IMG_7936.jpg

Jess Sahlman is an employee at BeanZ & Co. Cafe in Avon.

There’s a vibe at BeanZ & Co. Cafe in Avon. A very positive vibe. For anyone who’s ever waited in a long line at Starbucks or Dunkin’ when you’re already late, it’s the opposite of that feeling. People are smiling, patient, polite. It’s a beacon of civility in a time when being part of society means picking a side. The employees are the reason. Co-owners Kim Morrison and Noelle Alix are the visionaries.

Morrison and Alix each have daughters in their early 20s with Down syndrome. Alix’s daughter graduated from the Farmington Valley Transition Academy at the University of Hartford last year; Morrison’s daughter will graduate soon. “What we’ve come to learn, and as many parents before us came to learn, is there’s no jobs waiting for them when they graduate,” Alix says. “The estimate is at least 80 percent of individuals with intellectual disabilities are either unemployed or underemployed.”

BeanZ has many missions but a main pillar is that it utilizes a 50-50 inclusive workforce. The disabled and nondisabled work side by side. Alix says everybody leans on each other for support and all employees do the same jobs to the extent of their capabilities, from bussing tables to taking customers’ orders. Morrison and Alix acknowledge the great work done by Amy Wright, who opened Bitty and Beau’s Coffee in North Carolina, which exclusively employs people with disabilities. But BeanZ uses a different approach. “Kim and I really have a very strong belief that our employees who have disabilities should be in the workforce right along others who don’t,” Alix says. “Just like in school.”

Morrison and Alix’s positive experiences with the Avon and Simsbury public school systems, respectively, were a big motivator for the concept of BeanZ. Another factor was whether Morrison and her husband Scott, owners of New England Pasta Company, were going to renew their lease in 2017. The Morrisons launched their pasta business in 1994, and it evolved over the years to include prepared foods and a cafe. The cafe wasn’t performing well, but the idea to reinvent it as BeanZ made renewing the lease on the building a no-brainer.

Cafe Signature Salad_2.jpg

The cafe signature salad at BeanZ & Co. Cafe in Avon

The official opening was Dec. 1, 2018 — timed to maximize the holiday foot traffic stepping through New England Pasta Company — and Morrison says the number of special-needs employees has already tripled from three to nine. “It’s an amazing mission paired with really great food.”

Ah yes, the food. An ultimate gourmet grilled cheese (cheddar, provolone, Swiss, avocado, bacon, tomato, $9.95) and a loaded potato soup ($3.99) are both very good. BeanZ has been open less than a half-year, but breakfast, lunch and bakery items are being made in house by the same people who have made New England Pasta Company a success for 25 years.

Omar Coffee of Newington provides the beans for BeanZ, and the mocha latte ($4.50) is on par with your typical high-end coffee drink. Morrison and Alix also give a nod to Susan Johnson and the Be Thoughtful Movement — a nonprofit which encourages employers to hire individuals with physical and/or intellectual disabilities — and Favarh, an agency in Canton which finds employment for individuals with disabilities, including a third of the staff with special needs at BeanZ.

“People are so much nicer [compared to the previous cafe’s clientele],” Morrison says. “So you’re waiting five extra minutes, maybe, to have your order taken or for the food to come out, but you’re OK with it, because that’s like the least of your worries. And that should have been the way it was back when it was not BeanZ, but it never was.” Adds Alix, “With our employees, I would say almost all of them, there’s this authentic kindness and joy that’s in them. It’s pretty infectious.”


BeanZ & Co. Cafe

300 W. Main St., Avon

860-321-7549, beanzandco.com

Hours: Mon.-Fri. 7 a.m.-5 p.m., Sat. 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Closed Sun.

Wheelchair accessible

This article appeared in the May 2019 issue of Connecticut Magazine. You can subscribe here, or find the current issue on sale here. Got a question or comment? Email editor@connecticutmag.com, or contact us on Facebook @connecticutmagazine or Twitter @connecticutmag.

Mike Wollschlager, editor and writer for Connecticut Magazine, was born and raised in Bristol and has lived in Farmington, Milford, Shelton and Wallingford. He was previously an assistant sports editor at the New Haven Register.