Amy and Ben Wright recently temporarily shut down their five coffee shops in Wilmington, North Carolina, laying off over 120 employees, and moving their entire business online, all in one week. For the Wrights, it was a painful decision, especially because many of their employees who have intellectual developmental disabilities had difficulty understanding that the layoffs were not their fault. But despite all the changes, they are staying connected to customers and their mission, while keeping their eyes on the light at the end of the tunnel.
Four years ago, the Wrights founded Bitty & Beau’s Coffee with a unique staffing mission: “a human rights movement disguised as a coffee shop.” They are advocates of the value, inclusion, and acceptance of people with intellectual developmental disabilities, including their two children, whom the coffee shop is named for. In 2017, Amy was honored with CNN’s Hero of the Year award. The business expanded quickly, opening its fifth location in Annapolis, Maryland earlier this year. But that was before COVID-19.
“I think the whole world is going through this time of figuring it out,” Ben Wright told me on today’s ‘Leading Through Change’ live show. “It’s what we do on a daily basis. When we started the coffee shop, we just had to figure it out. With this COVID-19 pandemic, everyone is just having to figure it out.”
He went on to say that Salesforce tools have enabled them to respond and pivot from being a “within-six-feet-of-one-another retail business” to primarily online.
Here are three tips they offered to fellow business owners on how to chart uncertain territory and keep moving forward:
In order to adapt to the changing demands, you need to support your team and meet them on a personal level. “I look through the eyes of being a mother when I have conversations with my employees,” said Amy Wright. “I think about them as family members and treat them as such. It really does make a big difference.” As such, the Wrights are continuing to make accommodations for employees with disabilities and without disabilities, knowing this approach will bring out the best in employees, as it always has.
You don’t need all the answers to communicate with your employees or customers. Start by communicating with honesty and the appreciation that we are all in this together.
“Everybody is in the same boat, just trying to figure this out,” said Ben Wright. “[You’re] not always going to have the right answer or even a good answer. Let people know what you’re trying to do.”
Re-creating the personal connection that defines the Bitty & Beau’s Coffee experience was paramount for the Wrights. Amy Wright recounts how they created a new online business where they sell coffee beans and merchandise. They now include a handwritten note from an employee with every order — so that customers still feel connected to staff.
“Working with Salesforce [so] that our website was streamlined and able to handle incoming communication... was well established,” said Amy Wright. “So, I feel like we were really prepared for this moment. We’ve ramped up our newsletters. We have launched a social media campaign called ‘Fill Your Feed,’ and we are trying to share good stories about what is going on with our employees. [We want] to stay connected to our customers because they mean so much to us, and we want them to continue to feel connected to our business and our mission.“
What Amy and Ben have built in Bitty & Beau’s Coffee is much more than a business model. It’s a business purpose. And, as I told them on today’s show, I know they will make it through this challenging time because, ultimately, their mission is too important to fail.
You can find out more about Bitty & Beau’s Coffee — and check out their online store.
This interview with the Wrights is part of our Leading Through Change initiative, providing thought leadership, tips, and resources to help business leaders manage through crisis. Check out some of our most recent articles:
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In this time of crisis, many of us are thinking about how to uplift those who need it most. That’s why we are asking those who are fortunate enough to be in a position to help to support Jose Andres’ World Central Kitchen. Its mission is to mobilize local chefs and communities to provide first responder disaster relief in the form of hot, nutritious meals. If you can, please make a donation and support their efforts.