Longtime friends Kim Morrison and Noelle Alix set a goal to create jobs for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The two met more than 20 years ago in a mother’s support group for children with Down Syndrome.
Last year, Kim was at a turning point with her business, New England Pasta Company, which had evolved over the years to include prepared foods and a full-service café. The lease was coming to an end, and the café wasn’t performing well. The two families decided to renew the lease and reinvent the space as BeanZ & Co., which opened December 1, 2018.
Innovation Destination Hartford Website Curator Nan Price spoke with Co-Founder Kim Morrison about her entrepreneurial evolution and the importance of creating inclusive work environments.
>>Watch the BeanZ & Co. video
NAN PRICE: Let’s start with a little background. It’s important to note that you didn’t just decide to open an inclusive café, you and your husband have owned New England Pasta Company for 25 years.
KIM MORRISON: Right. We opened in Canton in 1994. We were there for a couple of years, and sales were pretty flat, which we knew was based on our location. We moved into the middle of Avon and sales tripled.
Around the time our daughter Megan was born, our lease was up. We had a free pass to go. But we weren’t in a ton of debt, we hadn’t taken on a lot of business loans, and it didn’t feel right to leave and be done. It was a challenging time. I remember wondering: How can I be a mom of a special needs daughter and be a business owner? I didn’t think I could find that balance.
Thankfully, I have a great marriage, that’s how I found balance. We decided to move to our third location. We were there for 12 years and kept innovating and expanding what we offered. Eventually, we grew from 1,000 ft2 to 4,000 ft2, which included a cafe area.
NAN: How and why did you come up with the idea to branch out and create an inclusive café?
KIM: When we finally made that decision to take this leap of faith, we never looked back. I knew we could do it; we were ready. We had 20 years under our belt by the time we expanded. We weren’t launching a new business; just taking it a 20-year old business and reinventing it, evolving, and growing.
Things were great. We were paying all our bills and increasing our staff. But we were losing business by offering table service—it wasn’t the quality of the food. When it came time to renew our lease, we decided to do something to really change it up.
Noelle and I were talking about our daughters, who both have special needs. Her daughter, Cate, is a year older than Megan. They had both graduated from the Farmington Valley Transition Academy located on the campus of the University of Hartford and they both needed jobs. Statistically, about least 80% of people with intellectual disabilities are either unemployed or underemployed.
When we knew we had to make some kind of change to bring more customers into our cafe, the idea of having a café that employs adults with and without disabilities was born.
I had it in my head that counter service would be a better solution for the existing café. I didn’t want to do this alone. I’ve already put in a lot of time at the Pasta Company, so I know how much work it is to start a new business. This wasn’t entirely starting a new business from the ground up—but it also kind of was.
NAN: So, the original idea was to create job opportunities for people with disabilities.
KIM: Exactly. We wanted to create jobs for our girls. We took the business model that worked well at the Pasta Company and created a 50/50 inclusive workplace. We wanted our employees with disabilities to work alongside those without disabilities. Our support staff are not job coaches. They’re moms, friends, siblings, high school kids and college kids who may have been involved in Best Buddies, or they may have siblings or children with disabilities. Most importantly, they’re really good people who get our mission.
As far as our other employees, we connected with Steve Morris, the executive director at Favrah, an agency that finds employment for people with disabilities. They helped us place three employees and we added another six.
NAN: Do you foresee opening more Beanz cafés?
KIM: We’re trying to figure out how we can expand this business into other communities and keep it as authentic as possible. Noelle and I are not content that this is the only Beanz out there.
This business model needs to be duplicated because food and beverage is a great industry where the skills are learnable. The socialization piece for adults with special needs is invaluable. Our employees are productive and thriving. They’re happy. They’re purposeful. They have meaningful employment and they want to come to work. That makes us feel really good.
But we also want them to take their job skills and think about their next job opportunity. We tell them: You never know who’s going to come into the café—the CEO of a large company or a small business owner may be considering an inclusive workplace. Maybe they’ll offer you a job doing something you end up loving more than working at Beanz.
It’s not that we want our employees to leave! But we want this to be the platform for their next job.
NAN: Have you been able to advice other businesses about how to create an inclusive workplace?
KIM: Yes. We’ve had people from all over the country make special trips to the café, private message me, or call me to say they’re interested in what we do—they have this same dream. I make it very clear that I’ve been doing this already. My first question is: What do you think I do? Sometimes they think we’re just a coffee shop. We’re not. We’re a for-profit café that serves breakfast and lunch. We evolved from a business has been around for 25 years.
I tell people they shouldn’t feel like they have to start an entirely new business. Instead of trying to start a new business, which can be super intimidating, I encourage them to create a relationship with a business that’s established and would be open to the idea of creating an inclusive workplace. Research shows it’s good for the bottom line and it’s good for a company culture. It’s the right thing to do. We believe it’s the way the world should be.