Amid the afternoon rush and roar of the blender at the new Bitty & Beau’s Coffee in Houston’s Rice Village neighborhood, customers couldn’t miss Andrés Suarez’s distinct voice and charm as he called for their drink orders on Thursday.

“Eight of hearts!” he yelled with authority as he came to the rescue of a supervisor struggling to be heard over the commotion.

Rather than calling a customer’s name when their order is ready, risking mispronunciation or confusion by employees, Bitty & Beau’s gives customers a playing card that’s tied to their order. It’s one of many ways that the national chain puts people with disabilities at the forefront, helping to create a self-described “radically inclusive” workplace for employees.

  • Coffee shop caller hands an order
  • Playing cards and markers

For Suarez, a 26-year-old from Katy who has Down syndrome, the card system helped give him confidence on the job, allowing him to grow into a leader that family and friends always knew he could be.

“It didn’t take him a lot of time to blossom,” said store manager Luke Westall, noting that some employees are initially timid. “He took a lot of ownership early on.”

In Bitty & Beau’s, employees like Suarez have found a rare employer willing to welcome and celebrate, rather than tolerate, people with disabilities. Nearly all of the store’s employees are people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, such as autism, cerebral palsy and Down syndrome.

The company, which operates 23 stores nationwide, now employs about 25 Houston-area residents after opening its first shop here in January. In doing so, Bitty & Beau’s is helping to address lower than average employment rates for working-age people with disabilities, who are roughly half as likely as people without disabilities to hold a job, according to federal surveys.

“We felt like it was time to flip the narrative and say people with disabilities have a lot of skills they can bring to the workplace,” said Amy Wright, the co-founder of the national chain. “Give them a chance and look at what they can do.”

Already, Bitty & Beau’s has brought out the best in Suarez. 

“One day, when given the opportunity, I think he’ll be a great leader,” said Elma Murray, who serves with Suarez in ministry at St. Bartholomew the Apostle Catholic Church in Katy. “And this opportunity is just a blessing for Andrés, for all of us to see the potential he can hope for.”

Andrés Suarez looks up to a projection of green light spots in the bedroom of his Katy home before heading to Bitty & Beau’s Coffee for his work shift Feb. 13. (Marie D. De Jesús / Houston Landing)

Worth the sacrifice 

Before he joined Bitty & Beau’s, Suarez had a convenient five-minute commute to a McDonald’s store near his home. But his potential was capped there, as the hustle and bustle environment and frequently rude customers overwhelmed him.

“He worked really hard, but people that go to McDonald’s were always in a hurry, so some customers got mad because he was taking too long,” said his mother, Jackie Devia. “I was so worried because he likes to please people, so he would get so upset about angry customers. It would break my heart.”

Now, Suarez and his mother make the nearly hour-long drive from Katy to Rice Village. It’s a sacrifice Devia, a retired health clinic worker, is willing to make to see Suarez’s face light up every time he prepares for a shift — even if it means racking up hundreds of miles on her Honda CR-V each week.

“It’s just perfect,” she said. “The commute is long but I don’t mind because he’s in a nice, safe place. If I wake him up at 5, he’s happy. He’s having fun.”

The sacrifice is felt most when preparing for an 8 a.m. shift.

By 6 a.m., Suarez is already dressed in his uniform: short-sleeve black polo shirt, black jeans, black belt, his favorite wheat-colored Skechers boots. By 6:30 a.m., they’re en route to avoid traffic. That routine frequently gets them to Bitty & Beau’s with 15 to 20 minutes to spare. 

On a Monday morning in February, Devia and Suarez arrives about 20 minutes early to a dimly lit shop as managers removed stacked chairs from tables. Devia gives Suarez a hug and a kiss on the cheek as she says her goodbyes: “I love you so much.”

Once inside, Suarez feels at home. He passes time by joking with two coworkers, Lance Murrell and Michelle Solovitz, who have become his friends. He grabs his beige apron and name tag, clocks in by dialing his employee ID into a landline phone and heads behind the counter.

As a caller, Suarez is responsible for assisting the drink maker with preparing orders and serving them to the customer. Business starts off slow, so he ensures everything is fully stocked, neat and clean. Napkins? Check. Forks and knives? Check. Half and Half? Check.

Behind the counter

When customers begin to arrive, everyone greets them with an exuberant, “Welcome to Bitty & Beau’s!” often before customers get a chance to glance at the menu. Once they order, the cashier hands them a playing card: either a heart or diamond.

Bitty & Beau’s Coffee caller Andrés Suarez raises a playing card and a receipt whole calling out an order ready for pick up Jan. 14 in Houston’s Rice Village neighborhood. (Marie D. De Jesús / Houston Landing)

The cashier slips the order into a transparent plastic sleeve with the playing card and passes it down the line to the drink maker. Once the order is prepared, Suarez is next in line. He checks the sleeve for accuracy before calling the card.

While the card system simplifies the workflow for employees, it sometimes gets overlooked by some customers who get carried away in conversation and are used to listening for their name.

Sometimes it requires patience and repeating it more than once, but customers are understanding, supervisor Lacey Madeley said. Since the Houston coffee shop opened, they’ve received only a handful of angry customers, she said. On one particular occasion, management asked a patron to leave rather than reprimanding an employee for making an error.

If anything, customers can sometimes be a little too chatty.

“People want to talk to our employees too much, and we have to remind them that they have to work,” Madeley said.

Some shifts are busier than others, but even on slow shifts, Suarez is busy. He’s making conversation with customers, complimenting them on their attire, offering high-fives and recommending some of his favorite drinks (frozen hot chocolate tops the list). 

“The customers are so nice to me,” Suarez said, smiling.

Bitty Wright, center, 13, dances with family and friends at Bitty & Beau’s Coffee in Houston during its grand opening event Jan. 14. Wright is one of the founders’ children. (Marie D. De Jesús / Houston Landing)

‘A sense of community’

The warm environment is the norm at Bitty & Beau’s Coffee. 

Founded in 2016 by Amy and Ben Wright in their hometown of Wilmington, North Carolina, the couple named the company after two of their children, Bitty and Beau, who have Down syndrome. 

The couple hopes to cultivate a more-inclusive world where people with disabilities are valued, respected and accepted. Roughly 40 percent of people with disabilities between the ages of 18 and 65 are employed, compared to nearly 80 percent of those without disabilities.

“There’s a sense of community at a coffee shop,” Amy Wright said. “We remove all the barriers between our employees and the guests. We don’t have any equipment on the front bar so that lots of conversations can take place, and so that guests can really see our employees in action and see what they’re capable of doing.”

That approach quickly launched Bitty & Beau’s into the national spotlight. They started with 19 employees; today, Bitty & Beau’s Coffee has more than 400 employees across 12 states. 

The company also mandated that any franchisees pay employees at least state minimum wage, plus tips, forgoing a part of federal labor law that allows certified employers to pay workers with disabilities less than the minimum wage. A federal study published earlier this year identified about 120,000 people with disabilities receiving below-minimum pay, with more than half earning less than $3.50 per hour.

At Bitty & Beau’s Coffee Houston, employees earn at least $11 to $13 an hour, plus tips, said Houston franchise owner Drew Scoggins.

Houston has been on the couple’s radar for a while, Amy Wright said, noting an outpouring of support and requests to bring a location to the Bayou City. 

“There was no shortage of employees, we had plenty of people that needed jobs, and we just feel like this location, this part of Houston, is going to be great for reaching a lot of people,” Amy Wright said.

Then they found the “perfect fit” in husband-and-wife franchisees Drew and Kelly Scoggins, two business executives in energy and investment management.

“They have, between the two of them, just a wealth of experience, coupled with a passion for creating a better community,” Amy Wright said. “They have a daughter with Down syndrome, too, so it just really aligned with what we’re doing and how they feel about people with disabilities.”

Devia said having a location in Houston was like “heaven,” noting she cried when Suarez got the job. As previous residents of Atlanta for 21 years, they had heard of the concept, but the closest location was a four-hour drive to Savannah.

Although Suarez has only marked five months at Bitty & Beau’s, she hopes it’ll be a longtime career for him. But that will come with time, she adds, once he’s comfortable moving up to other positions like a drink maker or cashier. 

“I think in the beginning, he gets a little scared,” Devia said. “He thinks, ‘I can’t do that.’ Once he’s sure he’s able to do it, once he gets the confidence in himself, he says, ‘Oh yeah, I want to do this.’”

Republish our articles for free, online or in print.

Monique Welch covers diverse communities for the Houston Landing. She was previously an engagement reporter for the Houston Chronicle, where she reported on trending news within the greater Houston region...