Lake Geneva's Inspired Coffee finds a way to open despite pandemic

Posted at 9:27 AM, Jul 13, 2020
and last updated 2020-07-13 10:27:59-04

Inspired Coffee in Lake Geneva seeks to shatter stereotypes about adults with disabilities.

Many of those stereotypes are tough to shake.

So it almost seems fitting that the coffee shop saw a couple of extra hurdles thrown onto the roadway to its recent grand opening.

Inspiration Ministries, a nonprofit providing long-term care to people with special needs, runs the coffee shop. The organization originally planned for Inspired Coffee to open in mid-April.

But the COVID-19 pandemic threw a wrench into the planning process.

Jessie Bongiorno, the general manager, said the biggest change brought about by coronavirus was to the training program for the shop's workers.

Inspired Coffee employs 18 adults with disabilities as part of a one-year, worker training program. Their training ahead of the store's grand opening was supposed to take place in-person.

"We had to create a classroom online," Bongiorno said. "The trainees would sign up, go into those online classes, and our talent development coordinators worked one-on-one with them."

Since the training took place online, she said the workers didn't have access to some important equipment - like the coffee and espresso machines.

"They struggled a bit with using the equipment, but once they got it, they had that repetition down," Bongiorno added.

Erik Barber, President of Inspiration Ministries, said the trainees now employed at Inspired Coffee range from teenagers to adults in their 40s.

"Now that this is off and running, we're expecting great things," he said.

The coffee shop has installed a plexiglass barrier between customers and cashiers. Workers inside are frequently sanitizing all surfaces and washing their hands. Customers are required to wear masks, just like all the workers are.

The community raised approximately $400,000 to help Inspired Coffee with its startup costs. Barber said extra donations poured in to help with protective equipment and safety precautions needed during this pandemic.

"This couldn't have been a worse year to start a business," Barber said. "But at the same time, this couldn't have been a better year. Because there's so much divisiveness, and so much happening in the world today, and this is something that's pulling people together."

Now that the business is up and running, the goal is for it to sustain going forward using the revenue it generates from sales.

Barber said, beyond selling coffees, the goal of Inspired Coffee is to pull adults with special needs out of the typical, "back room" jobs they occupy in restaurants and retail stores and into visible positions as greeters, cashiers or baristas.

The experience they gain in the coffee shop's training program is supposed to help them find careers down the road.

"When was the last time you sat down with your family and spoke about adults with disabilities?" said Stephanie Klett, of Visit Lake Geneva. "What does their life look like? How do they improve their job skills? Where do they get a job? How are they trained? This coffee shop brings all that front and center."

"This location is in the heart of Lake Geneva and we have tens of thousands of visitors every single week," Klett added. "So just to have that kind of traffic to experience this unique concept is very cool, and it's something we're very proud of."

If you're one of those people stopping into the store, you could meet 16-year old Nathan Powell.

The Inspired Coffee employee said he's been helping with hosting, washing dishes, and cleaning tables.

"My favorite part about this job is making coffee," said Powell, who recommends the iced coffee to Inspired Coffee's new customers.

"I think this experience, to be in a training program with an organization like this, is opening his eyes to what work ethic is, and how everything comes together in the end," said Nathan's Mom, Melissa Janczak. "He can move on to pretty much anything he wants to do after this."

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