Designed to accommodate the different needs of its employees, Perky Planet coffee shop is providing a safe work environment and competitively paying jobs for people with disabilities.
red coffee cup standing apart
Credit: Getty / Daniel Grizelj

Photo: Getty / Daniel Grizelj

When you first walk into Perky Planet, a coffee shop in Burlington, Vermont, it looks like any other java joint-a coffee roaster in the corner, chalkboard art, prices of coffee and tea drinks listed above the counter. It would be easy to mistake it for just another coffee shop in just another small college town in this part of New England. And Perky Planet's owner, Richard Vaughn, hopes that's just what you do.

But if you look behind the counter, you'll notice that the crown jewel of any coffee shop-its espresso machine-is fully automated. The coffee roaster is electric (and partially solar powered for a carbon-neutral roasting experience) and runs at the push of a button. The tablet used for point-of-sale transactions has pictures on it instead of words, and there's a sign requesting patrons use credit cards instead of cash. If you peek over the countertop, you'll notice labels on, well, just about everything. The labels are an effort to help keep things in their right place, "but it doesn't always work," says Vaughn with a wry smile.

He doesn't really mind, though. If you keep looking around the 25-seat café, you'll notice that the signage actually says "Perky Planet Coffee & Social Revolution"-and to Vaughn, contributing to a "social revolution" is far more important than making sure the spoons get put back in the right drawer.

Brewing up coffee and a social revolution.

That's because Vaughn and his wife, Christine, have a goal larger than brewing a great cup of java (although they do that too): they're trying to create a model to employ people with disabilities. Their chosen method is Perky Planet, which opened in February this year.

"I've got three main principles," Vaughn says. "First, it's to provide meaningful, competitively paid and inclusive employment to people with disabilities. Second, I want to be an asset to the community by fostering understanding, and by helping neighbors value, respect and get to know my employees. And finally, I want to create a profitable business model so that other businesses can see that hiring people with disabilities isn't a drain on the business but, rather, an asset."

As a result, when you order a cup of coffee at Perky Planet you might be assisted by any one of Vaughn's four employees, each of whom are living with disabilities, and each of whom Vaughn has tried to accommodate in the design, layout and operations at the coffee shop.

Design and technology accommodate people with varying needs.

For Ian MacLeod, who has a brain injury that impacts his vision and hearing, Vaughn designed low ceilings coated in spray-foam insulation to reduce noise. Each receipt also spits out a printout of each person's order, so MacLeod doesn't have to decipher what customers are requesting verbally. Behind the counter, the aisle is wide enough to accommodate someone in a wheelchair as well as someone passing behind them, which helps Kate Bove, a barista and greeter who has Williams syndrome, affecting her spatial awareness. And for Vaughn's two other employees, both living with Down syndrome, Vaughn implemented the easy-to-use touch-button coffee roasting and espresso machines. Vaughn didn't necessarily know the needs of his current (and future) employees when he designed the shop, but he hopes to retain the flexibility to change with changing needs.

"The accessibility is a combination of having a physical layout and the machines to make things easier for a wider range of people, plus changing typical business practices," Vaughn says. "For example, by encouraging the use of credit cards rather than cash, we can completely eliminate the need to make change. We often see examples where technology takes away jobs; it's about time we used technology to create opportunities."

And to Vaughn's way of thinking, that technology needed to go hand-in-hand with providing people with disabilities with jobs that are inclusive, competitively paid and include people-to-people interaction-not working in the back of a warehouse, or washing dishes. Instead, he's doing his best to use technology to encourage interaction in a nonintimidating way, such as the voice-activated large-screen TV that employees can activate with a simple "OK Google" command to help answer any questions customers may have. (For example, there are a series of short videos about the women producing coffee in the developing countries where Vaughn sources his beans).

Creating a model for social and corporate change.

Vaughn, a former business analyst and consultant, got the idea for Perky Planet when his wife and daughter stumbled across a coffee shop in Wilmington, North Carolina, called Bitty & Beau's, which is run by people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. In Christine's words, "every town needs a coffee shop like this." And Richard, who had to relearn how to walk about six years ago after a spinal-cord injury, agreed.

He's still working out certain details, such as what food he can offer without complicating things (Liège waffles are on the short list), but he's firm about a few things: good coffee, great jobs, and creating a business model that's profitable and replicable.

"Ultimately we're trying to show other employers that they can accommodate and hire people with disabilities, and that it can be an asset to their businesses," Vaughn says. "Hopefully what we're doing here will translate to other coffee shops and to other industries, and can act as a model to other employers. If we can do that, then we have the potential to change lives."

It's a worthy goal. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities is currently 6.3 percent-about double the rate for people without disabilities, which was at 3.6 percent as of May 2019. Even if Vaughn only impacts the lives of the four people he currently employs, he's still chipping away at the statistics.

But secretly, Vaughn hopes people don't even notice that Perky Planet has a different approach to hiring. "I just want Perky Planet to provide meaningful employment, comparable pay, a great product and good service-in a coffee shop that just happens to be run by people with disabilities," he says.