At 10 a.m. on Sept. 17, a crowd gathered near the southeast corner of Main and Liberty to celebrate the opening of a new coffee shop. Bitty & Beau’s Coffee stands almost directly across from a Starbucks but only resembles it on the surface. 

Gwyneth Guidinger, Thomas Ehinger, shift manager Allison Housner, and Yasmine Bouzit.
For many employees, Bitty & Beau’s is their first job. Guidinger says she was “a little nervous, but I’m already used to it … You get to talk to people, and we have fun every day.” | Photo: J. Adrian Wylie

A close look at the new shop reveals the space and the procedures have been adapted to accommodate the needs of staff with a variety of disabilities. When a customer orders, she is given a playing card; when the order is ready, a caller holds up an identical card, eliminating the need for staff to write or speak names. (Some staffers are able to personalize cups with messages such as “Believe in yourself” or “Go Blue.”) The store accepts all major credit cards but not cash, eliminating the need to make change.

Staffers greet entering customers. This reporter’s son, Brian, a drink maker there, says it reminds him of a scene from the Bock-Harnick musical She Loves Me, which begins with salespeople singing hello to entering customers. The space facilitates social interaction. Equipment is on the back bar, freeing the front to “be a place for conversation, conducive to creating moments,” says cofounder Amy Wright. “We make everything ADA compliant. The counters are a little bit lower. There are special door handles. It’s what all businesses should be doing.” 

Customers will find a huge map where they can indicate where they’re from—the franchises, now in thirty states, attract visitors from beyond. Ann Arbor owners KC and Mark Maddelein hail from Naperville, a suburb of Chicago. The Wrights don’t offer franchises in Illinois, but shops in college towns are thriving, so they suggested Ann Arbor. “We have ties to Michigan,” says Mark. “My wife’s family has a place in Traverse City. But we’d never been to Ann Arbor.”

Wright and her husband, Ben, started the first Bitty & Beau’s in Wilmington, N.C. Their second child is on the autism spectrum. Beau, the third, was born with Down Syndrome. When Bitty came along, also with Down, they knew they had to do something. “We were astonished to learn that 80 percent of people with disabilities are unemployed,” she says.

“What we quickly learned was that we not only were creating jobs but creating a movement,” Wright says, adding that local  shops also are more likely to hire other disabled people after a Bitty & Beau’s opens. 

“Our original mission was to create jobs, [but it’s become] a portal for people with disabilities to see what’s possible, too,” Wright says. Some franchise owners have a family member with a disability, “others just want to be part of a human rights movement.”

Staffers, most from Ann Arbor, and a handful from Dexter, Saline, and Ypsilanti, have been trained in one-on-one sessions with shift supervisors, including Allison Housner, a retired physical therapist who has worked at U-M and St. Joe’s. “KC is fantastic,” says Housner. “She’s embraced this to the core. Corporate people came in to help, and we’ve all worked super-duper hard to get the store open. We feel a lot of joy and support.”

Wright says it hasn’t been difficult to adapt the stores—not for people who constantly make adaptations at home. “Meeting employees where they are and helping them shine and feel confident seems natural,” she says.

Employees are enthusiastic. For some, this is a first job. Cashier Gwyneth Guidinger was “a little nervous, but I’m already used to it. Bitty & Beau’s Coffee is the perfect place for me to work. You get to talk to people, and we have fun every day.” It is also a first job for Yasmine Bouzit, twenty-eight-year-old Henry Washington, and Marissa Hines. “Marissa was hesitant to come,” says her dad, Jeff. “She walked behind me the first day. The second day I couldn’t keep up with her.” Rylee Inman was never talkative. “Now she’s excited and way more talkative than usual,” says her sister, Masie. 

“I’m happy that Bitty & Beau’s is here in Ann Arbor. Everyone here is a really good person,” says Ken Harrington. John Fox loves that “it has the support of the whole community.” Says Maria Nazariem, “I have Down’s Syndrome, and I am not broken. I love learning about the coffee world.” 

Allison Cowherd, who also works at Busch’s, is both a cashier and drink maker who says she appreciates the support offered here. “My daughter started a coffee shop in our kitchen when she was a teenager and dreamed of working in a real one,” her father, Doug, reports. “This is her dream job.”

Says KC Maddelein, “to say that this is a dream come true would be an understatement.”

Bitty & Beau’s Coffee, 305 S. Main. (734) 881–7919. Daily 8 a.m.–5 p.m.