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Doing It Right: The Coffee Truck Whose Coffee Is as Good as Its Mission

How Dirt Coffee Bar “employs and empowers” young adults with autism

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Photo: Dirt Coffee Bar / Facebook; Photo illustration: Eater

Welcome to Doing It Right, a new column where Eater meets chefs, restaurateurs, and entrepreneurs who recognize challenges in their communities — and are actually doing something about it. In this first installment, we head to Littleton, Colorado to focus on the work of Dirt Coffee Bar.

The Challenge:

Many people with autism seek independence, but have trouble finding jobs.

What Dirt Coffee Bar is doing about it:

Dirt Coffee Bar isn’t really about the coffee. Although founder Lauren Thome makes it a point to serve “really stellar” coffee — and has the glowing Yelp reviews to prove it — the Denver-area coffee truck began as a way to help people with autism, a neurodevelopmental condition characterized by differences in social interaction and communication.

In 2010, Thome, who has a master’s degree in educational psychology, started an organization called the Garden to do community-based outreach for people with autism. Through that work, she says, “I realized that there are a ton of adults with autism that are capable... [but] who are having a hard time getting face-to-face interviews.”

Thome thought the coffee business could provide two solutions: Serving customers would allow adults with autism to interact with more people, while also demonstrating to the general public — the customers — that those on the spectrum are employable. And so in 2013, Thome founded Dirt Coffee Bar with Emily Wallace, a therapist (Wallace is still on the board, though no longer actively involved with day-to-day operations).

Since then, Dirt Coffee Bar has served fair-trade, locally roasted coffee and espresso from a truck in Littleton, Colorado, including at the farmers market and special events. Dirt Coffee Bar has so far employed 12 people with autism. Thome describes the company as neurodiverse, meaning that half the staff includes people with autism and related developmental or intellectual disabilities.

Prices are thought of as suggested donations, and Dirt, a nonprofit, also advocates for policies that impact people with autism. “People typically try our coffee first, and learn about the mission second, which is exactly what we want to happen,” says Thome.

When people do learn about Dirt’s mission to “employ and empower” people with autism, they become loyal customers, Thome says. “They return because they know it’s a good cause and get to hang out with awesome people who have autism and serve them coffee,” she explains.

Through the Dirt Coffee program, autistic young adults can become more independent. Daniel Boone has worked as the server at the Dirt Coffee truck pickup window since 2013. “I like serving customers and just bringing a smile to their faces,” he says of the job, his first. In addition to helping him learn how to take Denver’s light rail to and from work every day, Boone says the staff at Dirt have encouraged him to greet customers with eye contact and enthusiasm. “I’m really adored by other people and that’s been the biggest dream come true,” he says.

According to Thome, Dirt Coffee, unlike most other work environments, is designed to allow employees to try out different roles so that they can find the one that is best suited to their particular strengths. This aspect of Dirt Coffee’s program is essential to its success.

In the U.S., just 14 percent of adults with autism spectrum disorder were employed in a paying job in their community, according to a 2017 report from the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute. And while restaurants may not be the industry most associated with autism — in fact, autism advocate Temple Grandin once listed both waitperson and cashier as “bad jobs for people with high-functioning autism or Asperger's syndrome” — restaurants are beginning to help out.

Stacey Wohl started Cause Cafe in Long Island, New York, to provide a place for her two adult children with autism to work. She’s since hired other employees with autism. And After26 Depot, a cafe in Michigan, was similarly founded to create jobs for people with developmental disabilities and cognitive impairment. At these restaurants, as at Dirt Coffee, the support the staff provides is as important as the fact of the job itself.

Dirt Coffee Bar employees and interns find Dirt through their schools or organizations like Denver’s Division of Vocational Rehabilitation. Because Dirt Coffee Bar is connected to the Garden, those interested in the program who aren’t quite ready to work in a service capacity can take on another position before moving into a community-facing position at the coffee bar, all with understanding and support they are unlikely to find in most other jobs.

Now, Dirt Coffee Bar is getting ready to open a brick-and-mortar coffee shop. The Littleton space is set to debut in January serving espresso drinks, tea, pastries, and, as the slogan on the side of the coffee truck puts it, “great coffee” alongside a “better mission.”

Monica Burton is an assistant editor at Eater.
Editor: Hillary Dixler Canavan
Special thanks to Emma Alpern.

Dirt Coffee Bar [Official site]

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