321 Coffee Builds Community

Check out the coffee shop at the State Farmers Market, where the service is provided by volunteers who have disabilities.

Text and photography by Mick Schulte

321 coffee founder lindsay wrege with her sister kailey

321 coffee founder lindsay wrege with her sister kailey

Childhood friends can play a major role in a person’s life, and this couldn’t be more true for Lindsay Wrege, founder of 321 Coffee at the North Carolina State Farmers Market. When Emma Wissink, a girl with Down syndrome, moved to Cary in the fourth grade they were assigned a group project at school. “From the beginning of working together, Lindsay found out that Emma has a ton of valuable skills,” says Dallas Wrege, Lindsay’s father. Beyond the successful school project they created, the two girls developed a close friendship that endures to this day.

That friendship, and the many that followed with other individuals with IDD (intellectual or developmental disabilities), inspired Wrege to pursue a dream of opening her nonprofit coffee shop. She chose the name 321 Coffee to symbolize the third copy of chromosome 21 in Trisomy 21, the most common form of Down syndrome. 

The 321 Coffee shop is fully staffed by volunteers who have a variety of disabilities, including those with Down syndrome, autism, spina bifida, epilepsy, and DiGeorge syndrome. “We have an emphasis on providing meaningful work and integrating [the employees into] all aspects of the organization,” Wrege says. “The staff who have IDD really do it all, and it’s incredible to watch.” 

321 coffee employee dreyahna grunow

321 coffee employee dreyahna grunow

As a volunteer for various special needs programs while she was growing up, Wrege wondered what came next for her friends. “I was always impressed with the recreational oppor-tunities for my friends with IDD, but I noticed a lack of professional opportunities. Only 20 percent of adults with disabilities are employed, and the places that hire them usually have them doing very nominal work like cleaning bathrooms or floors—nothing very meaningful or challenging,” Wrege explains. 

She encountered better opportunities for individuals with IDD when she visited Wilmington’s Bitty & Beau’s restaurant, which has a similar concept as 321 Coffee. The restaurant’s founder, Amy Wright, won the CNN Hero of the Year award in 2017 for her work with the IDD population, and they’ve now expanded with shops in Charleston and Savannah. 

“When I saw Bitty & Beau’s, I was so inspired. The staff of individuals with IDD are doing meaningful work, and it offers a place for the community to come and interact with people with disabilities,” Wrege says. 

lindsay wrege’s youngest sister,sydney, with 321 coffee employee matthew schwab

lindsay wrege’s youngest sister,sydney, with 321 coffee employee matthew schwab