Brewing Change in the Workforce 

01 Nov 2023

When something small and beautiful leads to something big and revolutionary, call it Bitty & Beau’s 

By Carin Hall  »  Photos by Matt Ray

If you live in Wilmington, surely you know about Bitty & Beau's—a main point of pride in our small town. What may surprise you, however, is just how much this “human rights movement disguised as a coffee shop” has inspired others across the nation to welcome more people with disabilities into the workplace. 

Since its humble beginnings and smaller location that started in 2016, Founder Amy Wright has been named the CNN Hero of the Year (2017) and the business has grown to 17 and counting franchise locations in 13 states.

You may have also noticed that Wilmington appears to be a decent place for people with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (IDD). In addition to the many programs and resources available, several local businesses hire people with IDD. Fortunately, other cities have taken notice. 


In case you're new here, let me fill you in. Amy and Ben Wright are the parents of four children in the order of Lillie, Emma Grace, Benjamin, and Jane Adeline. Their two youngest, nicknamed Beau and Bitty, were both born with Down syndrome. Like most parents in their shoes, the Wrights spent years researching and finding ways to ensure all their children had opportunities to live a fulfilling life. But one jarring statistic set them on a path that changed their lives indefinitely: around 80% of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities are unemployed in our country. 

“It's just unacceptable,” says Amy. “We didn't want our kids to be part of that statistic, so we opened the original coffee shop to try to create opportunities here in Wilmington for people with disabilities. We quickly realized that something larger was at play—we were creating a place where others could think about hiring people with disabilities in their workplace after having a good experience in our coffee shop.”

Sometime after starting the business, their oldest daughter, Lillie, was diagnosed with autism at the age of 20. Today, she manages order fulfillment and writes the company's blog posts, lending her knowledge as a UNCW graduate in political science and nonprofit management to their cause. Alongside Emma Grace, the Creative Director, the Wrights work together to shatter societal misperceptions about the capabilities of people with IDD. 

“People want to relate to each other at their core,” says Amy. “Sometimes the added layer of having a disability can be intimidating for others to encounter. We've created a safe space to disprove that.”

The power of storytelling 

Looking back at her childhood, Emma Grace remembers capturing family moments with her camera often and later found herself drawn to storytelling that involved people with disabilities when she studied film at NYU. 

“When I came back [to Wilmington], I was reinvigorated to help tell our story,” she explains. “Because it's my brother and sister's name, I want to do everything I can to represent them and our employees well.”

Since 2021, she's captured several special (sometimes viral) moments. Whether it's a sweet interaction between an employee and a child with Down syndrome in the shop or a video of an employee accepting a job offer, sharing these moments online has played a huge role in spreading awareness to viewers across the nation. Not to mention pure unadulterated, tears-streaming-down-your-face joy. 

“That's the magic behind our content,” she says. “It has little to do with pictures of lattes or drinks. It's always about a person and their unique story. I pull out my camera when I appreciate a moment, and it turns out a lot of people appreciate those moments as much as we do.” 

Continuing the conversation

Emma Grace also plays a significant role in designing the company's merch, or what could more accurately be referred to as conversation starters beyond the confines of the coffee shop. It's an opportunity to wear phrases like “Radically Inclusive” or “Not Broken” as Amy said in her CNN Hero of the Year speech when referring to her employees and children. 

“Our merch is centered on our passion for changing the way people see people with disabilities,” says Emma Grace. “We also have a sweatshirt that says, 'Leave your doubt at the door,' which embodies what we're trying to achieve when people visit us.”

The real goal is to expand the conversation beyond Bitty & Beau's and inspire others to ask questions about what they're doing. 

Beyond the coffee shop

In addition to franchising the business to an astonishing number of locations, the Wrights have received welcomed interest from corporations. Just last year, nCino opened a Bitty & Beau's location within its headquarters at Mayfaire. 

In 2020, Emma Grace was asked to speak on behalf of Bitty & Beau's for Salesforce's Make Change series, a video series highlighting innovative leaders who leverage their platforms to empower employees and communities. 

“It's a good sign to see large corporations believing in our mission,” says Emma Grace. “The greatest change we'll see for people with disabilities gaining employment is when other businesses notice what we're doing and consider how they can be more inclusive.” 

While Bitty & Beau's does this in a more “radical” way, the Wrights encourage more businesses to consider hiring at least one person with disabilities for several reasons. For starters, hiring people with disabilities not only increases profit margins, according to a study by Accenture, but also increases employee motivation and reduces turnover rates, according to research published in the Humanities and Social Sciences Communications journal. That's certainly true at Bitty & Beau's, where attrition is exceptionally low. 

But one coffee shop can only do so much. According to Amy, there's a decent waiting list of worthy candidates ready to work, which presents a great opportunity for other businesses to consider diversifying their workforce. 

“It takes innovation and thinking outside of the box to make that change,” says Emma Grace. “But it's unbelievable what hiring more people with disabilities can do for the workplace and morale. I know our employees, for one, are some of the most dedicated people you'll ever meet.”

Wilmington sets an example 

Wilmington seems to be doing things particularly well in this domain, with several programs like Theater for All, Coastal B.U.D.S., and Empower Soccer Shots available, to name a few. While the Wrights see the town as one of the best places for families to raise children with IDD, there's room for improvement. 

“Ultimately you just want your kids to be included,” says Amy. “We have great organizations here that help make that happen for kids with disabilities, but our hope is that those programs will be less needed as more integration happens in the activities available to typically developing kids.” 

For now, these programs give visibility to the needs of people and kids with IDD. 

“We're at a stage in this disability rights movement where we have to do something radical,” says Emma Grace. “It takes something like this—having a business that spotlights people with disabilities—to get others to notice and appreciate their value in the workplace and society.”

Take notes

For the Wrights, having three children with disabilities was no coincidence—and it's been a blessing that's brought their family closer over the years. With Bitty and Beau still in school, Lillie and Emma Grace love working for the family business but appreciate having younger siblings with Down syndrome more. 

“It's been the best part of my life,” says Emma Grace. “I am who I am because of my siblings. There's a misconception that having someone with a disability in your life is a constant struggle. While there are challenges, there is so much love and joy that I get from my siblings and what we share that far outweigh the tribulations.” 

It's no surprise that the family is often recognized in the community. Fortunately, the Wrights don't tire of the local support. Amy is proud of the way her kids handle the attention, especially her oldest daughters who she says feel a sense of responsibility and pride for their younger siblings. They fully embrace the value their mission and family dynamic add to their lives. 

“I think maybe we're the ones who are lacking something in life,” says Emma Grace. “Bitty and Beau are good at being in the moment and so full of love and joy—we should take notes.” 

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