At This Inclusive Coffee Shop, the Mission Is Grander Than a Latte

Danielle Ciaravino, a 27-year-old from South Tampa, is the founder of Coffee Uniting People (CUP), a coffee shop that employs people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The cafe opened in 2023, but its origin story began about 10 years ago at a Little League Baseball game. Greg Jones, a lawyer from South Tampa, was inspired to help his special needs child play in local leagues due to the lack of a division. He later pursued a master’s degree in family and youth sciences and a certificate in nonprofit leadership.

Jones started thinking about what the kids in the baseball program would do when they became adults and decided to open a coffee shop that employed people with special needs to work alongside neurotypical adults. He formed a board from like-minded neighbors and got to work. The initial plan was to open a coffee shop in his church, Bayshore Baptist, but that got scuttled by zoning issues. So he decided to dream bigger and made a deal for a spot on South Dale Mabry Highway, one of the city’s busiest thoroughfares, for the first cafe. Volunteers and donors helped with the build out, an expensive proposition even at a fraction of the market value of the work.

On the way to opening that first cafe in the summer of 2023, the first planned one would become the second to open. A couple miles away in downtown Tampa, the Embarc Collective, a nonprofit organization that provides advice and infrastructure for start-ups, had lost the coffee shop that served its building and was looking for a new tenant for the space. When Embarc’s chief executive, Lakshmi Shenoy, heard about CUP, she offered them the space without build out required.

For Shenoy, it was an extension of the mission. CUP is a nonprofit start-up that just happened to fill a need. For Jones, it was an acceleration toward the dream of multiple locations. It meant that he could hire twice as many people as he had initially planned. The cafe has about three dozen employees and roughly that many more on a waiting list to work there.

CUP is similar in mission to Bitty & Beau’s, a North Carolina-based chain of 20 shops spread around the country. It describes itself as a human rights movement disguised as a coffee shop and employs about 400 people with special needs. However, CUP is a nonprofit, meaning any profits legally must be reinvested in the company to benefit the mission.

CUP cafes are a popular destination for customers seeking a caffeine fix and a personal stake in the company. Many customers are excited to take a break from work to talk about their favorite employees and the progress they’ve witnessed over the months. Some employees, such as Anna Shoop, who enjoys serving coffee to everyone and cleaning everything, have shared their favorite people and dislikes with the staff.

At the downtown location, Cameron Shaw, 23, is learning to bake and has interviewed for a job at Mike’s Pies, a local bakery that makes the pies that CUP sells in its cafes. This is an integral part of CUP’s business model, as it hopes that employees it invests time and effort in training go out and find jobs elsewhere. This is seen as a major victory not just because of the success it signals for that employee but also because it creates a spot for the next person on the waiting list to get their chance.

A day after visiting CUP, a Starbucks near Disney World in Orlando was swamped and had a sign on the cash register that said drinks and food orders would probably take 25 minutes to fill. The chaos was evident as the workers were moving fast and didn’t seem to catch up. The staff at CUP managed all that in about three minutes, which is an example of how patience can be a matter of perspective.

In summary, CUP cafes are a popular destination for customers looking for a caffeine fix and a personal stake in the company. Employees are excited to share their love for their jobs and the success of their careers.

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