This shop aims to spark change for people with disabilities, and strike up a conversation for businesses everywhere

Could all businesses be this forward-thinking?

Anastasia and Katie's (Photo provided by Kelly Rockwell/Anastasia and Katie's Facebook page)

Every now and again, you hear about a company or a shop that transcends the business itself. It has a higher purpose, and aims to make meaningful change: In the industry, the local community or even the world.

Anastasia and Katie’s Coffee Shop and Café, in Livonia, Michigan, is one of those businesses.

Named after two 14-year-old girls with Down syndrome, Anastasia and Katie’s opened in December 2019. The coffee shop, which serves coffee, tea, breakfast, lunch and snacks, aims to employ people living with disabilities, and provide the appropriate training -- along with on-site support and a paycheck -- in a welcoming, community-based business.

A mission lingers in the air at Anastasia and Katie’s, and it all boils down to opportunity and inclusion for all.

It sounds simple: Shouldn’t all businesses offer those two elements -- opportunity and inclusion? An obvious answer is probably a resounding YES. But this coffee shop truly embodies its core values and principles, and is working toward its mission every day.

Once the shop debuted, it was immediately embraced by the employees and the locals. It even says as much on the business’s website, but Kelly Rockwell echoed that sentiment in a recent phone call.

You can hear the passion in her voice when she talks about Anastasia and Katie’s, named in part after Rockwell’s own daughter, Anastasia. Rockwell is a co-founder and board member of the nonprofit organization Mi Work Matters, a volunteer-run group made up of parents, families, caregivers and advocates of people with developmental disabilities.

It’s this group that runs the coffee shop. Another co-founder of Mi Work Matters, Dan Duffy, is father of Katie, the other girl mentioned in the shop’s name.

The nonprofit organization didn’t just fall into this project of opening and running an all-inclusive coffee shop. It was a huge undertaking. And Mi Work Matters aims to create these paid work opportunities for people with developmental disabilities, so it just made sense.

Rockwell, Duffy and another of their fellow co-founders, Gale Wilcox, started forming a plan to open in 2018. By late 2019, the coffee shop had become a reality, with a ribbon-cutting ceremony taking place Jan. 14, 2020. Hundreds attended, said Rockwell, adding that this was pre-pandemic, of course.

The pandemic

But of course, speaking of the pandemic, COVID-19 arrived in the United States earlier this year and impacted businesses everywhere.

The shop was doing well until March, Rockwell said. They shut down in mid-March, reopened in June, and in an October conversation, Rockwell said business was “steadily picking back up,” but “not yet to levels pre-pandemic.”

Now, considering Michigan’s latest partial COVID-19 shutdown, the shop is closed for dine-in, but able to accommodate carryout and curbside orders.

“We’ve had some ups and downs with the COVID disruptions, but business has been good over the last several weeks,” Rockwell said earlier this week. “We have been hustling. We have added online ordering and employees are making things like chocolate bark packaged for gift-giving. We are selling merchandise and have added bagged coffee, too.”

The shop also added smoothies and frozen blended coffee drinks to the menu, thanks to a donation from 242 Community Church in Livonia, which allowed the store to purchase commercial blenders.

That’s not all.

It’s neat to hear how the shop is thriving and getting inventive in these unprecedented times, and it’s uplifting to hear they have local support. They’re also in the process of rolling out a Boxed Lunch Giving Program that will allow employees to give back to the community.

What a cool idea. They want to support a community that supports them.

An example of a gift item. (Provided by Kelly Rockwell)

‘The opportunity came about at the right time’

The girls, Anastasia and Katie, it’s worth mentioning, don’t work at the coffee shop, although pre-pandemic, they did like coming in for an occasional treat -- remember, they’re only 14 years old. Still, Anastasia and Katie serve as the inspiration for the business; the driving force.

“(They’re why we) put so much time and energy into it,” Rockwell said. “We’re thinking about opportunities for them.”

Those are words most people can relate to, especially parents. We all want more for our kids.

And the goal isn’t just hiring strictly people with disabilities. The group aims to achieve a more balanced workforce. (More on that soon!)

For now, consider these numbers: 81% of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities are unemployed, compared to 9% of individuals without disabilities, according to an Employment First in Michigan put together by the Michigan Developmental Disabilities Council, Rockwell said.

That’s quite a difference.

Simply put, it can be harder to find a job when you’re living with developmental disabilities. Fewer opportunities exist, or there are challenges and hurdles, such as transportation. A large number of people with these kinds of disabilities don’t drive, Rockwell said.

The nonprofit group wanted to do something -- to be the change it hoped to see in the world, as the saying goes. To hire, to educate others, to be a force for good.

“Someone on the board became aware of a space, and the opportunity came about at the right time,” Rockwell said.

The group had heard about other, similar models for inclusive coffee shops, and thought it would be a natural fit.

“Meeting with people, socializing -- everyone likes to talk and meet over a cup of coffee,” Rockwell said.

‘Eye-opening’ for all

It was important to the group that the coffee shop hires people with and without disabilities. For people with disabilities, the job would provide a fair wage, training, and support, so that employees could succeed in their positions. And for anyone else, the all-inclusive workplace can still provide an immense benefit.

“It’s an opportunity for people to work (with someone with a developmental disability), which helps take away the stigma,” Rockwell said.

Mi Work Matters also has an employment ambassadors advocacy program, which helps to open up a conversation about what it might look like for businesses to take on somebody with a disability.

People within the program talk to local businesses about things like hiring, and hope to continue the program post-pandemic. It can be really eye-opening, Rockwell said.

For a while, the shop was getting questions weekly about job opportunities. Rockwell said they still field inquiries about hiring, but the number has seemed to drop off with COVID-19 rates rising again.

“I wish we were able to hire right now, but it’s such a small space,” Rockwell said in October. “It does go to show you there’s a need out there.”

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