Inspired Coffee: Service With More Than a Smile

inspired coffee

By Rachel Wisinski

When Erik Barber took over as president of Walworth-based Inspiration Ministries three years ago, he knew he needed to establish a vision for the nonprofit’s future.

This spring, Barber’s vision will start to take shape with the opening of a new coffee shop and bakery in downtown Lake Geneva. However, the establishment won’t be your typical neighborhood coffee shop. Inspired Coffee’s goal is to teach people with special needs transferable job skills they can take beyond the coffee shop into the working world.

Inspiration Ministries serves as a residential provider for about 70 individuals age 21 and older living with various disabilities. In Barber’s quest to ensure it remains relevant to the needs of the community, he visited several families and agencies dedicated to people with disabilities. What he found was most people lack the resources to train these individuals, and job opportunities fizzle out due to limitations.

Another thing that stood out was workplace diversity. “Today, we live in a world where diversity is really celebrated, and that has implications for people with disabilities,” Barber says.

Roger Wolff, another founding member of the project, has witnessed these implications firsthand. His 36-year-old son, Adam, has Down syndrome, and although Adam has found success working part time at Piggly Wiggly in Lake Geneva, Wolff knows not everyone is fortunate enough to have the same experience.

Opportunities for young adults with disabilities who age out of the education system at 21 are limited, and Wolff says Inspired Coffee seeks to fill that need. “Our goal was to create a vocational opportunity for them to get out of the house and make money, and to get the community to realize that people with special needs have a role and a place in society,” Wolff says.

OPENING NEW TERRITORY

While Barber’s extensive research showed about 50 coffee shops across the country employ people with special needs, he believes Inspired Coffee will be the only one with a goal of providing more than traditional employment. “We are creating a training program, a five-step process for people over the course of a year where the real goal is training and preparing them for work in other places,” Barber says.

Barber’s homework has also included consulting with local residents with varying degrees of expertise in running businesses and working with people who have disabilities. He also has reached out to some of the other coffee shops across the U.S. to gain insights to their operations.

Although Inspiration Ministries has a resident pool eligible to work at Inspired Coffee, Barber says the venture looks to extend its influence further, reaching out to a new group of people. The nonprofit has coordinated with local high schools, colleges and clients with the goal of hiring 20 to 30 employees who will work an average of 15 hours a week.

Barber and his colleagues are in the process of recruiting a general manager with business expertise and a sensitivity to people with disabilities to oversee the process. Additionally, three talent development managers will be responsible for teaching job tasks to trainees. A floater without disabilities will fill any uncovered shifts.

Broader skills will be taught after hours through online and facilitated modules, according to Barber. “We’re really looking to provide a foundational component of how to work and function in the workplace,” he says.

WORLD OF SUPPORT

Launching Inspired Coffee as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit under Inspiration Ministries enables it to raise “significant funds,” according to Merik Fell, development director at Inspiration Ministries.

Entering 2020, the organization was in the process of a $400,000 fundraising campaign to cover costs associated with renovations at the former Caribou/ Peet’s coffee shop at 883 W. Main St., as well as furnishings, equipment, marketing, and initial labor and wages.

Fell says Inspired Coffee has received “an encouraging outpouring of sup- port.” He explains, “We are asking for significant gifts, and the response has pretty consistently been that they want to do 21⁄2 times what we are asking. You don’t see that in fundraising.”

Fell says he’s confident the ministry will reach its goal by the coffee shop’s grand opening, planned for April.

Although the shell for the coffee shop and bakery is in place, Fell says Inspired Coffee will incorporate the coziness of Caribou by adding comfortable chairs and a fireplace, which people seemed to enjoy.

According to Wolff, they are building the space to be flexible, so Inspired Coffee can host community movie nights and accommodate other gatherings as a private or public venue.

LOCATION IS KEY

After narrowing down the list of possible sites to about 10, Barber says Inspiration Ministries chose the former Caribou/Peet’s location because of its proximity to Geneva Lake and the advantages that brings.

“Lake Geneva presented a unique opportunity because of the foot traffic in the summertime, and with people coming in and out of town all year,” Barber says. “We thought it would be a great place for us to be able to spread the message about the value people with disabilities should have in the community.”

Inspired Coffee will operate as a full- scale coffee shop, but it likely won’t include the variety of options available at places like Starbucks because employees may have a difficult time adjusting to extraordinary requests, Barber says.

While still working to finalize the menu, he anticipates a variety of mochas, lattes, teas and smoothies as well as bakery items that pair well with coffee, especially gluten-free products for those with dietary restrictions.

“We’re hoping that this coffee shop will change the conversation about people with disabilities,” Barber says. “We want it to be a place they can be celebrated — a fun place where people leave with a smile on their face and the recognition of the value and work that people with disabilities should have in the community.”

Even before its opening, Fell says he’d like to replicate the concept in other communities. “If Lake Geneva is an indication, it’s something that’s really needed,” he says. “We don’t want to limit ourselves to Lake Geneva, but we have to open and see if it’s successful.”

Wolff says Inspired Coffee will find success because people would rather support a local business than the corporate world. He also believes the concept will spread a feeling of comfort about people who are different.

“I think the community is going to learn to be probably more accepting,” Wolff says, “and employers are going to get a potential employee that takes some of the fear out of ‘If I hire this person, I don’t know how to train them.’”

BRIGHT FUTURE AHEAD

Inspiration Ministries has worked hard to build relationships with employer partners throughout Walworth County and beyond so that when Inspired Coffee churns out job-ready candidates, it knows which employers will be willing to hire them.

The organization also is collaborating with Delavan-based Tri-C Career Services, a planning firm for people with disabilities that created an application process to adequately assess candidates who want to work at Inspired Coffee, Barber says.

State and local schools and agencies are excited about the process, and Barber doesn’t anticipate any shortage of people wanting to take advantage of the opportunity. He estimated there are 6,300 people with disabilities of all ages in Walworth County communities.

“Unemployment for people with disabilities has declined, so I really think this is a movement, and it’s not going to change,” Barber says.

“It’s about more than coffee and training,” he says. “It’s a larger social message, as well.”

For information or an application, visit inspiredcoffee.org.