New Naperville coffee shop the latest biz to plan on hiring special needs adults: ‘They’ve waited for such an opportunity for so long’

Written by on January 28, 2022

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Jerrod Nichols believes Naperville could become a “hub” of sorts for businesses that employ teens and adults with special needs.

His new coffee shop, Phoenix Coffee House, is set to open next week at 2244 W. 95th St. and is the third business in the city in the last year to announce it will be hiring employees with special needs.

“Our employees want this opportunity, they strive for this opportunity,” Nichols said. “They’ve waited for such an opportunity for so long.”

One of those employees is Tom Karman, 31, who is autistic. He said he is looking forward to making hot chocolates, lattes and other coffee drinks for customers.

“I like earning a paycheck and making a great coffee,” said Karman, one of 16 people hired ahead of Feb. 7 grand opening.

Nichols is partnering with Awesome Life Academy, a Naperville nonprofit that provides recreational, educational, and vocational training and skills for people with autism, Down syndrome, Asperger’s and other developmental disabilities.

The academy is located at the same 95th Street building as the coffee shop.

“Creating meaningful employment was always a goal of mine,” Awesome Life’s founder/President Brandon Quaintance said.

Quaintance and Nichols connected last year when Nichols was looking to set up a store to expand his online coffee business and Quaintance was seeking employment opportunities for those who are part of his program.

“Everything was already here (for a coffee shop),” Nichols said of the ground-floor storefront.

The employees have been training four to six hours a week in preparation for the shop’s opening.

Jon Toby demonstrates how to work the front register at Phoenix Coffee House during a training session Wednesday for employees of the new Naperville business.

Jon Toby demonstrates how to work the front register at Phoenix Coffee House during a training session Wednesday for employees of the new Naperville business. (Rafael Guerrero / Naperville Sun)

Phoenix Coffee House is partnering with Chez François Poutinerie on how it conducts training. The downtown Naperville poutine restaurant is set to open in the spring and also plans to employ people with special needs.

Nichols said he also has also reached out to Moose and Me Bakery, the Naperville home bakery business that employs special needs staff and is planning to open a bricks-and-mortar store.

Poutinerie owner Thi Tram Nguyen said it makes sense to partner on training given the two businesses’ similar ambitions.

“It’s not that employers don’t want to hire (people with special needs), it’s they don’t know how to train them,” she said.

Nguyen believes they can be great employees because they often like repetitive tasks. For example, someone who likes working the register and counting cash can excel at that one position, she said.

There are too few job opportunities for this group of people, Quaintance said. The pandemic complicated matters, too, he said.

“During the pandemic, a lot of the programs they counted on for many, many years were shut down due to mandates and other things,” Quaintance said.

Kimberly Maloney, principal of Indian Prairie School District 204′s STEPS program, said she welcomes the coffee shop’s arrival. STEPS provides vocational training and transitional services for its 18- to 22-year-old students; 84 of STEPS’ current 96 students have work-site training or are already employed, she said.

“For businesses to continue to pop up in Naperville and Aurora and to provide jobs for these kids is amazing,” Maloney said. “It raises their self esteem, provides them responsibilities, opportunities for engagement, and it shows a value that our community has for the students who have disabilities.”

Nichols said the skills developed at Phoenix can transfer to other businesses. One local business has already expressed an interest in hiring trained employees once they are ready, he said.

Phoenix Coffee House employees will work up to 20 hours a week and all will all be paid at least minimum wage, Nichols said.

“The long-term goal is for them to move through the ranks, train them, help them become assistant managers, managers – who knows, maybe they become owners … what could create more confidence and self-esteem than becoming owners?” Quaintance said.

Phoenix Coffee House owner Jerrod Nichols leads a training session Wednesday on handling food at his new Naperville business. The team has been training several hours a week ahead of the shop's Feb. 7 grand opening.

Phoenix Coffee House owner Jerrod Nichols leads a training session Wednesday on handling food at his new Naperville business. The team has been training several hours a week ahead of the shop’s Feb. 7 grand opening. (Rafael Guerrero / Naperville Sun)

Phoenix Coffee House will be open Monday through Saturday and will sell hot and cold coffee drinks and some baked goods. They may expand to hot and cold sandwiches at some point in the future, Quaintance said.

The shop will deliver orders to people working inside the 95th Street building and plans to provide curbside pickup.

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