There is a new coffee shop and bakery in Fairfax like none other in Virginia.
Cameron’s Coffee and Chocolates is not only making a name for itself thanks to its delicious handmade drinks and desserts, but also for its very special staff.
Owners Jim and Ellen Graham opened the new eatery and named it after their daughter, Cameron Graham, in order to give the 23-year-old with intellectual disabilities a place to do what she loves – bake! What began as personal mission to offer Cameron full-time employment quickly ballooned into a successful small business and non-profit focused on offering others with intellectual disabilities a safe and rewarding career.
Today, thanks to Ellen and Jim, young people who may not otherwise have the opportunity to earn a living are now honing their culinary skills in a professional kitchen and impressing customers across Northern Virginia.
Cameron and her co-workers, Maddie and Tom.
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 that Cameron had grown up with 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 and a lot of business experience, so 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.
(Left) Cameron with her mother, Ellen. (Right) Cameron with her father, Jim.
How excited is Cameron 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 picture of her holding the We’re Open sign (seen above).
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!
Cameron doing one of her favorite tasks — dipping chocolates!
The rewarding moments are too many to count; a lot of examples of self-worth from all the employees. But I will tell you, that the day we handed out the first paychecks was a pretty remarkable experience – lots of 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 enjoy 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” and “More than just a Coffee Shop.”
What can 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.
For VBVA 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. AND, we post updates on our Facebook page every day, 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.
If VBVA readers would like to support your non-profit, Every1 Can Work, can they make a donation online?
Yes, absolutely. Visit our website. 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?
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 pleased 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.
Cameron’s Coffee and Chocolates is located at 9639 Fairfax Boulevard in Fairfax and is open 7:00 am – 5:00 pm Monday through Friday and 8:00 am – 5:00 pm on Saturday and Sunday.