Schulte

lindsay wrege’s youngest sister, sydney, with 321 coffee employee matthew schwab

lindsay wrege’s youngest sister, sydney, with 321 coffee employee matthew schwab

Childhood friends can play a major role in a person’s life, and this couldn’t be more true for Lindsay Wrege, founder of 321 Coffee at the North Carolina State Farmers Market. When Emma Wissink, a girl with Down syndrome, moved to Cary in the fourth grade they were assigned a group project at school. “From the beginning of working together, Lindsay found out that Emma has a ton of valuable skills,” says Dallas Wrege, Lindsay’s father. Beyond the successful school project they created, the two girls developed a close friendship that endures to this day.

That friendship, and the many that followed with other individuals with IDD (intellectual or developmental disabilities), inspired Wrege to pursue a dream of opening her nonprofit coffee shop. She chose the name 321 Coffee to symbolize the third copy of chromosome 21 in Trisomy 21, the most common form of Down syndrome. 

The 321 Coffee shop is fully staffed by volunteers who have a variety of disabilities, including those with Down syndrome, autism, spina bifida, epilepsy, and DiGeorge syndrome. “We have an emphasis on providing meaningful work and integrating [the employees into] all aspects of the organization,” Wrege says. “The staff who have IDD really do it all, and it’s incredible to watch.” 

As a volunteer for various special needs programs while she was growing up, Wrege wondered what came next for her friends. “I was always impressed with the recreational oppor-tunities for my friends with IDD, but I noticed a lack of professional opportunities. Only 20 percent of adults with disabilities are employed, and the places that hire them usually have them doing very nominal work like cleaning bathrooms or floors—nothing very meaningful or challenging,” Wrege explains. 

She encountered better opportunities for individuals with IDD when she visited Wilmington’s Bitty & Beau’s restaurant, which has a similar concept as 321 Coffee. The restaurant’s founder, Amy Wright, won the CNN Hero of the Year award in 2017 for her work with the IDD population, and they’ve now expanded with shops in Charleston and Savannah. 

“When I saw Bitty & Beau’s, I was so inspired. The staff of individuals with IDD are doing meaningful work, and it offers a place for the community to come and interact with people with disabilities,” Wrege says. 

321 coffee founder lindsay wrege with sister kailey

321 coffee founder lindsay wrege with sister kailey

Thanks to the Bitty & Beau’s example, Wrege had a clear vision in mind. In 2017, during her freshman year of college, she told family and friends her plans, and everyone was eager to help. Nick Wirtz, chief operating officer, and Michael Evans, chief financial officer, have been instrumental from the beginning. “They are both NC State students and commit a tremendous amount of time and energy to 321 Coffee,” Wrege notes. 

They started by doing pop-up events on the NC State campus and around Raleigh, and word spread fast. “Someone would see us at an event and say: ‘Oh my gosh, I have a daughter, or neighbor, or special ed teacher that would love to get involved.’” Wrege continues. “We’ve grown significantly in a short amount of time thanks to everyone’s support.” Gigi’s Playhouse in Raleigh—a Down syndrome advocacy group—has been a major proponent from the beginning.

It’s where 321 Coffee found their original group of adult volunteers. Michelle Pfeiffer, the outreach coordinator at Gigi’s Playhouse, has a 17-year-old daughter with Down syn-drome who volunteers at 321 Coffee. “My daughter is learning so many valuable skills there. She greets people, works as a barista, and checks people out with the iPad,” Pfeiffer says. “And every time she works she gets better at each of these different tasks.” Pfieffer appreciates Wrege’s focus on providing meaningful work for her daughter. “This experience will help her gain confidence for whatever job she chooses later in life. Because that’s what we all hope for our children, both those with IDD and those who are typically developing—that they would be productive members of society and able to earn a living,” Pfeiffer adds. 

After starting with a small group from Gigi’s Playhouse three years ago, over 40 individuals with IDD have volunteered, including 21-year-old Matthew Schwab. “I enjoy having an opportunity to serve our community through coffee. My favorite part is interacting with customers and working the cash register,” Schwab says. 

The transition from pop-up events to the State Farmers Market proved to be a growth opportunity as well for 321 Coffee. “Once we were able to move indoors it started to feel like a real coffee shop experience. We sell baked goods, merchandise, and things like iced coffees,” Wrege says, adding that with the consistency of operations at the market, “we’re able to take steps toward having our volunteer IDD staff become paid employees.” 

And just like in the fourth grade, Wissink’s friendship will keep providing inspiration and help to Wrege as 321 Coffee grows. “When I found Lindsay, she helped me have more confidence. I was shy toward people, but now I’m not. So when she asked me to come work with her, I said yes,” recalls Wissink, a regular volunteer at 321 Coffee.

The influence seems to go both ways with the two childhood friends. Wissink also hopes to empower others with IDD through her work at the shop: “My dream at 321 Coffee is to promote awareness and tell other people like me that they are not alone and they can do anything.”