Local hero: serving dignity in a cup

Authored by Michael Jahr

“I didn’t grow up to like the idea that we’ve made heroes out of businesspeople, but if you’re bringing jobs to a community and treating people well, then you are a hero.”

Bono, lead singer for U2

Mackenzie Edinger admits she doesn’t like coffee.

This might not seem like a meaningful confession until you learn that Edinger is the proprietor of a flourishing coffee shop in Hartland, Wisconsin. Since opening the doors of Inclusion Coffee Company last year, she has served more than 80,000 customers their favorite brews and other culinary offerings.

So what prompted the 24-year-old coffee hater to get into the java business? Simply put, she saw a need and decided to address it.

At the time, Edinger was working toward a master’s degree in educational leadership and policy analysis at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. She envisioned herself working as a school principal and a special education director.

But a chance online discovery of a unique Boston coffee shop dramatically changed her vocational trajectory.

The shop, Bitty & Beau’s, employed people with special needs. Edinger, who received her bachelor’s degree in special education, had a passion for people with developmental disabilities. And she knew they often face challenges finding work.

“I was like, ‘There is nothing like that in Wisconsin,’” she says. “So, it was kind of just an overnight, ‘You should probably do something like this.’”

The timing wasn’t ideal. Businesses across the country were still reeling from COVID-19. Americans were avoiding places where people congregated. Millions of retail and service employees were still collecting unemployment.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” her parents asked.

If that wasn’t enough of a hurdle, Edinger lacked business experience.

“I took business classes in high school,” she concedes with a grin, “but that’s about it.”

Despite the obstacles, she found an available storefront online and secured the backing of an investor. By March 2022, fewer than eight months since Edinger set things in motion, Inclusion Coffee Company was serving its first customer.

Her instincts about pent-up demand for employment in the special needs community were quickly confirmed. At one point, Edinger had a waiting list of 300 people seeking to join her team.

The shop, located in a small strip mall just off of Interstate 94 in the idyllic village of Hartland, is a celebration of its employees. Colorful, oversized photographs of workers in action line a long wall overlooking the dining area. A large-screen monitor in the corner flashes images of individual employees, listing their names, hobbies, favorites sports teams and other personal interests. Their faces beam at you from photos affixed to the napkin dispensers.

“It’s really a part of my life,” says 24-year-old Nathan Kehoe of Inclusion, where he’s worked for the past year and a half. “I like working here. And there’s a wonderful staff.

“It was like the Lord Jesus Christ has answered my prayers, to open this door for me to work here.”

Edinger not only provides her employees with valuable work experience and skills, she helps them form a sense of community, says Michelle Kehoe, Nathan’s mother and a regular customer. Edinger will host a pizza night for the crew or, as she did recently, take them to see Taylor Swift’s new movie.

“Mackenzie is an amazing person,” says Michelle. “She’s a very kind, loving person. And she’s like that with her team.

“Nathan, working in a normal regular coffee shop, which is what this is, gives him a purpose and activity and a learning and growing experience,” she adds. “I feel like she offered all of that because of her education and because of her determination and personality. I don’t know how she figured it all out, but I just know the result of it, that my son works here, and he loves working here.”

The model has been so successful that Edinger is looking for property to open a second shop.

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Entrepreneurs like Edinger and businesses like Inclusion Coffee provide an enormous service to society, according to Stephen Barrows, CFO of the Acton Institute, a Michigan-based think-tank that promotes a free and virtuous society. 

“That service is not restricted to the mere provision of goods and services; it is also the service of creating jobs,” says Barrows. “In doing so, entrepreneurs and businesses fulfill an essential aspect of human dignity: the opportunity to work.  Work strengthens individuals, enables families to flourish as the essential cell of society, and serves a broader social function for the entire community.”

Employment for those with disabilities is on the rise. The labor force participation rate for people with disabilities age 16 and older is just over 24%, up from 23% in 2022, according to the U.S. Department of Labor Office of Disability Employment Policy.

But that still leaves three-quarters of people with disabilities disengaged from the workplace. And this contributes to hardship and poor health for those without work, according to Angela Rachidi, senior fellow and Rose Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

A 2020 study authored by Rachidi found that, “Disability and health-related issues have been the top contributors to declines in labor force participation among people in their prime working years (age 25–54), causing both increased poverty rates and the perpetuation of poor health for many Americans.”

Her report concluded that the current patchwork of government safety-net programs is “extremely flawed,” offering unrestricted material sup­port while treating low-income, prime-age people with disabilities as incapable of working. The result is that the very people the government is trying to help are often deprived of an opportunity to achieve economic security.

“This makes connecting more prime-age people with disabilities and health issues to the labor force worthy of policy attention,” Rachidi wrote.

When asked why it’s important for people with disabilities to work, Edinger doesn’t hesitate.

“Our customers love coming in here,” she says. “I mean, you see them with a smile all the time.”

“Why shouldn’t they when everyone else does?” she asks. “I mean, they’re the same as you and I, and they should be able to. They have skills, probably better than some of ours. Some of their strengths are a lot of our weaknesses.”

She points out that one of her employees, Emma, compliments almost every customer who walks through the door on their attire. “Our customers love coming in here,” she says. “I mean, you see them with a smile all the time.”

Even when individuals with disabilities do have employment, they’re often tasked with menial jobs, Edinger says.

“You always see them working, cleaning tables, bagging groceries. There’s so much more for them to do than just the kind of work that no one else wants to do.

“Our employees learn everything,” she adds. “They learn drive through, they learn cash register, they learn customer service, they learn it all. Obviously, they’re still doing the cleaning, the bathrooms, cleaning the tables, doing all that stuff. But they’re also doing so much more than that.”

That’s what Michelle Kehoe wants for Nathan, who she says has much to offer the community.

“I always want to make sure that he’s working someplace where he’s an asset,” she says. “I don’t want him to work someplace just because he has a label on him. I want him to be able to offer something where he is.”

The dignity of work applies to those with physical or cognitive limitations, according to Barrows. He commends Edinger for seeing the value and potential of everyone.

“Inclusion Coffee Company is an excellent example of how free enterprise creates opportunities for such individuals, and thereby promotes economic flourishing and human dignity through the power of work,” he says. “In doing so, it avoids the all-too-frequent shortcomings of government intervention and aid, which can degenerate into make-work programs of questionable value, or even worse, create a dependency trap. 

“While there are certainly cases where charity is in order, we should not succumb to prejudices which impose artificial limits on persons, or biases which obscure the power of the marketplace.”

Edinger encourages others with an entrepreneurial vision for helping their communities to follow in her footsteps.

“I always say just take the risk. If there’s something that you want to do, try it. You never know what could happen.”

Michael Jahr is a communications consultant in Wisconsin.

Authored by:Michael Jahr


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