When Lindsay Wrege and Michael Evans met as undergraduate students at NC State in 2017, neither of them had a background in coffee. They didn’t even drink coffee.
Determined to start a business focused on employing people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, 321 Coffee was born. The duo rented folding tables from Talley Student Union and set up shop at a Special Olympics unified Wolfpack football game. Lindsay, Michael, and six volunteers poured Starbucks coffee into cups ordered from Amazon and pitched their business + vision of inclusion to whoever would listen. It wasn’t long before the idea caught on.
Five years later, 321 is opening its first storefront this August on Hillsborough Street in the Bloc courtyard. The company has 55 employees working at two, soon to be three, locations in Raleigh. Team members Matthew, Amanda, Paul, and Sophie roast beans for four varieties of coffee. Michael has become 321’s coffee connoisseur. And Lindsay still doesn’t drink coffee.
People focused coffee
Growing up in Cary, many of Lindsay’s closest friends were people with disabilities. “I saw what my friends were capable of and all that we were able to do together,” Lindsay said. “This was followed by the disappointing realization that it’s really tough for a lot of people — adults with disabilities in particular — to get a job and be a valued part of the workforce.”
Michael, whose mom was a teacher who worked with students in her school’s special education program, agreed that businesses need to be more inclusive. As an entrepreneur, he was drawn to 321’s business model and the potential to make an impact in the Raleigh community and beyond. (Michael’s mom retired in June and became 321’s 55th employee earlier this week.)
“We wanted to start 321 to create jobs for my friends and people like them,” Lindsay said. Some of those friends now work at 321, like Emma (a bilingual espresso queen), who she met in fourth grade, and Grace + Anna, who she met on a summer swim team.
So, why coffee? “Coffee is very conversational and it brings people together,” Lindsay said. “That is the root of what we’re trying to do — to create a space where anyone can come together, chat, and learn about each other and appreciate people for who they are.”
Beyond the cafes
The 321 team opened its first cafe at the State Farmers Market in 2019 and is preparing to open its first storefront in downtown Raleigh next month. The team is also working on opening a store in Durham later this year.
“There’s a great quote I love: ‘Every time you spend a dollar, you’re casting a vote for the type of word you want to live in,’” Lindsay said. “I think 321 is an avenue for people to make a great decision that will lead toward a more inclusive tomorrow.”
In February 2022, 321 opened a private cafe on the top floor of the new 301 Hillsborough building inside of the Pendo headquarters. Pendo and 321 employees sit together on their lunch breaks to chat, Lindsay said. Pendo employees notice when a barista is away. “It’s exactly like what I hoped would happen.”
The team is working on expanding 321’s impact beyond its cafes, starting with replicating what they’ve done at Pendo. “I think there’s so much opportunity for impact when you can put your people in proximity to other employers to possibly shift their perspective and encourage them to be more inclusive in their own workforce,” Lindsay said. “Ultimately, that’s how 321 will really make change in the world.”
The imaginative baristas at 321 Coffee created a specialty “Oak Bourbon Latte” for Drink Up Week. Inspired by the City of Oaks, this sweet caramel latte is topped with whipped cream and caramel drizzle. Kyle made City Editor Anne’s drink and it was wonderful.