Able Coffee Roasters brews community and job opportunities for individuals with disabilities

An Able Coffee employee stamps the company logo on coffee cups at the Huntington Beach location.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

For Able Coffee Roasters founders Adeel Asif and Anthony Palmeri, coffee means community.

“Coffee brings people together,” said Asif.

Asif and Palmeri met at the Irvine Unified School District while working in a special education classroom at Woodbridge High School. Palmeri is a high school special education teacher and Asif works in the classroom as a behavior specialist.

“We work with our students to teach and train functional skills, vocational skills, life skills and essentially get our students ready for employment opportunities in the community,” said Asif. “And we saw such a large need for that population that was unemployed and we wanted to do something about it.”

Able Coffee co-owners Adeel Asif, left, and Anthony Palmeri, at the Huntington Beach location.
Able Coffee co-owners Adeel Asif, left, and Anthony Palmeri, at the Huntington Beach location, met working together in a special education classroom.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

The Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that employment opportunities for individuals with special needs are limited after the age of 22.

As educators, Asif and Palmeri said they saw firsthand the difficulty experienced not only by their students but others in the disabled community in finding employment. As a part of a school program, students worked and volunteered at various job sites to gain vocational and employability skills.

“Prior to COVID, we had our students working at local pizza shops,” said Palmeri. “We practiced having our students change into uniforms, and we trained them to be independent, folding pizza boxes, using visual supports and appropriate behavior accommodations, and we saw how successful they were.”

But despite employers’ generosity, it wasn’t always easy for them to provide the reasonable accommodations the students needed for success in the workplace.

An Able Coffee employee fills cups of ice at the Huntington Beach location.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Asif and Palmeri decided to create their own company to employ not just their students but all individuals actively looking for work.

“We got a commercial coffee roaster and started roasting coffee,” said Asif. “We had several of our former students and others that were looking for work come help us package whole bean coffee, which is what we started with.”

They sourced beans from female-owned Café Femenino and hired students to help fill 8-ounce bags of coffee beans, label and ship them.

Then when the pandemic hit, all the schools options for job sites closed down. They decided to open a storefront coffee shop.

The Huntington Beach location opened last December, during the height of the pandemic, for takeout and delivery only. Asif and Palmeri trained their staff by using teaching strategies such as symbol-supported text, schedules and visual/video models.

“We provide all the accommodations that they need,” Palmeri said. “Because we have employees that can’t read or don’t have money skills. We are educators first.”

Able Coffee has neurotypical baristas and individuals with disabilities, but every employee earns minimum wage, plus tips.

An Able Coffee employee stamps the company logo on coffee cups at the Huntington Beach location.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

And the coffee shop also cultivates the community they knew coffee could.

“We celebrate everyone’s differences and that really came to light at our holiday training we just had,” Palmeri said. “We were able to talk about our year so far with all of our employees there and it was really cool to hear how much Able means to our employees.”

Palmeri said Able gives many of their employees a sense of purpose.

“One of our employees, Chase, is 33, and this was his first job ever,” said Palmeri. “His language has grown so much, he has become independent, scooping ice into cups and greeting customers. People love seeing him everyday. We have regulars that just come in to see Chase.”

Asif said the shop has also created a safe space for families with disabled loved ones.

“We have been able to create a very unique environment that is inclusive and they feel safe, and don’t feel judged,” said Asif.

In addition, Able has also launched a mobile coffee cart program, known as the ACR Vocational Program.

“We supply coffee carts to classrooms and they take those carts out to snack and lunch and they get to expose themselves to the general education students and general education teachers,” Palmeri said.

The ACR Vocational Program also provides the students with Able Coffee uniforms and visual support, and they keep 100% of the profits. In the year since launching the ACR Vocational Program, they have reached 45 classrooms across six school districts in Orange and Los Angeles counties.

Able Coffee Bali blue ground organic coffee at the Huntington Beach location.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

“We wanted to find more ways to support students other than just in our current coffee shop,” Palmeri said.

In an effort to support even more students, Able Coffee Roasters is opening a second location in Fullerton this month.

“We are both really excited because it will be adjacent to the Cal State Fullerton campus,” said Palmeri. “They have a really good special ed and communicative disorder school and we are already starting to touch base and build relationships with that campus.”

Palmeri and Asif are hoping to collaborate with the school to host workshops at their new location.

The new store had a soft opening on Jan. 3, and Able aims to continue to grow their concept to help more individuals with disabilities find employment. A grand opening is planned for later this month, though no specific date is set.

“This year, we were able to create 25 work opportunities for various individuals that had work experience or didn’t have work experience ” said Asif. “We hope to do the same with our second location, if not more.”

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