In the heart of Downtown Littleton sits a rustic, little coffee shop with a tremendously heartwarming story. Dirt Coffee Bar is a local champion for neurodiverse individuals in the workforce. Dedicated to employing and providing resources for individuals with autism, Lauren Burgess, founder and CEO of Dirt Coffee Bar and Garden, Inc., is shattering statistics in her wake. With a name inspired by the mission of building strong foundations and planting seeds to cultivate an inclusive world, Dirt provides an unexpectedly profound cup of coffee.
Burgess came up with the idea for Dirt while working with a client at Garden — which provides community outreach services to youth and adults with autism. Her client was a recent high school graduate, but, as a young adult on the spectrum, he struggled to find a job even with Burgess’ help. Frustrated and confused, her research yielded a disheartening statistic: 90% of people with autism are either unemployed or underemployed and not because they didn’t have the right skills.
Finishing up grad school, Burgess spent lengthy amounts of time studying and researching in local coffee shops. “I figured that if no one was going to hire my client and others like him, I’d find a way to do it myself. So, I married my two passions: coffee and inclusion and came up with Dirt. It was perfect because coffee is the second-highest traded commodity in the world, so not only would it be a viable social enterprise offering lots of opportunity for individuals with autism, it would also allow members of our community the opportunity to have meaningful interactions with the very people the shop would employ in hopes to breakdown barriers,” she shared.
With a scholarship from Denver incubator Greater Good Academy, Burgess then crafted a business plan for Dirt based off three alliterative pillars: people, the planet and profit. Teaming up with behavior therapist Emily Wallace, who also worked for Garden at the time, the two women raised $50,000 to renovate and launch a mobile coffee truck in 2013.
The Dirt Coffee Bar truck has been touring the Denver metro area and sharing its message of inclusion and empowerment ever since. Rallying off of the truck’s great success, Burgess decided to open up a “brick and mortar” coffee shop in downtown Littleton. After 12 months of renovations, the transformation from a little boutique to Dirt’s current charming location was completed in 2018. With a more permanent home, the community Burgess was building blossomed.
Today, around 30% of Dirt’s permanent staff is on the autism spectrum. “Since opening in May of last year, our little shop has competitively employed a neurodiverse team of 25 employees and interns while serving over 25,000 cups of coffee. In our mind, that’s 25,000 opportunities to change minds and change lives,” Burgess explained. Dirt’s interns are all neurodivergent, with 10 interns participating in the summer session.
True to their message of advocating for individuals with autism finding meaningful employment and leadership opportunities, Dirt is home to its own full-circle story with their shop manager, Robby. Back in 2013, Robby was the one to first craft an established internship program as a member of their first pool of interns.
“At the time Robby had never had a job and was living with his parents. He became such an asset to Dirt and quickly transitioned from intern to mentor. He successfully found a full-time job outside of Dirt after completing our program and transitioned into living independently. During this time Robby maintained involvement through our Board of Directors,” Burgess said.
With the opening of the shop, Robby was offered and accepted the position of back of house manager. “He continually embodies our mission in and out of the shop. He is an amazing leader for all of our team members, and he has recently taken on the role of job coaching and mentoring our current interns.”
Though Robby’s story is a touching one, Dirt has encountered its fair share of challenges in the public-facing realm. “Since we’re a coffee shop (and truck), many of our customers come in for a cup of coffee and are not yet aware of our mission. They don’t realize that the person they’re ordering from has autism. We’ve received our fair share of bad reviews due to our employees’ ‘lack of customer service’,” Burgess detailed.
The Dirt team believes this confusion stems from a lack of understanding that people with autism frequently struggle with traditional social cues and skills. To Burgess, this misunderstanding bolsters her in her mission with providing jobs through Dirt — a safe space for individuals with autism to cultivate those social skills while also hoping to educate customers that there is more to a person than their surface-level social interactions.
The environment within Dirt aims to cultivate that space without the message being thrown in your face. “One of my favorite things about Dirt is that you can come in and enjoy a cup of coffee without ever necessarily knowing what our mission is. We’re on a mission to normalize inclusion,” Burgess said. “Therefore, we do not advertise our mission on our signage or consider ourselves a charity. Instead, we created a bright and welcoming space that is inviting and that cultivates creativity, community and acceptance.”
By encouraging their neurodiverse staff to be their authentic selves at work and celebrating strengths as a team, Dirt works hard to make every person feel welcomed.
“When people leave Dirt, we hope they leave with a new favorite coffee shop! We also hope that our model of a neurodiverse environment helps them understand the importance of inclusion and empowers them to demand more of it in their own communities,” Burgess explained.
The immediate future of Dirt Coffee Bar lies with growing and developing their internship, Dirt on the Road and Inclusive Employer Alliance programs. The latter two programs will help spread their mission by creating opportunities for people outside of the Littleton area and giving employers the tools to adapt Dirt’s neurodiverse model for themselves. There’s nothing quite like an incredible story to make a great cup of coffee taste even better.
For more information on Dirt’s fun community events, partnerships and sponsorships, interning and employment, check out their website here.