Answered by Cameron’s Co-Founder, Ellen Graham:
What inspired you to open Cameron’s Coffee and Chocolates and to focus on hiring employees with intellectual disabilities?
Cameron is now 23 years old, so our family has been very active with this community for a long time. We saw first-hand that many of the young adults who Cameron has grown up and gone through school with were faced with few if any employment opportunities. And specifically, many of the jobs that were available were not in challenging, inclusive and safe environments. We became convinced that much of the important and best change that has occurred in the arena of employment for the intellectually disabled is the result of family efforts to simply make things better. My husband, Jim and I both have MBA’s (his is from VaTech and mine is from GW) and a lot of business experience. We decided that instead of worrying about the future; we would try to do something… to ‘give back’ in a way that would help our daughter and hopefully lots of other families. We know that we are a long way from the finish line but the early progress is encouraging.
Why do you think it’s important to give individuals with disabilities the opportunity to work and earn an income?
We have witnessed something very fundamental: what you do for a living is at the core of who you are and how others deal with you. The short answer to this question is that for all these young people it gives them identity and purpose. When we opened, we had individual business cards made for Cameron and her coworkers. Now everywhere they go, they hand out cards and ask friends and new acquaintances to come visit. Independence is the ultimate hope that every parent has for his or her disabled child. In addition to employment, we teach life skills – travel, shopping, meal planning and the like for one hour each workday. And like many offices, our staff ends up doing a lot of extracurricular activities together after hours. Our workers absolutely “get it” and correlate the hours they work, the products they help make and sell with the pay they receive – they understand and have a wonderful sense of pride. These seem like small steps, but they can hopefully be game-changers for these young people.
Your shop is named after your daughter, Cameron, and she’s an employee. How excited is she to be doing what she loves in a shop carrying her name?
Cameron thinks she is a rock star! She is very gregarious and loves the interaction with customers and co-workers. Cameron is the face of our effort, because she embodies all that meaningful employment can mean. She starts almost every conversation with “I have a chocolate shop” and displays an enthusiasm for and an excitement about products. You can see her joy in the attached picture of her holding the We’re Open sign…
Since opening on October 1, what have been the most surprising, challenging and rewarding moments?
While we had a lot of business experience, retail was not part of it. Having a store that is open 7 days a week creates long hours and a lot of juggling. Balancing inventories, production, work schedules and cash flows are tough for every business – but especially so for small business. When things go wrong, you don’t call some department head and say “Send down 2 more gallons of 2% milk”, no, you grab your coat and run to the dairy store and hope there is room left on your credit card to pay for the supplies. While it makes things a little crazy, it also makes the environment a lot of fun. We had so many orders for chocolates the week before Christmas, that we had every friend and family member helping with making, packing and shipping. Caller ID has really hurt us; now when our friends see it is us calling – they don’t always answer the phone! The rewarding moments are too many to count – Lot’s of examples of self-worth from all the employees are at the top of the list. But I will tell you, that the day we handed out the first paychecks was a pretty remarkable experience.- so many smiles, and a few tears from proud parents and co-workers. While it wasn’t a surprise, it was very reassuring to see how our parallel workers have embraced and enjoyed working with their disabled counterparts…there is a remarkable esprit de corps. They have fun, but it is important to note that everyone is productive: our mottos are “Work Hard; Be Happy”…”More than just a Coffee Shop”
You have quickly built a supportive customer base, when many small businesses struggle to get established. What’s your secret?
There is an amazing bond for the extended family of the Special Ed community. It sounds like an exaggeration, but without exception, every day, someone comes into the shop and tells of a friend or relative who is connected. They almost always say that they came in to support us, but will return because the products are so delicious…We feel very strongly, that the long-term success will depend on our creating a viable stand-alone business. So our business focus has been and will continue to be creating really good food and drink in a setting that is fun for all.
Let’s talk about your signature drinks and sweets! What can new customers expect to find on the menu?
We make all the traditional espresso coffee drinks, but one specialty that gets asked for a lot this time of year is our hot chocolate. I have to confess this is one of my favorites, topped with whip cream and a dusting of our chocolate flakes — it is pretty tasty. As for chocolates…it is hard to argue with our chocolate covered toffee, rolled in almonds…on the other hand, we couldn’t keep our case full of pumpkin muffins with chocolate topping. And, we bake chocolate chip cookies every morning that disappear very quickly. Our menu is highlighted on our website.
What have been your most popular products so far?
We make a strawberry truffle that is pretty remarkable and as we get close to Valentine’s Day…sales go up every day. The decision to bake everything fresh on premises every day has set us apart form other coffee shops. We have ‘regulars’ who sing praises for savory muffins and breads.
For readers who do not live in Northern Virginia, can your chocolates and baked goods be ordered online?
Yes, our website – while not completely interactive- shows customers how to call us or email us. (www.CameronsChocolates.com) AND, we post updates on our Facebook page (Cameron’s Coffee & Chocolates) everyday, showing specials and returning favorite treats. Anyone who likes what we are doing can “like” us on Facebook and follow our progress and see pictures of the offerings. (A volunteer from the University of Virginia does all our web work, a cousin handles Facebook…the watchword now is “Don’t get to close to the Grahams because they’ll recruit you to help.”)
If readers would like to support your non-profit, Every1 Can Work, can they make a donation online?
Yes, absolutely. [Let me note, that we are a fully certified 501c3 so all contributions are deductible. My husband, I nor any of the directors takes any compensation. We are all volunteers, so all donations go directly to the mission.)
What does the future hold for Cameron’s Coffee and Chocolates? New menu items? Special deals? Plans for expansion?
Our goal is to build on our early success and to give more young adults the opportunity to experience meaningful employment. We have plans to expand our workforce as we extend our marketing reach. We are excited about and will soon announce sales of custom chocolates through a group of specialty wine shops. All in all, we are very please to have come so far so fast. Every day is a new surprise and another poignant moment created by our involvement with this wonderful group of people. It is hard to explain how many friends have stepped forward and supported us with time, finances and volunteer hours.
Work Hard; Be Happy!