How Disability Inclusion Has Built the 321 Coffee Community

Lindsay Wrege is the founder of 321 Coffee, a non-profit coffee shop staffed by individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.  By employing and empowering baristas and roasters with autism, Down Syndrome, and other developmental challenges, Lindsay has created a unique and powerful community at 321.  Along with Sophie Pacyna, one of the roasters, Lindsay talks about their mission and why all employers should consider disability inclusion.


Jackie Ferguson: Welcome, Lindsay Wrege and Sophie Pacyna to our podcast today. Lindsay is a speaker and entrepreneur starting her company, 321 Coffee in her college dorm room. Sophie is a Barista and Roaster at 321 Coffee. Thank you both for joining me today. Lindsay, can you tell us about 321 Coffee?

Lindsay Wrege: Yeah, absolutely. Jackie, first of all, thank you so much for having both of us. I’m excited to tell you more about what we do with 321. So, 321 Coffee is a coffee shop and roaster that’s really centered around diversity and inclusion.

So we pride ourselves on being an inclusive employer and we have great staff with varying levels of intellectual and developmental abilities. And so, one of the coolest things that I see about 321 is just, we have a very diverse team and we’ve got people with diverse skill sets and values, and just what we’re able to create when all these people come together and work together.

Jackie Ferguson: Awesome. And Sophie, anything you’d like to add about working at 321 Coffee?

Sophie Pacyna: Working at 321 is kind of fun and working with friends and my bosses is kind of fun too.

Jackie Ferguson: That’s awesome. And then Lindsay, your background is not in hospitality. Tell us a little about what made you want to start this business.

Lindsay Wrege: Yeah, so I grew up very involved in the special needs community. So from a young age, I was in an inclusive classroom and I really saw what people we’re capable of without some of those societal limits or boundaries. And so when I was in third grade actually, and I switched schools and it was in the new classroom, and the first people I became friends with were some girls that each had a different disability. And so, from being young and being friends with these girls,  intellectual and developmental disability, that didn’t mean anything to me. You know, they were just my friends, and they were people, and we did fun things together.

And I mean, third grade thing. So it was playing together at recess and it was loving the color purple, you know, whatever it was. But like I said, they were people and I saw them for who they were and not for any limit that was put on them. And I think that that innate, inclusive behavior is something that is really powerful.

And I think we all come from that place. And I’m really glad to have continued that and bring that to a place like 321 Coffee. So yes, I had this experience growing up at a young age and we grew up together. We stayed friends. Those three girls are still in my life today I’m glad to say. They actually all now work at 321 Coffee.

But really what happened as we grew older was I had all this great exposure to what people were capable of. You know, I saw Paraplegic Surf. A couple of weeks ago, you know, there was the  first person with down syndrome to complete an Iron Man. Like, just these incredible things that these people are capable of.

And when we grew older and I approached high school graduation, I saw the lack of professional opportunities that people with disabilities have for them. I had a friend and she had been working at Food Lion for four years and I was just so proud that she had had that job and she had kept it and she, you know, I was thrilled.

And so I said to her, I was like, ” I’m really proud of you for this job.” And she said, “Lindsay, all I do is clean bathrooms.” And it was just this terrible, sinking moment and realization that these people do not always get opportunities like they should. And so that was really the inspiration behind wanting to start something like 321 Coffee.

Jackie Ferguson:  Lindsay, that’s so important. You know, I’m doing a course with a company called “Abler” on disability inclusion. And what I’ve discovered through the studies is that. Less than 27% of people with disabilities have jobs. And it’s terrible because there’s so much to be gained through innovation and opportunity to retain, it’s unfortunate that more people and more organizations aren’t prioritizing disability inclusion. So I’m so glad to have this conversation with the both of you today. Sophie, what do you do at 321 Coffee?

Sophie Pacyna: Well, I’m a Barista and a Roaster at 321 Coffee. I am roasting the beans and I’m packing the beans too.

Jackie Ferguson: And what part do you enjoy the most?

Sophie Pacyna: I think I enjoy the most is roasting and packing the beans.

Jackie Ferguson: That’s awesome. Thank you for sharing that. And 321 Coffee is an interesting name. How did you come up with that Lindsey?

Lindsay Wrege:  Yeah. So the 321represents down syndrome, which is the third copy of the 21st chromosome. And so, that was a fun namesake to just keep at the forefront of our business. It’s not that we solely work with people with down syndrome, but it’s a big part of who we are. And, the story behind that was, so, we started this company my freshman year in college and it was a few of us together, there was a big passion behind it, there was enthusiasm behind what we could do to get this off the ground. And we said, “We need to come up with a name. What’s it going to be?” And someone said, “Down syndrome, 321, how about 321 Coffee?” And it was like, perfect, done, moving on.

And by luck. You know, the trademark was available, the URL was available, the social media handles were available, and it stuck with us ever since.

Jackie Ferguson: That’s awesome. All right, let’s move on to a new question. How has COVID affected your business?

Lindsay Wrege: Yeah. So when COVID first came to the area in full swing, back in March, like most businesses, we shut things down. A lot of our staff is in that immunocompromised group. And so just to keep our staff safe, the community safe, we shut everything down, which was, it was sad. You know, a lot of what we pride ourselves on 321is community and the community that we have as a company and the community that we were growing in Raleigh and with customers.

And so, it was definitely a bummer to shut things down. Luckily though , we found new ways to stay together, we received a lot of support from the community to keep everyone on payroll while we were closed, we did a lot of fun things as a community and as a staff together during the closure.

So we had zoom calls throughout where we would just catch up, we’d play games, we would write thank you notes to the nurses and the hospital staff. And so it was great to just really maintain that connection with each other. Another really big way that COVID has impacted us was last year, we were planning on opening our second location, which was going to be like a very traditional brick and mortar coffee shop in downtown Raleigh.

And so we were at the phases of like, negotiating a lease agreement when COVID came and really disrupted the retail industry. And so, that sort of turned all of our plans upside down and put us in an opportunity to pivot, and to just think about what do we want to do with our business now? And luckily, we found a new way to grow despite the pandemic and the craziness. So we have begun roasting our own coffee, which Sophie, like she mentioned to you, she is one of our roasters that we were able to hire. So, we thought this would be a really new way to make a product and be able to ship it to people so that they wouldn’t have to come into the shop to get it.

And it was sort of this whole new ball game that we’d never played before of roasting coffee, and so it was like, all right, well, how are we going to do this? What do we, how do we roast,  how do we teach our staff how to roast? And it’s been awesome and they’re so good at it. Sophie in particular, she kills it. And it’s been such a great learning experience for us as a company on new job opportunities we can have internally that our staff is able to fit and to fill. It’s a different type of job than being a Barista.

So it’s working with different strengths, different skillsets, which I think is a great part of just having a diverse team, but then more over, it’s allowed us to partner with companies in a new way and really get into the diverse supply chain. So, ultimately it was a scary thing when COVID hit just like any business owner. But luckily, we’ve been able to find ways to, to grow.

Jackie Ferguson: That’s so awesome, Lindsay, and one of the things that I think about when I think of supplier diversity, you know, organizations often think about purchase orders or invoices when they think about supplier diversity. They don’t think about the human aspect of supplier diversity. And I just love this part of the conversation where people can recognize and organizations can recognize that supplier diversity has to do with providing opportunities for a whole new group of people. People that are traditionally underserved in our communities, that don’t necessarily have the same economic opportunities. And it allows them to get levels set and provide some equity there. So that’s so important. So important. Thanks for sharing that.

Lindsay Wrege: Oh, absolutely. I completely agree with what you have to say. I think, you know, there’s all sorts of quotes around just voting with your dollars, you know? And if you’re going to, if your organization’s going to buy coffee or buy single-use cups for the office, you have an opportunity there.

Are you going to buy the compostable product from a minority-run organization or are you going to buy the cheapest stuff that’s going to come from overseas and God forbid, employ child labor. You know? It’s, it’s these choices that company has to make and with these choices come an opportunity for real impact.

And I think that’s been the coolest thing for me to see as these companies that are really taking actionable steps towards, you know, they want to promote diversity and inclusion and here’s a great way to do that.

Jackie Ferguson: Absolutely. Absolutely. So let’s talk a little more about 321 Coffee. Can you tell me a little about where you are? What kinds of coffee you’re producing and roasting and tell us a little more about some of the staff there.

Lindsay Wrege: Yeah. So Sophie, do you want to help me with this one? Where are we currently located?

Sophie Pacyna: The farmer’s market in the market shops.

Lindsay Wrege: Awesome. And how many, what days are we open?

Sophie Pacyna: Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

Lindsay Wrege: Nice and Sophie more so than myself is a pro on our coffee because she’s one of the roasters. So Sophie, the coffee that we have, what countries does it come from?

Sophie Pacyna: Colombian and Guatemalan.

Lindsay Wrege: Awesome. And, so a little fun fact about our coffee is that it is a blend of like Sophie said, Colombia and Guatemala, and it’s a special blend. Sophie, do you remember the ratio that we blend it at?

Sophie Pacyna: 50/50?

Lindsay Wrege: 60/40.

Sophie Pacyna: Yeah.

Lindsay Wrege: Close.

Jackie Ferguson: So Sophie, tell me, do you like coffee?

Sophie Pacyna: Yes. I love coffee.

Jackie Ferguson: How do you like your coffee?

Sophie Pacyna:  I love it in so many ways. I love it hot coffee, even in cold coffee.

Jackie Ferguson: Oh, wow. And do you like cream and sugar in your coffee?

Sophie Pacyna: Yes, sometimes I think I like milk more than sugar.

Jackie Ferguson: Uh huh, me too.

Lindsay Wrege: Soph, what’s your favorite thing to get at 321?

Sophie Pacyna: I think my favorite thing to get is that clean, ice latte.

Jackie Ferguson: Ooh, that sounds great. Now, Lindsay, I understand that until you started 321. You never drank coffee. Is that right?

Lindsay Wrege: Yeah. I still don’t really.

Jackie Ferguson: Do you have a drink of choice? If not coffee, do you like the–

Lindsay Wrege: Yes, all right, we try and keep like a fun seasonal item on our menu and our fall item is Apple Cider. And we get it from one of the vendors at the farmer’s market from, they’re called Whitfield Farms. And it is absolutely delicious and we heat it up and mix in some really good like spices, cinnamon, and yeah. Whenever Apple Cider comes onto the menu, I’m super excited.

Jackie Ferguson: That’s awesome. I also love Apple Cider. So 321 Coffee is located at the farmer’s market in Raleigh, North Carolina. So for our viewers, and our listeners rather, that are in our media area, just want to make that clear as to where 321 Coffee is. So, why do you think organizations are hesitant about employing people with disabilities?

Lindsay Wrege: Yeah, I think that unfortunately there is, I don’t know if stigma is the right word? But people see differences as scary or unknown? As opposed to interesting. And I think that that’s a big societal mindset that I’m hoping 321 Coffee can be a part of changing. And so for a lot of people, if they didn’t have, or don’t have a personal connection to someone with a disability, they just may not know about that whole community, you know, they don’t know how to interact with someone.

If they see someone who’s non-verbal, they don’t know how to have that conversation, which is understandable. But I think that something that I’m excited for 321to  be a player in, is showing that yes, there are differences, but that doesn’t divide us. And there’s so much value in these conversations and these relationships. And I love to see the perspective and the mindsets changing from customers that come to 321. Especially because if you walk by our shop, you know, the name 321 Coffee, doesn’t scream anything about disability.

You know, so a lot of times people come in because they see the word “coffee” and they’re like, “Oh great. I just want a cup of coffee.” And now all of a sudden, someone’s in front of them with autism taking their order and they see somebody with spina bifida steaming the milk on their latte. And they’ve got someone with down syndrome chatting with them as they wait for their drink. And it’s just this whole diverse team and exposure. And I mean, really just recognizing that these people are people and they want to talk with you and ask you about your day. And they want to tell you about their favorite drink to have at 321 Coffee and then they’re going to hope that you come back to see him again next week. And I think like, that experience is applicable in so many different forms of diversity and people who are different than you.

And I think that the more opportunities people have to interact with people who aren’t like them. I mean, I just think that that’s where the true value for societal  progress lies.

Jackie Ferguson: Absolutely. Sophie, what do you wish everyone knew about people with disabilities? What do you wish you could tell people about people with disabilities?

Sophie Pacyna: People with down syndrome like me, they should feel special for who they are and they should embrace who they are and feel special in their own skin and be who they are.

Jackie Ferguson: Sophie. That’s good advice for all of us. Isn’t it? To feel good in your own skin and appreciate who they are. I love that. Thank you for sharing that. So. Let’s talk a little more about 321, and Lindsay, what you’re hoping to accomplish long-term with 321 Coffee.

Lindsay Wrege: Yeah. So Jackie, I think it really comes back to that statistic around the unemployment for people with disabilities. And it is just way too high. And I hope that 321 Coffee can be a big mover in lowering that statistic and making this inclusive workforce more mainstream. I hope to do that directly with our company. I’m proud that we’ve got over 20 employees today. But I hate knowing that our wait list is up to 50 people. And I’m really hopeful that we can start opening more locations, whether it be other coffee shops or more in this roasting business to just get more people on our payroll, but then above all else, I hope that we can start working with other brands to say like, you can incorporate these people into your work force too.

When I think about the problem that exists, it’s this lack of opportunities for people with disabilities in the workforce. The solution is not for 321 Coffee to be the sole employer.

Jackie Ferguson:  Right.

Lindsay Wrege: The solution isn’t even for coffee shops to be the sole workplace. These people can do a lot and they can add value to a lot of different types of companies and workforces. And I really want to start demonstrating how this can be done. And, I’m proud that we’ve had some success with this so far. If you don’t mind me sharing, there’s a great story from one of our baristas. When I think about like a true success story that 321 Coffee has had, its with this boy named Sam.

So Sam began working with 321 Coffee in our very beginning. Like first ever event, Sam was there. And at that point, we were just volunteering. Everyone was just volunteering with the organization. And we were doing an event on NC state’s campus and Sam at the time was living with his parents in Rocky mountain, North Carolina, which is about an hour’s drive from campus.

And Sam would just drive to and from Raleigh to volunteer with us. And we started then serving coffee on a weekly basis to the NC state football team, which is another conversation, but an awesome collaboration. And Sam would drive every week to and from Raleigh to volunteer with 321with the football team.

Then, take a step further, 321 starts growing and we started offering regular events and we were able to take on employees. So Sam ended up moving to Raleigh to grow his involvement with 321to work more and to really become a part of this community where he had more opportunity and more support to, just for personal and professional development. And so that itself, was just this awesome thing for someone to really believe in 321that much.

Well then to take it one step further, we continue serving coffee to the football team and Sam is our guy, because at this point, they love him. He loves them. Sam is this huge football fan. He’s a huge NC state fan. I mean, to him, he calls Coach Dave Doeren his second dad. They totally embrace him and they, I mean, Sam started to get invited to like, Coach  team dinners on Tuesday nights, he’s getting like sideline passes to all the football games. Like he is just a part of their group.

And they ended up hiring him to be a part of their food service team because I like to believe that they just saw the value that he was bringing to their community on a weekly basis. I mean, people would come by to just hang out with him for the hour that they were there . Even if they didn’t like the coffee. And it was just, it comes back to this theory, or this theme of value of people who are different and different ways that people can bring value.

And so, sort of back to your question on where do I see the future of 321 Coffee? I hope we can replicate this for more Sams of the world.

Jackie Ferguson: Yeah. Lindsay,  that’s amazing. Thank you for sharing that. Sophie, for you. What do you want to do beyond being a great barista and an amazing roaster? What do you want to do in the future?

Sophie Pacyna: I want to be  a chef. I love to cook.

Jackie Ferguson:  Oh, what kinds of things do you like to cook?

Sophie Pacyna:  I like to cook healthy foods like stuffed with  keto stuff, like vegetables and meat, seafood.

Jackie Ferguson: Love that. And do you cook a lot at home, Sophie?

Sophie Pacyna: Yes, I cook with my dad.

Jackie Ferguson: Oh, that’s awesome. And so what’s your favorite dish? Do you like to cook a lot of keto, but what’s your favorite dish to cook?

Sophie Pacyna: My favorite dish to cook is fish soup. I make it with Cod.

Jackie Ferguson: Wow. That sounds great.

Lindsay Wrege: That’s impressive. Sophie. I don’t think I can cook that.

Jackie Ferguson: I love to cook. I Sophie, I think we might have a lot in common. We both like coffee. We both like to cook and I like it. So, Lindsay, tell me a little more about you personally, tell me who you are outside of an entrepreneur and a speaker.

Lindsay Wrege: Yes. Well, personally, I am a person that just loves other people. I love human interaction. I feel so fortunate for just all of the people who are in my life and the experiences that I get to share with them on a daily basis. And whether it’s, you know, hanging out with Sophie, we– Sophie, what’s our favorite, what’s our, you and me favorite thing to eat together?

Sophie Pacyna:  Oh, yeah. Jersey Mikes subs.

Lindsay Wrege: We

Sophie Pacyna: love Jersey Mike’s.

Lindsay Wrege: And we found that we have the same order that we love.

Jackie Ferguson: And what is the order at Jersey Mike’s?

Sophie Pacyna: Number thirteen.

Lindsay Wrege: Number thirteen, Mike’s Way. It’s the Italian.

Jackie Ferguson: Oh yeah, that’s a good one.

Lindsay Wrege: So yeah, whether it’s, you know, eating Jersey Mike’s with Sophie, it’s going on a walk with my grandparents, it’s going skiing with my friends and family. I just, I love doing fun things, I love coming up with fun things to do, you know, seeing something on Facebook. Like, this one time someone tagged me in something, it was, you know, you can buy a six foot balloon on the internet and use a leaf blower to get inside of it.

I called up my friends. I was like, “we are going to do this.” And you know, we did that. And it’s seeing things and saying, “let’s do it.” And just living life to the fullest, making memories, and being interruptible.

Jackie Ferguson: I love that. And we might have to come back to the six foot balloon.

Lindsay Wrege: Deal.

Jackie Ferguson: Same question. Sophie, tell me about yourself. I know you love coffee and you love to cook. But what else? Tell us more about who you are.

Sophie Pacyna: Well, basically I’m always in my room a lot. So basically I like electronics. I like to go on my laptop a lot, so.

Jackie Ferguson: And what kind of things do you like to look at on your laptop? Do you like movies?

Sophie Pacyna: Yeah. Movies. Like Disney movies, Disney princesses.

Jackie Ferguson: Awesome.

Lindsay Wrege: Sophie,are you still taking classes at Wake Tech?

Sophie Pacyna: Not anymore. I graduated.

Jackie Ferguson: Oh, what kind of classes did you take Sophie?

Sophie Pacyna: Well, in my major, I majored in hospitality.

Jackie Ferguson: That’s perfect. Right up the alley for 321 Coffee, isn’t it? It’s going to help you be a better leader, right Sophie?

Sophie Pacyna: Yeah. Oh, and  also, I majored in coffee too. I majored in HQ coffee.

Jackie Ferguson: Wow. That’s impressive. And so, when you think about what you want to do with your career, do you want to have your own coffee shop? Do you want to have a different type of business in hospitality?

Sophie Pacyna: Yeah. It’s going to be a different type of thing in hospitality. I think I want to cook for “Dough Dough E.”

Jackie Ferguson: Wow. That is, that’s a big goal. I think that’s awesome. Good for you. So for each of you, tell me a little about what brings you the most joy. I love asking this question because I get so many amazing and interesting answers.

Sophie Pacyna: I got one.

Lindsay Wrege:  Go for it, Soph.

Sophie Pacyna: Well, it’s actually my parents and my bosses at 321.

Lindsay Wrege: Oh, that’s awesome. And Sophie, tell me a little about your parents. Do they support you? And, and tell me about some of the things. I know you cook with your dad.

Sophie Pacyna: Yeah. Well, my parents are amazing. They support me in everything that I do. And even when I’m trying to get another part-time job, including with 321 Coffee. So.

Jackie Ferguson: That’s awesome. It’s so important for us to have people in our corner and people that love us. Isn’t it?

Sophie Pacyna: Yeah.

Jackie Ferguson: Awesome. Lindsay, what about you? What brings you joy?

Lindsay Wrege: I love being able to support someone in their endeavor, such that at the end, I know that they are proud of what was created. So I feel very fortunate that I get to experience this a lot in 321, butthe pride that our staff takes in steaming the milk on a latte for their first time. I know that I’ve been able to support them in getting there and now that they can do it, I know that they are proud of themselves. It brings me so much joy to know that I helped get them there.

Jackie Ferguson: Love that. Lindsey, tell me what advice you would give to organizations that want to step forward into disability inclusion? What advice would you give them as they begin that journey?

Lindsay Wrege: Yeah, so I think with anything, the first step towards an idea is to just say it out loud, honestly, it’s to say, “I want to, blank.” You know, for me it was saying, “I want to start a coffee shop that employed people with disabilities.” And. You know, it may not happen the next day, but that’s okay. And then the step after that is to start thinking about you know, if you’ve got this big goal, which hopefully you do, hopefully you can think big, you can dream big.

But you’ve got to think, “All right, what am I going to do today? What am I going to do tomorrow?” Because it’s easy to get sort of lost in the big picture goal of what you’re trying to work towards, that you forget to start using your time now to start having these conversations, start asking around of what types of roles within our company can some of these people fill? Who are people in our community looking for jobs? What partnerships can we create that can add value to both sides? You know, it’s, there’s a lot of ways to be inclusive, to promote diversity, to make an impact. And the best way to get started is to just start talking about it.

Start getting excitement, start building your team. Luckily, when you’re doing a good thing, people naturally want to do it with you. And so, to start generating some buzz and go do it.

Jackie Ferguson: Love that. And then how can people find 321 Coffee? So we’ve talked about the physical location, but let’s share the website and every way that people can get in touch with 321 Coffee.

Lindsay Wrege: Yeah, absolutely. So we’ve got a website which is just And we recently launched our online store. So you can now get coffee roasted by Sophie shipped anywhere in the country. As well as some other really good 321 merchandise items. And then we also have a great social media. It’s “Drink 321 Coffee” and we’re constantly sharing stories about our baristas, updates from the week, what we’ve got going on, some good recipe videos for when you get your coffee at home to make along with us. So definitely we would love for people to check us out and just join our community.

Jackie Ferguson:  Awesome. We’re so happy to have you both on Diversity Beyond the Checkbox. It’s been such a great conversation. Thank you both so much for taking your time and sharing your stories. And we look forward to paying a visit to 321 Coffee and ordering some amazing merchandise and  some of Sophie’s special roasted coffee off the website.

Lindsay Wrege: Jackie, thank you so much for the work that you’re doing and just elevating these stories and conversations and continuing people to think in the right direction. And thank you so much for including Sophie and I and 321 in this platform.

Jackie Ferguson: Absolutely. Thank you again, both of you.

Lindsay Wrege: Thanks.

Full Episode Transcript

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