Innovating for inclusivity
Amy and Ben Wright discovered what it means to be radically inclusive by building an innovative business with a recognizable brand. Along the way, Bitty and Beau’s has become much more than just a coffee shop.
Each month, our Journeys of Innovation series tells the stories of inventors or entrepreneurs who have made a positive difference in the world. This month, we focus on husband and wife team, Amy and Ben Wright.
A picturesque coffee shop sits just steps from the water in the heart of Annapolis, Maryland. As you walk in, the scent of freshly brewed coffee wafts through the air. The immaculate diner-style counter is lined with bar stools, and it's open and free of equipment, giving you a clear view to the back where the baristas craft the drinks. Other shops may camouflage the hubbub with rows of machines and merchandise, dividing employees from customers, but this shop has no such barriers. The décor is sleek and minimal with a muted color palette, so there's nothing flashy to draw your eye. There's just one focal point—the employees.
"Welcome to Bitty and Beau's!" the cashier, Jamie, greets you enthusiastically as you approach the register. Some of the other employees echo her warm welcome. After ordering your drink from Jamie and receiving a playing card (a fun alternative to writing your name on a cup), you wander down to the end of the bar. Maddie expertly makes your drink while Michael chats up a customer. The manager, Abby, stands by and beams. She's ready to assist, but her team is a well-oiled machine, and everything is under control. You see a small chalkboard, and you can sense by the mood in the air that the message on it is genuine. It reads, "We're happy you're here!"
"Three of diamonds! Your order is ready." Maddie hands you your drink and you return the matching playing card. As you sip your brew, you step a bit further into the shop. By now, you recognize their trademark painted on a back wall, which also adorns the cups, merchandise, and storefront. It has a clean, classic look that meshes with the shop's aesthetic, quietly distinguishing Bitty and Beau's from their competitors without demanding your attention.
You turn and see a massive map of the world that takes up an adjacent wall. The shop's patrons have covered it in red pins to identify their hometowns (and good luck adding a pin if you live almost anywhere on the east coast, it's at max capacity). When some clicking noises get your attention, you look up to see a display that tallies the shop's followers on Instagram and Facebook. One more person has just joined their already considerable social media following.
That's when it hits you—this business, staffed almost entirely by employees with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD), is positively thriving.
Bitty and Beau’s is the brainchild of Amy and Ben Wright. Their journey to creating it started in 2004 with the birth of their third child, Beau. They had hopes and dreams for him long before he arrived, as expectant parents do. They thought about what he might be like, what he might look like, and what he might achieve. But in the operating room, there was a glimmer that his life may take a different direction.
"Do you think he has Down syndrome?" Ben remembers asking the nurse if she thought their son had an extra copy of chromosome 21, the most common chromosomal condition in the U.S. She looked for a few physical markers—a simian crease on his palm, the gap between his first and second toe.
"No, I don't think so," she assured him.
"I remember feeling this sort of, semi-wash of relief, that he didn't have Down syndrome." Ben recalls. A few days later, though, definitive test results upended that relief. The nurse was wrong. Beau did, in fact, have Down syndrome.
The Wrights were overcome with emotion. "We wept. We cried. We were just devastated, you know. We couldn't believe it," says Ben about the shock and sadness they felt when they received the news. "It's never easy to hear that what you expected turns out to be something else."
But their grief was short lived. Within a few days, there was a seismic shift in their outlook. "We just looked at each other and said, this is our son. And he is who he is. He's who he's supposed to be." From that point forward, they dove in. They didn’t know much about Down syndrome, so they learned everything they could. Their love for their son drove them to find every possible way to provide for him and support his needs. They immersed themselves in the community that supports people with IDD and became fierce advocates. While they don’t look back proudly on their initial reaction to Beau’s diagnosis, they’re grateful for the shift in their perspective.
A few years later, life took another unexpected turn. In 2009, their fourth child was born, and soon they learned that Jane, affectionately known as Bitty, also had Down syndrome. Yet again, they wept. But this time, everything was different. There was no grief, no shock, no apprehension. This time, they cried tears of joy.
Still, Bitty's diagnosis really struck them. "It sits you up straight in your chair when you have a child born with a disability, right? When you have a second child born with the same disability, that really gets your attention," Ben explains. As their advocacy continued, and even intensified, Amy and Ben noticed something that didn't sit well with them about the support system for people with IDD.
The Wrights will tell you that they don’t ascribe any shame to having disabilities, that it’s just part of the human condition, and the lives of people with IDD have just as much value as those without. Yet as they see it, socially and culturally, there’s little appreciation for that value, especially in the workforce.
"Once they get out of the public-school system, you know, it's just the lights go out. It's crickets." Ben explains. "You don't really see them in the workplace. Occasionally, you'll see somebody bagging groceries, you'll see somebody clearing tables, you'll see somebody breaking down boxes. And these are all jobs and there's nothing wrong with them. But that's all you ever saw," he says. "And we just thought, really? Is that really it?" Ben and Amy knew that it wouldn't be long before their kids would find themselves in the same position. To the Wright family, that was not acceptable.
Fast forward a few more years to the lightbulb moment that changed everything for the Wrights. Amy was in the shower, where she says she does her best thinking, when it hit her—"coffee shop!" She knew instantly that it was the solution they were looking for, so she ran with it. Her vision was that when the time came, Bitty and Beau would have a place to work where they felt valued and accepted. But she also wanted to make a dent in the unemployment rate among people with IDD. So, in January 2016, the Wrights opened the doors of their first coffee shop in Wilmington, North Carolina. It was staffed almost completely by people with IDD.
Now, you'll find the same thing in every Bitty and Beau's Coffee location, more than 20 in total across the country. While businesses occasionally take advantage of hiring people with IDD, sometimes through special programs, it tends to be an exception. The Wrights are flipping the script, making that exception the rule, and sending a powerful message: People with IDD have more to bring to the table, and they can deliver far more value to for-profit businesses than they get credit for.
Michael Heup, who has worked at Bitty and Beau's in Annapolis since February 2020, sums up his experience: "It's been pretty much magical." Michael is one of the chattiest baristas you'll ever meet. A true company man, he takes every opportunity to tout Bitty and Beau's. Showing off the shop's branded merchandise, he says, "If you wore one of our shirts, you'd be helping us out, big time." His resounding message for the world is to "come into some of our coffee shops." He adds, "If you're looking for something hot, or if you're looking for something sweet or cold, come to our coffee shop, and we have it."
Michael's unwavering support for his employer is palpable. Yet, it's difficult for people like Michael to find companies willing to hire them. He's among the roughly 6.5 million Americans who have IDDs, and one the few who are employed. While it’s easy to think charity is the best way to support this community, the Wrights are challenging that perspective and showing that jobs go much further, not just for employees with IDDs, but also for the companies that hire them. Bitty and Beau's is gaining traction and building a recognizable brand with the help of franchising and intellectual property protection. And as the company grows, the Wrights see their employees growing personally. Ben says, "You see it in the way that they develop, the way they want to try new things, the way that they don't miss their shifts. I mean, our attrition rate is almost a negative number."
Abby Wilson, the general manager of the Annapolis shop, agrees.
"They take so much pride. They all do, in every role they get. They are so eager to learn," she says. Abby is happy to slow down and take a little extra time with employees who are learning something new, "because once they learn the ropes, they can get it." Jamie Herman, another employee on Abby's team, is a great example. "She just started on the register and her growth with the register is tremendous." Jamie now operates the register seamlessly and independently, with little oversight from Abby.
Register skills aren't the only thing Jamie brings to the table. Clearly the comedian of the crew, she has them all in stitches on a regular basis. In a heartfelt moment, when Abby notes that her employees are some of her best friends, Jamie doesn't miss a beat: "No I'm not." As her coworkers protest through their laughter, Jamie follows up with a quick "I'm kidding!" Her comedic prowess even extends to slapstick: She chuckles, waiting for the team to notice as she sprays a table with an over-the-top amount of cleaning spray, attempts to scan her shoe at the register, or poses as a customer and orders drinks from her coworkers. Her quips and antics keep the mood light and energetic.
Maddie Monzo rounds out the shift, and she's a ray of sunshine. A master drink maker, she focuses on the task at hand and diligently fills orders despite the many conversations and distractions around her. Her hand-crafted creations are decadent and adorned with uplifting handwritten messages, like "You are amazing!" Visit on the right day and you might find her spreading positivity through song—the crew happens to store a karaoke machine in the back, just in case the day calls for an impromptu musical performance. Maddie knows all the words to "Let It Go" if you're looking for a song request.
Even if you don't catch a karaoke session, it's impossible to visit Bitty and Beau's without leaving in a better mood. The employees just have that effect. Whether you stay for a few minutes or a few hours, you connect with them, and that connection has the power to change your perspective. For Abby, seeing customers go through that transformation is one of the most rewarding parts of the job.
"Their minds just fully change,” she says, “because [the employees] are just so capable. All of them are so capable of doing so much."
At its core, Ben notes, that's what Bitty and Beau's is all about. "The coffee shop is really a venue, a platform for people with and without disabilities to experience each other.” He points out that the experience dissolves the apprehension and mystery that surrounds people with disabilities, adding, "It sounds dramatic, but you're forever changed by that. You know, you can't unsee what you see. You can't unfeel what you feel when you're in one of these coffee shops."
There's a subtlety to their innovation, but the Wrights have intentionally designed every detail of their operation to further that mission. "Most of our innovation is around getting the precious busywork that you tend to see in specialty coffee shops out, and let the guest and the employees interact with each other." That open counter that gives you a view of the back? That's so you can easily chat with the employees. You can also observe them working and see how the managers interact with them, guiding them as needed without treating them like children.
The playing cards serve a purpose, too. For some employees, writing and reading can be difficult. They may not know how to spell or pronounce a name correctly. Playing cards eliminate these problems. Plus, they foster interaction because the employees collect the cards when they give you the order, “instead of just slamming your drink down on the counter and barking out your name and going on to make the next drink. There's a real intentionality to connecting at the point of sale and again at the pickup." Fully automated machines, an intuitive point-of-sale system with pictures, and a no-cash policy also reduce the unnecessary burdens on employees. Ben acknowledges that while many employees can handle complex tasks, and still more could be trained to do so, "it keeps their heads down, focused on it, concentrating on it. Which means that their heads are not up, meeting the gaze of the customer and having that human interaction."
The Wrights' innovative approach and dedication to customer experience is paying off. Within a few months of opening the first store in Wilmington, they were inundated with franchise requests. They considered them early on, but decided to take a few years to hone their practices, opening a few more locations and refining their operations as they went. The Wrights found that while they could open about one corporate shop per year, franchising would multiply their growth and expand their reach, exponentially furthering their mission of showing the world the value of people with IDD. In 2020, they forged ahead. Two years in, they've sold close to 25 franchises, and they feel fortunate that so many people are willing to take a chance on an emerging brand and model. With every new shop, Bitty and Beau's is a hit in the community. It seems that the Wrights' desire to make sure their kids would have jobs and feel valued as adults was universal among people with disabilities and their families.
With the demand for more Bitty and Beau's locations and the growth of their company, protecting their intellectual property is vital. Bittybeau, Inc. owns two registered trademarks. U.S. registration No. 5262177 is for their logo. Step in for a visit, and chances are you'll see it at least a few times, either on the employees' aprons, the coffee cups, or on their merchandise. U.S. registration No. 5262176 is for the words "Bitty & Beau's Coffee" in special characters. Registering a trademark in standard characters provides broad protection because you can use the trademark regardless of font, color, or other stylization of the text. Ben sheds light on the value of these trademarks.
"Well, it's our brand identity. It's super important,” he says. “Because our model currently is, we put one Bitty and Beaus coffee shop per city. So, you know, that creates additional challenges for brand awareness in the city. We don’t have a dozen locations in one town, so having that identifiable logo is critical."
Their brand is further strengthened by slogans that pique your interest, like "It's more than a cup of coffee" and "A human rights movement disguised as a coffee shop." Others get straight to the point on the Wrights' message to the world: "Radically inclusive" and "Not broken" adorn T-shirts and ball caps in their merchandise section. With every piece of their branding, Bitty and Beau's brings the focus to what sets them apart from other coffee shops.
"What really makes us different is not the coffee, it's who serves the coffee,” says Ben. “I can think of a new slogan. It's 'Where the coffee is great, but the people are greater.' "
While the Wrights aim to showcase their singularity in the industry, their vision for the future is that Bitty and Beau's won't stand out from the crowd. They hope that every business will make room for people with IDD.
"The way forward is innovation, business innovation,” says Ben. “Having people take off the charity glasses when it comes to people with IDD and view them as real people who demand innovation as much as anybody who doesn't have a disability."
The business world has yet to fully embrace the IDD community, but Amy, Ben, and their growing family of employees are showing how innovative businesses with a creative approach and a trademarked brand can not only make an impact, but thrive.
Produced by the USPTO’s Office of the Chief Communications Officer. For feedback or questions, please contact OCCOfeedback@uspto.gov.
Story by Megan Miller. Contributions from Jay Premack and Eric Atkisson. Special thanks to the Wright family, Abby Wilson, Michael Heup, Jamie Herman, and Maddie Monzo.