Kenzie's BE Café provides work opportunities for people with disabilities

Kendra Schreur and Marisa Nicolet are excited to gain more confidence while working at Kenzie’s BE Café in Grand Haven.

Both women, who have been working at the café since its soft opening on Halloween, really enjoy working at Kenzie’s and love making customers’ drinks.

Jessica Smallegan works at Kenzie's Be Café in Grand Haven. Her favorite job is washing down the tables and doing dishes, and her favorite drink is hot chocolate with whipped cream.

Kenzie's Be Café is a nonprofit coffee shop that provides meaningful employment for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The employees are individuals with a range of abilities, and all work two- or three-hour shifts. There are up to four BEristas there at a time, with a manager, and everyone does a little bit of everything, from making drinks to cleaning.

“(The BEristas) are all extremely excited to come in every morning for work,” says manager Haley Langejans. “Everyone is ready to go. Ready to please and do their best. And ready to learn. We have a pretty broad range of abilities, so we’re learning how to pair everyone.”

A fast-paced setting

Langejans started working at Jumpin’ Java, which was owned by the BE Café’s Erin Lyon, over the summer while on break from her job as a ParaPro at Western Michigan Christian High School.

“I made a really good connection with Erin, and I loved the barista part of it, too,” explains Langejans. “When she made the decision to close (Jumpin’ Java and open Kenzie’s), I came over here as a manager, and I love it — it’s a fast-paced setting.”

Kenzie's Be Café is more than just a coffee shop. The new Grand Haven business has a focus of inclusivity.

Lyon is extremely happy with and grateful for how everything has been starting out — from the BEristas and volunteers to the managers and the community.

“I am so impressed every day by our BEristas,” she says. “They have all done so well making drinks, remembering the different types of drinks, taking initiative to get projects done, multitasking, providing stellar customer service, and getting to know our customers, who are, in turn, getting to know our BEristas. I am equally impressed by our managers; Gwen had never worked in a coffee shop but has 30-plus years of experience living and working with people with disabilities. Haley also has experience working with people with disabilities and has coffee shop experience. Both women have just jumped right in and taken on the responsibilities of running the coffee shop and working with our staff without any hesitation.”

Providing a platform

Employees for the BE Café were easy to find because “everyone found us,” Lyon says. “There are many people in our community who want to work, but many mainstream businesses are hesitant to hire them,” she says. “We hope that, by providing the platform we are for our BEristas, we will break down any hesitation a business may have, and in turn show the benefit of increasing diversity, equality, and inclusion (DE&I) within their business. We would love to partner with any company that would like to invest further in DE&I and that realizes the benefits of this untapped pool of employees.”

The community already has been extremely supportive, and it’s something that every person working at the café has noticed and appreciated.

“It’s been really fun because the people are really welcoming and they don’t hassle you at all,” Schreur says.

“The community has been so supportive,” Lyon adds. “We already have a handful of regulars. People have waited so long to see what was going into the building, and now that they know the impact we are making in the community, everyone has been even more excited that we are open.”

Something bigger

But Kenzie’s BE Café and its impact are just getting started … and Lyon and her team need the community’s help.

“We are open, and we want to welcome everyone to stop in, meet our BEristas, and share some time with us,” Lyon says. “We have coffee, but we also have quiche, salads, baked goods, coffee mugs, shirts, bulk coffee, holiday treats, and additional food items being added or updated every week.”

Langejans adds to that.

Employees of Kenzie's Be Café pose for a picture. From left, manager Haley Langejans, Marisa Nicolet, and Kendra Schreur.

“The main thing (we ask) is for the community to be receptive that this is not only a place to get coffee and treats, but it’s much more than that,” she explains. “We have a different mission, as well. When you come in here, we’re working toward something bigger than just a café setting.”

Lyon, who started the nonprofit BErista, Inc., is hoping to grow and create more programs, with Kenzie’s as its starting point.

“We continue to fund raise, and are looking for sponsors and partners for upcoming events, programs, and future employment opportunities,” she explains. “Kenzie’s is a great way to make employment visual and tangible, but our hope is to expand our programming further by providing more jobs and training for people with disabilities inside and outside our business.”

Kenzie’s BE Café is located at 1103 Washington Ave., on the east side of U.S. 31 in Grand Haven, and hours are 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

This article is a part of the year-long series Disability Inclusion exploring the state of West Michigan’s growing disability community. The series is made possible through a partnership with Centers for Independent Living organizations across West Michigan.