'They just need that chance': Arlington Heights coffee shop staffed by people with disabilities opens

At the front counter of an Arlington Heights coffee shop Thursday morning, barista David Ha made lattes with espresso and oat milk, while co-worker Jennifer Vargas blended cold drinks nearby.

“It's a blessing to be here, having the chance to serve people in the community,” said Ha.

“I'm a social butterfly, so I love talking to people,” added Vargas.

The strip mall storefront business where they work at 1802 N. Arlington Heights Road is a former Starbucks, but this is no ordinary coffee shop.

Gerry's Cafe — a nonprofit that hired 45 adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities to staff the shop — is finally open. A formal grand opening event is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. Saturday.

It's a concept five years in the making, since Natalie Griffin, a former special education teacher, and Amy Philpott, a local business owner, started talking.

“I have been bursting with joy over watching the employees just do their jobs,” Griffin said. “They're just independent. That was my goal. To see their independence.”

The business is paying minimum wage to its baristas, cashiers, greeters, servers, bakers, chefs and sandwich makers — all of whom are age 22 and older and have special needs. It's a population that experiences high unemployment; many of the Gerry's Cafe employees lost their jobs during the pandemic, while others took unpaid internships or were volunteering.

Griffin says many businesses don't “take a chance” on hiring people with disabilities. It's actually her and Philpott's goal for their employees to get hired elsewhere.

“They have aspirations and dreams, and they feel they can do it. They just need that chance,” said Philpott, a real estate agent and one-time Arlington Heights Chamber of Commerce board president. “We're a foundation and a baseline for their chance to introduce them to the general public to say, 'It can happen.'”

The founders' inspiration in opening the cafe was Bitty & Beau's Coffee, which started in 2016 in Wilmington, North Carolina, and is now franchising and has two dozen locations across a dozen states and Washington, D.C.

Griffin said the operators of Inspired Coffee, which opened in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, in 2020, were also mentors.

The opening of Gerry's Cafe is on the heels of the launch of Will's Place, a similar nonprofit business in Skokie.

The Arlington Heights shop is named for Philpott's aunt Geralyn Wehmer, who was born with Down syndrome in 1958 and died shortly before Philpott's fourth birthday.

Philpott and Griffin are aware of the financial challenges of running such an operation. Chez Francois Poutinerie, a downtown Naperville restaurant dedicated to hiring people with special needs, closed earlier this month after a year in business.

While that business wasn't a nonprofit, Philpott admits the sustainability of Gerry's Cafe is “what keeps us up at night,” so they plan to rely heavily on donations and grants.

Payroll costs are triple that of an average cafe, she says; under Social Security guidelines, many employees can't earn over a certain amount — or accept tips. The cafe has also hired more people to cover the store.

They have two managers and three shift supervisors to oversee day-to-day operations, but Griffin and Philpott and their 11-member Brewing Opportunities 501(c) (3) nonprofit board of directors are all unpaid. Volunteers also work alongside employees.

After holding a launch party in December 2018 and a series of successful fundraisers, organizers thought they would be ready to open the cafe at the start of 2020. But that was the onset of the pandemic.

Griffin and Philpott used the time to assemble a strategy team of current and former special education teachers and administrators from Northwest Suburban High School District 214, Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211 and officials from Clearbrook, an Arlington Heights nonprofit serving people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. They brought on other experts in human resources, finance, technology and construction.

“It came down to the lemons and lemonade philosophy,” Philpott says. “Would we have loved to have had this (open) a couple years ago? Yes. But would it be what we're standing in today? I don't think so.”

“We don't have a ghost kitchen. We aren't having somebody else manufacture our salads and sandwiches, and they're not coming in on a truck. We have stuck to our mission of having our employees be the shining stars.”

Starting Aug. 31, the cafe's regular hours will be 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday.

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  Natalie Griffin, left, and Amy Philpott are co-founders of Gerry's Cafe, which employs people age 22 and older who have disabilities. "They have aspirations and dreams, and they feel they can do it. They just need that chance," Philpott said. Paul Valade/
  Gerry's Cafe employee Jennifer Vargas hands a blended drink to a customer Thursday in Arlington Heights. "When I first started here, I just wanted to interact with other people," Vargas said. "I really love it here." Paul Valade/
  Gerry's Cafe, at 1802 N. Arlington Heights Road in Arlington Heights, is in the renovated strip mall space of an old Starbucks. Paul Valade/
  A photo of Geralyn Wehmer and bronze cast of her baby shoes are on a shelf at Gerry's Cafe in Arlington Heights. The nonprofit coffee shop is named after co-founder Amy Philpott's aunt, who was born with Down syndrome in 1958 and died shortly before Philpott's fourth birthday. Paul Valade/
  What used to be an old dry goods stockroom for Starbucks is now the bustling kitchen at Gerry's Cafe, where employees make baked goods, sandwiches and salads from scratch. Paul Valade/
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