Peper column Bitty and Beau's

Ashlyn pours a coffee for customer at Bitty and Beau's on Church Street in downtown Charleston. Warren Peper/Provided

When you walk into this 1,000-square-foot shop on Church Street, you immediately notice two things: the smell of coffee and the sound of laughter. That’s not a bad combination, no matter the time of day or day of the week.

At this particular coffee shop, though, there’s a great deal more to appreciate, and the discerning customer usually notices something is different before somebody can say "frappe java whip."

“Welcome to Bitty and Beau’s” is the customary greeting. One of the employees, Cassie, delivers the greeting as soon as a new customer enters. Her fellow employees, Jerry and Ashlyn, stand waiting to take the order.

The little shop opened four months ago. The first one opened in Wilmington, N.C., in 2016, founded by Amy Wright. She was a mother of four and her two youngest children were born with Down syndrome.

It was while noticing how some people reacted to and misunderstood those born this way that Amy decided to change people’s perceptions.

How could that be accomplished? She decided to open a business that hired primarily people with intellectual and development disabilities.

Recognize and respect

It was a rainy, Thursday afternoon that I tasted what Bitty and Beau’s was serving. The coffee was certainly good enough. But there was plenty more to digest.

Customers were clearly being treated to a unique experience.

Jerry was at the register. He’s a big young man from Moncks Corner and he politely tells each customer this is a cashless business. Jerry also told me privately, later, that “it’s really nice to have a source of income.”

None of these people had ever been employed before.

Cassie, whose family moved to Charleston from Tennessee two years ago, said when she was hired, “I was really happy. I started crying.”

Overseeing this shift is manager Kyra Masuga, a former Charleston County special education teacher. Kyra is kindly intentional with her directions.

“Cassie, why don’t you check the lids? Jerry, you count the number of T-shirts. Ashlyn, you straighten the chairs.”

The menu options are limited to coffee, muffins and some cold drinks. But believe me, there’s a whole lot more to be gained by the paying customer.

An estimated 70 percent of those with intellectual and development disabilities are unemployed in this country. To many, having a job makes you feel that you matter.

It certainly matters to the folks at 159 Church St. And it matters to the customers, too.

A cup of perspective

Most customers enter Bitty and Beau’s seeking nothing more than coffee. I talked with people from Kentucky, Chicago and Texas who knew nothing about the backstory, but further wanted to sit and sip while they watched the entire operation at work.

This business model is not designed to be rushed and quick. There’s no drive-thru, and besides the coffee, there’s an effort to make the customer appreciate the warmth and hospitality of the South.

A mom or dad often appears at the door to pick up their family member after his or her shift is over. “See you tomorrow” or “Have a good night” is said with such genuine feeling that you immediately understand how much these folks love their jobs.

The name of the shop? The two children of the Wright’s. It was originally called Beau’s, but when the Wright’s brought Bitty into the world, it was Beau who suggested his sister’s name should also be on the sign.

Like I said, there’s more than coffee being served in this little shop. Every customer leaves with a huge cup of perspective.

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