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Blending In

March 29, 2013

A Unique Coffee Bar Raises Autism Awareness

Story and Photographs © Robin Rayne Nelson/Zuma Press

RN4_7246bAtlanta, GA —  Customers who stop at the Cafe´Blends coffee bar likely just see Omar Troy as the friendly young man with the engaging smile who offers them a complementary coffee or latte while they wait for their cars to be serviced. It’s only when they take a closer look at the sign or the subtle logo on Omar’s apron that they might sense something is different.
Omar lives on the autism spectrum. He loves his job so much that he rides a bus two hours each way to get the Lexus dealership and home.
Rebecca Haskew, 28, works the morning shift at the same cafe. She experiences autism as well, but customers might not realize it at first either.  She is totally focused on making her lattes perfect, with just the right head of steamed milk foam. As she chats with customers, she stops in mid-sentence now and then to mentally review what she’s to do next.
 
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Omar and Rebecca are two of nine baristas at three Nalley Lexus and Toyota dealerships in Atlanta. The dealership service areas proudly feature the cafes for their customers, but not  just for the free coffee.
The cafes were created in partnership with Nobis Works, a local non-profit that provides job training and employment for people with disabilities.
The young baristas don’t appear any different from employees one might find at a nearby Starbucks.
“That’s the point, isn’t it?  They blend in,” explains Tracy Birdsong, a Nobis supervisor who watches over her young, energetic crew.  “Every employee who wears the apron and makes the coffees, lattes, espressos and tea lives somewhere on the autism spectrum. They are very high-functioning and they love that they have an opportunity to work and be a regular person.”
 
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The Asbury Automotive Group owns more than seventy auto dealerships in ten states, including the Nalley locations in Atlanta. 
“They came to us at Nobis Works and said, ‘We have a concept to put coffee shops in some of our dealerships for our customers who are buying cars or having their cars serviced,”‘ explained Karen Carlisle, Vice President of Nobis Works.  “They wanted to hire people on the autism spectrum and bring them into the workplace to increase public awareness of autism.”
“The managers said, ‘We don’t know anything about how to find individuals with autism or how to hire them or manage them, but we know that you do,'” Karen continued. “They asked us to help them. They opened the first cafe in 2012 and now there are three cafes in Atlanta, with more to come in other cities,” she said. An Asbury Mercedes dealership in Tampa operates a similar cafe in conjunction with a different non-profit. A Toyota dealership in Greenville, South Carolina opened in March. The automotive group hopes to open cafes in their Jacksonville, Florida and St. Louis, Missouri dealerships later this year. 
“People on the autism spectrum typically don’t  like to deal with people.  They don’t like to have eye contact, so this was a real stretch,” Karen continued.  “Our job developer worked with the Georgia Vocational Rehabilitation team and found some terrific young adults who experience autism. They hired them and worked with them, not only to train them as baristas but also to educate the dealership employees about how to work with individuals on the spectrum.”RN4_6795b
“The program succeeded because it came from the top down,” Karen said. “The general managers really wanted to do this. They were looking for a cause. One of the managers had a coffee vendor with a child with autism. and they all thought the cafes would be a great way to educate people about it.”
The sales staff and service advisors explain the concept to every customer. “They tell them everything is complimentary and it is designed to raise awareness about what autism is,” Tracy noted. “Sometimes people are afraid of what they don’t understand, but the baristas do their best to put everyone at ease.”
“I’ve had customers come up and ask what this is all about. I’ve had parents who are deeply touched because they have a child with a disability  or they know someone with autism. And they go, ‘Oh my God, there’s hope,’ and they just start crying. I’ve had people tell me they will come back time and time again to have their car serviced here just because of this.”
“I think other businesses will see the value in this project,” noted Karen. “It’s such a great public relations tool — and it’s the right thing to do. It’s a win-win for everyone.”
“We had one young woman who didn’t make eye contact with anyone when she started working here. She was very protective, like ‘don’t touch my space.’  A year later, she laughs, she hugs, she jokes, she’s become a social butterfly,” explained Tracy, who supervises two of the locations.RN4_7113b
There are three baristas at each location. Each one works a 6-hour shift by themselves, with a 30-minute lunch break. “For several hours each day it’s just them by themselves. I divide my time between two of the locations to supervise,” Tracy explained. The third location is managed  by another Nobis supervisor. The cafes are staffed whenever the service department is open —  7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday, as well as weekend service hours.RN4_6550b
“Usually I stay out of their way and let them work,” Tracy said. Occasionally I offer prompts or suggestions. I might asked them to say ‘yes’ instead of ‘yeah,’ or remind them of simple grammar. I’ll remind them to say ‘thank you’ or suggest repeating the customer’s order back to them to make sure they have it right. I’ll remind them to keep the area clean. They have a check list they go to throughout the day that serves as their own prompts. They have to be able to do this when I’m not here. They take pride in their jobs. They take ownership, like running their own coffee shop, and they work on their social skills.”
Not every person on the autism spectrum wants a job like this, warns Karen. “You need customer service skills. You have to make eye contact. You have to talk to people and be willing to step outside of your comfort zone and put yourself out there. You have to be able to speak to people and manage your time so that everything gets done.”
“There are some on the spectrum who function high enough to do the job but they’ve been sheltered by their parents,” Karen observed. “We have a tendency to shelter our children, to protect them. Thats true regardless if they have a disability or not, but especially so if they have a disability.” Karen has a child with cerebral palsy. “Sometimes the parents’ sheltering makes it so their children lack accountability for what they do or don’t do,” she said.
“If they’ve never had a job, to actually be accountable to come in on time for a job, to work their shift, to do the things they’re supposed to do, it can be tough.”RN4_6919b
“I try to make customers happy but sometimes you can’t make everyone happy. I don’t like it when people are rude. Sometimes people don’t understand disabilities,” Rebecca observed. “But I like the people who work here and most people are nice. I feel comfortable here. I like interacting with people I haven’t met before.”
“A year ago, Rebecca was far more self-conscious and wouldn’t have been able to interact with customers as she does today,” Karen noted. “It’s so wonderful to see how they each blossom on the job.”
Omar was also far more introverted before he started work at the cafe. 
“I wasn’t very social before.  When you grow up around people who are normal but you’re not, that makes it hard to interact with others and hard to communicate,” he reflected. “Being around people here  and serving them has opened me up to others who are different. Everyone is different in his own way. You have to look outside of what you’re used to.” 
Omar had considered looking for a job as an animator or computer game designer. Now he’s thinking that perhaps a job in broadcasting might be more interesting. He demonstrated his radio voice with a deeply resonant “This..is CNN’ and laughed, his eyes twinkling. 
And then he was back behind the counter to make a flavored latte, happy in the moment. His joy overflowed as he served his customers, showing everyone that autism needn’t be feared.
 
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