The distinctive aroma of newly brewed coffee lures patrons to Café Blends, a shop located inside one of Atlanta’s major car dealerships. But it’s not just the java that keeps people coming back – it’s the service. Café Blends’ baristas, wearing tan and brown uniforms, all happen to be on the autism spectrum. Many have never held a job before.
“Our baristas have a positive attitude, get along great with our employees and customers, and they’re hard workers,” says Melissa Corey, communications director for Asbury Automotive Group in Duluth, Ga. “They do the job just as well, if not better than anyone else, and we’ve been able to show people that firsthand. That’s been very rewarding for us.”
Asbury Auto owns 79 dealerships nationwide and is the parent company of Nalley Automotive Group, which operates Café Blends in two Atlanta-area dealership locations. Asbury Auto operates 11 Nalley’s in Atlanta and is one of the largest automobile retailers in the U.S., with 2011 revenue of $4.3 billion.
A sign tells the story
Appearing much like any other busy coffee shop in America, most customers don’t realize the café’s servers are unique until they get a closer look at the signage and literature that reads: “Café Blends: Blending Autism into the Workplace.”
Such candid language provides Asbury Auto with an open forum for addressing a disorder that has traditionally been kept secret, especially in the workplace. “We’ve had [dealership] employees talk about a family member with autism, and we’ve had customers come forward about a niece or nephew with it… And it’s an opportunity for our employees to feel a part of something larger than the car business,” says Corey.
What’s more, the baristas feel more confident in their jobs because the customers who patronize Café Blends know it’s comprised of people on the autism spectrum. “I think all of our folks are excited about the fact that they don’t have to explain things themselves. … It’s kind of a relief in a lot of ways,” says Becky Ketts, director of rehabilitation services at Nobis Works, the nonprofit that trains the baristas and staffs the café in Marietta, Ga.
Café Blends got its start as a pilot program at a Mercedes-Benz dealership in Tampa, Fla., in 2011. The Tampa café was so successful the company began a corporate initiative to expand the cafes to Atlanta. There are now three locations in Atlanta and one in Greenville, S.C.
Each café employs three baristas and one supervisor, who also serves as a job coach. The program involves not only training the participants, ages 18 to 28, as baristas, but also educating dealership employees about autism and how to help integrate the cafe workers into store operations.
“Asbury’s Café Blends initiative has become a remarkable success among both our employees and our customers. We feel very privileged to have this opportunity to raise awareness and create job opportunities for individuals on the autism spectrum,” says Craig Monaghan, president and CEO of Asbury Automotive Group.
Improved social skills
Café Blends has enhanced the ambiance at Asbury’s dealerships, and the baristas have benefitted, too. The workers’ social skills have improved as they interact more with the public. “We’ve been able to witness many of our baristas go from not making eye contact to making eye contact more often than not. We’re constantly witnessing blooming personalities, and seeing their lives transform through the opportunity we’ve been able to provide. It’s pretty amazing,” says Corey.
Take Chris, a barista who was non-communicative when he started his job. Chris would often rock back and forth and tap his forehead when he got nervous or overwhelmed, according to Nobis Works’ Ketts. “Now, you wouldn’t believe it… He is one of our PR spokespeople. The difference from where we started with him until now is unbelievable,” adds Ketts.
Another barista, Rebecca Haskew, says she loves working at Café Blends and speaks publicly about her experience to other businesses looking to model the cafes. “The job has given me the chance to meet new people and talk with other people,” Haskew says. “It’s a friendly environment. The people I work with are wonderful and fun to talk to.”
But it’s not without its challenges for Haskew and others. Some days can be erratically busy and it can be hard to fill customers’ orders in a timely manner. Sometimes customers are difficult to understand. But Haskew, like other baristas, powers through. “I’m just glad I have the opportunity to work and interact with different people,” she says.
The Café Blends model can easily be replicated by other industries in various capacities, says Asbury Auto’s Corey. She says she encourages other businesses to consider employing people with disabilities because she believes this group to be effective workers who also bring special abilities to the workforce.
Hiring baristas who have autism is impacting the company’s bottom line, too. The response from customers has been positive, and Corey believes customers are referring others to Asbury dealerships just for the unique café experience.
In Asbury Auto’s case, innovative thinking has led to a new approach to hiring people with disabilities and making customers happy. Combined with delicious coffee, Asbury Auto could leave other car retailers in the dust.