AUSTIN — Alyssa Smith needs a recommendation.
The Austin American-Statesman reports it's her first time at Empowered Coffee in downtown Austin, and she's not sure what to order.
Barista William Mullican, 21, is ready to help. Get the Rwandan, he says. Iced.
Smith accepts his suggestion and takes a sip.
"It's delicious," she says.
It may sound like a typical morning exchange, but Empowered Coffee isn't your average shop. It's the first 100 percent inclusive for-profit company in Austin and among only a handful in the United States. All employees here have intellectual or developmental disabilities, including Mullican, who has Down syndrome. The shop opened in March inside RunLab, a sports medicine and training facility where Jay-Z blares from the speakers and running shoes double as flower planters.
Employees are responsible for all aspects of the shop, from brewing coffee to working a register that's equipped with pictures in addition to words. General manager Whitley Priddy said she's available to help as needed but "for the most part, they are completely independent." In June, Mullican and barista Spencer Khan ran the shop by themselves for a morning when Priddy was out of town.
In addition to coffee, the shop serves Tacodeli breakfast tacos, baked goods, tea and Topo Chico.
"And we have hats, aprons and coffee beans for sale," says Khan, 22. "I like to advertise our products."
Khan, who also has Down syndrome, commutes to work from Pflugerville, waking up at 4 a.m. to arrive on time. This is his second job; he is also a bagger at H-E-B.
"I like working here because it's where all my friends work, it's a fun place to be, and everyone is super nice," said Khan, who also works out weekly at RunLab with a personal trainer who donates his services. "I want to work here forever."
The customer base ranges from undercaffeinated athletes to patrons who make a special visit because they've heard that within these walls, can'ts, shouldn'ts and won'ts do not exist. Today, Smith is visiting with her sister, Brittany Benoit, and Benoit's 8-month-old foster daughter, who has Down syndrome.
"I want her to be able to have a job if she wants to and be able to interact with others and be part of society, not separated from society," Benoit said. "They're empowering people and letting people have the opportunity to make a dignified income and learn and grow. Obviously, it's close to my heart, because I hope for that for her."
At the end of his shift, Mullican poses for photos with the baby as Tammy Mullican, his mom and "Uber driver," looks on.
"That's one of the neatest parts of about this — I've seen a lot of parents bring their young kids with Down syndrome in," Tammy Mullican said. "As a parent of a young kid with Down syndrome, you can look and see what they really can accomplish."
Tammy Mullican says she has gone from treading water in her son's early years to now being in awe of him. He's a high school graduate with three jobs — he also works at H-E-B and Russo's New York Pizzeria — and earlier this year earned a gold medal in the Special Olympics in golf.
Mullican is saving his earnings — employees at Empowered Coffee make above minimum wage — to open a restaurant, William's Place, where the motto will be "breakfast, lunch and hugs." Tammy Mullican plans to be his first customer.
"When he puts his mind to something and works hard, he accomplishes it," Tammy Mullican says. "He loves to work."