Empowering new Austin coffee shop is the first of its kind in U.S.
Let’s get one thing clear: Empowered Coffee is not a charity. It is a fully functioning, for-profit coffee shop started three months ago by Jonathan Davis and his wife, Dr. Kim Davis. Staffed entirely by adults with intellectual and physical differences, the shop at 410 Pressler St. also holds the distinction of being the only 100 percent inclusive for-profit business in the country.
“They were hired for their abilities,” says Jonathan of his staff. “Not because they happen to have disabilities.”
Housed inside RunLab Austin, a sports medicine facility founded by Dr. Davis that also shares space with a CrossFit studio, Empowered Coffee began very quickly after the couple visited a local Starbucks in January and had a less-than-welcoming experience.
“Lined up on the bar were 10 drinks,” Jonathan says of the experience. “We watched people come in the door, grab their drink, they didn’t make eye contact with anyone, they turned around, and they left. And we looked at each other and we were like, man. What if we went the complete other end of the spectrum and said, 'Hey, let’s have a place where you’re gonna look somebody in the eyes, and he’s probably gonna smile back at you, and you’re gonna get great coffee that’s better than what you get there.'”
Six weeks later, on March 21 — World Down Syndrome Day — Empowered Coffee opened its doors and branded itself as “The Friendliest Way to Start Your Day.”
That’s no exaggeration. On one recent morning, the shop was managed entirely by Spencer and William, two of the nicest, most hospitable baristas in a city generally glutted with hipster coffee snobs behind the counter.
“Spencer and William ran this place today without a typical adult,” says Jonathan. “This isn’t a 'gimme' kind of job. This isn’t a greeter or a hugger or a roll silverware kinda job. These guys showed up this morning on time. The first thing [Spencer] did was immediately look for inventory levels. He started brewing coffee. William showed up a couple of minutes later, immediately started putting out pastries. He recognized there was a commercial order, sat down here, and did all that. They’ll run the financials at the end of the day and put up the profit numbers. Everything.”
“It feels really good,” says Spencer, the self-proclaimed “face of the company,” of his newly earned responsibilities. Both he and William also have second jobs at H-E-B. “It’s different because at H-E-B, I’m a bagger. I’m doing more here. At H-E-B, I only work 10-2 every Sunday. That’s it. I only get paid four hours.”
Employing a staff like the one at Empowered Coffee isn’t without its challenges, but for the most part, those challenges are external. The Davises have to be hyper-aware not to schedule their staff members for too many hours. If any one of them were to earn more than $2,000 in a month, they would be immediately disqualified from receiving disability, Medicaid, and other services their families rely on.
“It entirely disempowers people," says Jonathan of the income ceiling his staff faces. "Being able to have Medicaid is crucial. But there should not be a disincentive that says, if you get out there and start bettering yourself, you lose access to this.”
The betterment of people — both those who work at the coffee shop and its guests — is the core of Empowered Coffee’s mission. Though it is a for-profit shop, those profits are then donated to charities like the Special Olympics and their own Kayleigh’s Club, a weekly track and field club named after Kayleigh Williamson, the first person with Down syndrome to complete the Austin Half-Marathon.
“Our charities have to have one single goal,” says Jonathan. “They have to promote increased physical activity for adults or kids with intellectual disabilities. That’s one of the things that both my wife and I are very passionate about. Without increased physical activity, diabetes kicks in, sedentary lifestyle kicks in, and it’s very, very difficult to recover from [those things] once that slippery slope begins.”
The employees at Empowered Coffee are anything but sedentary. Most of them compete in the Special Olympics, including Morgan who’s won multiple medals in powerlifting. After their shifts are over, many will stay and work with the CrossFit coaches on strength and stability training. Spencer and William are both on the Special Olympics basketball team.
“There’s nothing these guys can’t do here,” says Jonathan. “It’s simply typical adults who have limiting thoughts in their minds. And that’s just silly.”
Beyond the coffee (which is entirely fair-trade, single origin coffee) and requisite breakfast tacos offered at Empowered Coffee, the service is some of the warmest and most welcoming in Austin. “You can’t leave here and not be smiling. You can’t start your day badly if this is how it starts.”