NORTH SMITHFIELD – It is the season of pumpkin everything, but at one North Smithfield-based coffee shop, indulging in a favorite autumn treat does far more than just fulfill your cravings.
A success story for those who might struggle to find their place in the world, Red White & Brew Coffeehouse offers guests the traditional pastries and lattes, and far more importantly: hope.
Opened in 2019, the business – and accompanying gift shop The Budding Violet – have given owner Michael Coyne a chance to grow. thrive and build a community for others with disabilities, even with the odds stacked against him.
“We have vendors with and without disabilities,” Coyne told NRI NOW during a recent tour of the Great Road establishment.
Coyne, a Harrisville resident, opened the shop with family members after failing to secure employment elsewhere.
Two years later, despite set-backs from a pandemic, the resulting gaps in the supply chain, and a recent leaky roof, the business is showing visitors of all abilities just what can happen when you think outside the box.
“Wage employment isn’t for everyone,” said Coyne’s mother Sheila Coyne.
The first impression
Visitors who step inside Red, White & Brew aren’t likely to notice much out of the ordinary, except perhaps, that the business has a particularly warm and welcoming vibe. Seasonal decorations cover the shop both inside and out, and large pastry boxes display everything from truffles and cookies, to freshly-baked muffins. Signs on the wall advertise espresso, macchiato and cappuccino, as well as seasonal items including pumpkin muffins and a “sugar and spice,” latte, combining pumpkin spice and maple syrup.
Crafts and gifts throughout the space are part of The Budding Violet, and include everything from hand- made jewelry and paintings, to t-shirts, mugs, pillows and hats.
On a weekday visit, Chris Andrews steps out from a kitchen at the back donning an apron and carrying warm cinnamon buns. Michael greets customers, chatting up clientele while taking orders. Sheila cleans and stocks shelves, offering a hand wherever she’s needed.
It takes more than a second glance to understand what’s happening behind the scenes.
Michael has been diagnosed with autism, attention deficit hyperactivity and bipolar disorders. The gift shop features several products made by people with disabilities – including many created by people who Michael calls friends. And Andrews, the friendly baker, has a second role serving as Michael’s full-time hired support.
Sheila says that her son wasn’t nearly as outgoing, friendly and confident at the start of the capitalist endeavor, and family members were initially unsure of what role he would be able to play in the business.
“There were doctors who told us that at some point, Michael wouldn’t be able to live at home,” she said. “Now, we’re a model for agencies that seem to think all you can do is put people around a table and have them watch TV all day.”
Michael, she notes, has surpassed all expectations, mastering the computer system and serving as the face of the business. Something of a local celebrity, the young entrepreneur excels in his role as welcoming proprietor, remembering his customers’ names and orders. In his spare time, he also serves as a mentor, and participates in classes helping others with disabilities.
“Employment raises self esteem,” Sheila said.
“When you get that diagnosis of autism, you feel like it’s a life sentence,” she added. “To see how far we’ve come… I’m in awe of it.”
Andrews spends most of his day helping with the business, from baking muffins, to pouring cups of hot, caffeinated goodness.
“You can get a cup of coffee anywhere, but to have a conversation with Mike, who’s actually interested in what you have to say, you won’t get that anywhere else,” Andrews said.
Earlier this month, Michael showed off items in the gift shop, pointing out one display crafted by his friend, and another by an ex-girlfriend. It was an amicable break-up, he says, adding that he’s happy the store can still sell her creations.
“They make some really great products but then, where do they sell them?” asked Sheila, noting that the COVID-19 pandemic and accompanying restrictions made life that much harder for some with disabilities, with many already prone to illness and in need of support.
In addition to selling products, the business is preparing to hire others who might need to work in a more inclusive environment, with a computer system that allows users to charge for items by selecting the correct photograph – set up by Michael. The family has learned to accommodate customer needs and be adaptable, recently changing their start time, for instance, to 7 a.m. for those
headed into work in the morning. When pandemic-related supply chain issues caused delays in pastries once brought in from other local bakeries, the small staff began baking their own.
During a recent storm, a branch fell on the roof of the coffeehouse causing a leak, and resulting in a three week shut down. Michael was anxious to get back to work.
And while the hard fought financial success and pleasant work environment is a nice perk of entrepreneurship, it seems the group is most grateful for the supportive interactions Michael waits patiently if a customer with a disability struggles with an order, and is always willing to help. Other support aids frequently chat up Andrews on how to best handle situations with clients. And Sheila bonds with parents of those with limitations, glad to serve as a role model.
“Parents come in, and they see what’s possible.” she said. “Michael has made some really great friends.”
“When you start, you think it’s just going to be about coffee and pastries,” said Andrews. “We’re building a community here.”
Red White & Brew Coffeehouse is open Tuesday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. and Saturday from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. at 601 Great Road.
Editor’s note: This content is offered as part of our 2021 Guide to Fall, also available in print. View content from the guide under the “Fall 2021” tab above along with the complete, printable guide.