Four years after forming a nonprofit and hosting a kickoff event, supporters behind Gerry’s Cafe finally have secured a space in Arlington Heights for their coffee shop that will employ adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Brewing Opportunities, a 501(c)(3) organization, has inked a lease for its first cafe at 1802 N. Arlington Heights Road, in what was a former Starbucks location just south of the Palatine Road intersection. Renovations are underway and the hiring and training process will begin in the new year, ahead of a planned spring opening.
It’s a concept they hope to expand to other suburbs in the future.
“We know the community will embrace our opening and our employees, and we’re so excited about that,” said Natalie Griffin, who teamed up with Amy Philpott to create the charity and worked to raise the necessary startup funds. “We’re just so pumped to be moving onto this next phase: to get in there with our contractor, to get in there with that hammer, and purchase our freezers and fridges and ovens, and really get to work on our training program and all of that.”
“I think it’s going to be amazing for Arlington Heights to have this.”
Griffin, a former special education teacher, saw a need for a business staffed by adults age 22 and older with special needs — a population that experiences high unemployment, she said. Her inspiration was a Wilmington, North Carolina, cafe that employs people with developmental disabilities.
Griffin leaned on the small business expertise of Philpott, a one-time Arlington Heights Chamber of Commerce board president and former owner of the Tuscan Market & Wine Shop.
At the same time, Philpott told Griffin of her personal connection to people with disabilities. Her aunt, Geralyn Wehmer, was born with Down syndrome in 1958 and died shortly before Phillpott’s fourth birthday.
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The cafe is named after Aunt Gerry, as she affectionately was called.
After holding a launch party at Tuscan Market in December 2018 and a series of successful fundraisers, organizers thought they would be ready to open the cafe at the start of 2020. But then the pandemic took hold, and they took an 18-month pause on fundraising or major activities.
Enlisting commercial real estate broker George Frigelis, they eventually resumed the search for a location, considering both the north and south sides of Arlington Heights but avoiding the downtown, where rents are higher and parking more difficult.
The former Starbucks seemed to be the perfect fit, with the electrical systems already in place. But much of the renovation is taking place in the back of the house, where employees will be preparing breakfast and lunch from scratch daily.
The menu likely will include yogurt parfaits, fresh-baked cookies, muffins, egg sandwiches, salads and wraps. The cafe also will offer catering.
A strategy team from Northwest Suburban High School District 214, Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211 and Clearbrook — an Arlington Heights nonprofit serving people with intellectual and developmental disabilities — has been working on a job application that will be posted in the next couple of months at gerryscafe.org. A separate panel of former human resources professionals from Allstate and other businesses will conduct interviews with the goal to hire about 40 individuals, Griffin said.
Then the training process begins for job roles including cashier, sous chef, barista and greeter.
“We just want them to shine and have our community see how capable these individuals are, how valuable they are, and how they can contribute,” Griffin said. “That is our main mission here … that community engagement. And a lot of our typical everyday interactions do not happen with people with disabilities. So this gives an opportunity for people to understand how capable so many of these individuals are and how they just need to have a chance.”