Making Coffee, Changing Minds

By AMA Triangle

Posted @ Oct 05, 2020

321 Coffee Logo The super-friendly cashier behind the counter smiles and waves to you as enter the coffee shop. When he passes off your order to his co-workers, they steam the milk, brew the hot coffee, and mix the hot chocolate like baristas do all over the world. While an eclectic playlist sounds in the background, the cashier shares how he’s looking forward to his five-year anniversary with his girlfriend.

It feels like just another chill coffee shop with an easy jibe, but it’s not. What makes 321 Coffee unique is that all of the employees have Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (IDD). Located in the NC State Farmers Market, 321 Coffee was founded by NC State students Lindsay Wrege, Michael Evans, and Liam Dao. Aware that many individuals with IDD challengers were unemployed but eager to work, the group created a business model to provide meaningful work experiences for this often overlooked and undervalued population.

It All Started in the Third Grade

When Lindsay Wrege, CEO, switched to a new school in 3rd grade, where she met several girls with disabilities. They soon became her closest friends, and they remained friends through high school. Lindsay learned her friends with IDD were kind and genuine people. She recognizes the impact they made on her life and the value they bring to society. “It’s not every day that you meet someone in third grade who becomes a life-long friend. That is so special. At the time, I didn’t realize the impact those friendships would make on my life. Both from a meaningful connection, as well as the lessons that I’ve learned from them over the years.” Lessons like learning to live in the moment, not being defined by societal barriers, loving unconditionally, huge reservoirs of positivity, and recognizing the small successes that build up over time. Lindsay never forgets that the friendship she shares with her IDD buddies is a two-way street.

Life After High School

In her Senior year, Lindsay and other high school classmates began to prepare for what’s next—a chapter that often includes college or career. In that moment, she  came to the painful realization that her friends with disabilities did not have these same opportunities. Building career options for her friends drove her to start 321 Coffee. Starting in her freshman year of college, she and her team acquired a non-profit 501(c)(3) status for 321 Coffee and eventually opened a permanent shop at the NC State Farmers Market. 321 Coffee is now open regularly throughout the week, employs over 20 adults with disabilities, and has served over 20,000 cups of coffee.

321 Coffee offers adults with IDD the chance to experience the joy and excitement of “what’s next”. At the same time, 321 Coffee strengthens the community by providing customers the chance to learn from these incredible individuals and acts as an example of inclusion that other companies can emulate.

Growing into the Community

321 Coffee began by catering events around the Raleigh area. Initially, they bought and served Starbucks coffee and rented tables from the student union at NC State. 321 Coffee then opened on Saturdays under a tent at the North Carolina State Farmers Market, and the founder’s dorm rooms served as a test kitchen for cold brew and storage unit for thousands of cups (literally). While this involved getting up at 5am on Saturday mornings, it allowed 321 Coffee to grow a community of support around its mission, giving them the confidence to continue pushing the idea forward.

This year, 321 Coffee was planning to expand into a second location, a brick-and-mortar storefront in Downtown Raleigh. In the middle of finalizing a lease agreement, COVID hit Raleigh and everything shut down. Realizing the storefront was no longer a timely investment, the team pivoted its growth plan and expanded the store at the Farmers Market to roast coffee beans. Now, they are roasting beans for in-house use, retail, e-commerce, and wholesale. (

Fun Central

The varied playlist is selected by the workers and bounces from Phantom of the Opera to High School Musical to Country music and everything in-between. The music contributes to a  happy atmosphere. “It’s fun for the managers; it’s fun for the baristas,”says Lindsay Wrege. “There’s a lot of dance parties, and the customers will join, which the baristas just love. It’s all-around fun.  I think that’s what’s so special about 321 Coffee. It’s a community.”

Learn more about 321 Coffee on Facebook and Instagram (@Drink321Coffee), visit their website (, or stop by their store at the NC State Farmers Market (see hours). To get in touch with the team directly, email


321 Coffee Logo

Written by Lindsay Wrege with Sue Anger (AMA Communications Team). Lindsay Wrege, founder and CEO of 321 Coffee, is currently a Senior at NC State studying business and entrepreneurship. She is passionate about inclusion and wants to use business for social impact.


This blog post was written by a guest contributor. The views within this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of AMA Triangle.

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