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Changing Perceptions of Disability, One Latte at a Time

April 10, 2018

Kennesaw Georgia’s New Independent Grounds Cafe


Independent Grounds Cafe Champions People with Special Needs

Story and Photographs by Robin Rayne/ZUMA Press

©2018 All Rights Reserved

Kennesaw, GA — Gretchen Fuchs greeted her customer at the Independent Grounds Cafe with an engaging smile that lit up the room.

“Welcome! How may I serve you?” she asked.As the petite barista steamed the milk for her customer’s order, owner Lorna Heid leaned against a gleaming espresso machine and watched with pride, convinced her café can change the way people view those with developmental disabilities — one latte at a time. The 48-year-old single Kennesaw mom employs a mix of baristas and cashiers, several of whom are, in her words, “differently-abled” because of intellectual or developmental challenges. A few employees experience autism. Several more have Down syndrome, cerebral palsy or other challenges. Heid also hired a few staffers without a disability.
Independent Grounds Cafe Champions People with Special Needs

“We all have something, don’t we? We’re all special in our own way,” Heid said, her eyes twinkling.

She calls it the ‘coffee shop with heart’ and wants to help customers better understand the world of those living with special needs, as well as provide rewarding and fun jobs for her staff.

Heid’s 17-year-old daughter, Emma, is one of the café’s servers. She has a developmental disability and was the inspiration behind the café venture.

Independent Grounds Cafe Champions People with Special Needs

Emma Heid chats with a customer at the cafe

“I wanted to create a place where Emma can work and love it,” she said. Her daughter, now a sophomore at Kennesaw Mountain High School, contracted meningitis as a baby that caused brain damage and developmental delays, challenges she has worked to overcome. 

“As a parent you spend years dreaming about what your child can accomplish, but as a parent of a special needs child you often find yourself tempering those dreams. I wanted to show the community what Emma and all her peers can truly accomplish.” 

Heid briefly considered purchasing a fast food franchise so her daughter would always have a place to work, but was discouraged by the required investment and previous business experience.“About the same time, I saw a video about this woman who has two children with Down syndrome in North Carolina. She opened a coffee shop and hired servers with disabilities. I thought that was something I could do,” she said. Heid said she knew she would have support from the special needs community, especially here in Georgia. 

“Emma’s been in gymnastics since she was two years old and doing the Special Olympics. I knew the girls and young women she did gymnastics with would make great employees. I knew some of her fellow students at Kennesaw Mountain High School would make great employees. Their personalities would shine in a place like this,” she said.

Heid said her biggest problem was navigating the licensing requirements to open her business.  “A lot of hoops to jump though,” she said.

She remembered an older house in Kennesaw’s Legacy Park that had once been an ice cream shop.“Emma had her second birthday party here. It had been vacant for nearly four years when Emma and I stopped to see it. We visited just as a maintenance fellow was finishing up some work. I said, ‘I want this place,’” she said.

Heid left her insurance defense paralegal career in December. She leased the house off Jiles Road, completed her business plan, secured the state license, hired the café’s employees and learned everything she could about the art of making coffee. The café opened in early March.


 “I had to do a lot of research about the best espresso machines. They are very complicated and expensive, but I wanted it to be an authentic coffee experience for our customers. I didn’t want my employees to just press a button and a drink comes out. I told them ‘this is a real coffee shop and you are doing a real job. We are training you to have real skills.’ They have to know how many shots of espresso go into each drink, what flavors to add, the difference between a latte and a cappuccino, all these things,” Heid said. 

Independent Grounds Cafe Champions People with Special Needs

Gretchen Fuchs at the barista bar

The café’s machine is identical to those used throughout Europe, she said. The coffee beans come from a supplier in Smyrna who imports unroasted beans from several countries. 

“He knows his beans are ‘fair trade’ and of excellent quality,” she said. “He blends them and roasts them at his shop. The machine we have steams the milk perfectly and pulls the espresso shots. It allows our staff to make the drinks on their own, be creative, and serve a really good coffee.”

The menu consists of a variety of coffee and espresso-based drinks as well as pastries. The café provides free Wi-Fi and sells t-shirts and travel mugs as well as its own private blend of coffee beans. There are a variety of smaller rooms available for quiet conversations, study, work or just a place to read a book while enjoying their brew, with the subtle aroma of freshly ground coffee beans filling the house. The staff is cheerful and playful, clearly loving their jobs, their coworkers and their customers.

“Every employee brings something fresh to the team,” Heid said. “I have each employee try all the different jobs to see what they like best.”

Independent Grounds Cafe Champions People with Special Needs

When Meaghan Brox, 30, applied for a job, she hoped for work that was more challenging than wiping tables at a fast food franchise. “I didn’t like my job anymore. It didn’t challenge me. I worked there for 11 years,” Brox said.

Heid said she knew Brox was capable of more. 

 “She loves her job here. She’s so excited that she gets to greet her customers make drinks for them, and she keeps track of every drink she creates,” Heid said. 

Parents of special needs children must constantly make adjustments to their lives, Heid said. 

“When Emma was a baby, I went to mom groups, taking her to physical therapy, occupational therapy and speech therapy. We weren’t just doing play dates, we had doctor appointments and specialists.”

Once her daughter was in kindergarten, Heid realized life would take a path far different from what she envisioned. Independent Grounds Cafe Champions People with Special Needs

Lorna Heid, center, with a few of her valued staff

“As inclusive as the schools try to be, there’s only so much they can do,” she said. “As they get older you think about what they are going to do in life — how will they perform into society, will they be independent, or will they live with me?” Heid said. “Emma loves little kids and they love her. She’s like a ‘little kid whisperer.’ I always thought she could work in a day care place. But the day care would need to accept Emma’s limitations, and understand there were things she could do but there were things she couldn’t do or recognize.”“This café is a place where Emma can really take it and make it her own. The beans are even named after her — a private label from our supplier called ‘Emma’s Brew.’Independent Grounds Cafe Champions People with Special Needs

Meaghan Brox and Gretchen Fuchs prepare customers’ coffee orders

Independent Grounds Cafe Champions People with Special Needs


 Customer Nicolette Elommal lives near the café.  “As the mother of a special needs child, this café gives me hope,” Elommal said.  “It’s warm and cozy and welcoming, but what I love most is what it represents. My son is on the Autism spectrum and he’s pretty severe, but I’m hopeful for my son’s future.”

Heid is willing to share her café’s business plan with parents of special needs children in other communities so their children will always have a place to work.  “It could serve as a model,” she said.Heid’s younger daughter Katelyn, soon-to-be 15, looks forward to working at the café with her sister over the summer. “Siblings of special needs children sacrifice a lot, just as the parents do. I wanted to do this for both my children as well as for myself,” Heid said. “I wanted to show them that woman can do just about anything.”

Heid hopes other business owners will consider hiring more employees with disabilities. 

“It won’t affect their business negatively. It will only enhance their business, maybe even give them an edge,” allowing people with disabilities to become part of their communities, she said. As her business grows, Heid said the café’s hours will likely expand into evening hours. “I’ll need to hire more staff. I’ll need college students too. We’re all about inclusivity here, and we’re all a team.”

Independent Grounds Cafe Champions People with Special Needs

Emma Heid proudly displays the coffee blend named after her, ‘Emma’s Brew.’

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