A fateful conversation in 2017 among Park Scholars Lindsay Wrege ‘21, Michael Evans ‘20 ‘21 and their peers changed their college trajectories — and spurred a business with substantial community impact.
“I mentioned at lunch one day that I’d love to start a coffee shop that employed people with disabilities,” said Wrege, who grew up alongside friends with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) and saw them struggle to find meaningful employment later on. “That’s how everything kicked off.”
Determined to change the fact that around 80% of adults with IDD are unemployed, Wrege and Evans co-founded 321 Coffee. With the help of their fellow Park Scholars, they got to work getting their idea off the ground.
Friends volunteered to design the logo, build the brand’s social media presence and sell coffee at events on campus. Later on, Wrege and Evans also leaned on friends to help build and paint 321 Coffee’s first space, a booth at the North Carolina State Farmers Market. Six years later, the company has four locations and employs more than 50 people with IDD.
Now, Wrege and Evans are bringing their coffee business back to where it all began. As part of a new partnership, NC State and 321 Coffee have released a licensed co-branded coffee called Greater Good.
“We wanted to highlight NC State’s involvement in 321 Coffee’s story and the impact it’s created — it’s truly a byproduct of both parties,” said Wrege. “We thought, ‘Let’s make a coffee to celebrate that.’”
NC State and 321 Coffee: A History
Wrege’s and Evans’ mission was straightforward: provide meaningful employment for people with IDD. But the logistics of executing it proved to be more tricky. With help from NC State’s financial and educational resources, they’ve made 321 Coffee a success.
Wrege and Evans credit the Park Scholarships program with giving them the motivation and encouragement to start 321 Coffee.
“The Park Scholarships program put us in the same room as really driven people,” said Wrege. “It was a fabulous community of people who were driven to be the best versions of themselves and had a shared value of leaving the world better than they found it.”
The financial support from the four-year scholarship program also made it possible for them to pursue their entrepreneurial ambitions right out of college.
“Not being up against thousands of dollars of student debt when we graduated helped us make that leap to go full-time with the business,” said Wrege.
The Park Scholar alumni network proved to be another invaluable asset of the program. One alumnus who runs an insurance agency reached out to Wrege and Evans when he learned about 321 Coffee, and offered to explain business insurance terms and policies. Alumni from the general contracting industry did the same. The coffee company has also partnered with another business owned by a Park Scholar alumna, Reborn Clothing, to upcycle some of their products.
“It’s been so meaningful to see the support of so many different people from the Park program and from NC State play into different parts of our story,” said Wrege.
Wrege and Evans also credit their degree programs with preparing them for their respective roles as 321 Coffee’s chief executive officer and chief financial officer.
“The Poole College of Management gave me a great network, but it also gave me the confidence to go out and talk to people and ask questions to find the information I need,” said Wrege, who majored in business administration with a concentration in entrepreneurship.
Evans, who has a bachelor’s and master’s in statistics from the College of Sciences, appreciates that he was able to benefit from NC State’s interdisciplinary approach to entrepreneurship.
“As a statistics student, I still had a lot of exposure to NC State Innovation and Entrepreneurship,” said Evans. “I was welcomed with open arms into a lot of those programs, and we met a lot of great people that helped us immensely and provided a lot of support along the way.”
Evans still uses the mathematical knowledge he picked up at the Department of Statistics to grow 321 Coffee. He builds financial models for processes like sales analysis and order fulfillment.
“Being a small business, a lot of things are left to us to figure out,” he said. “I learned a lot of great problem-solving skills in the Department of Statistics that have helped us navigate the early stages of entrepreneurship in an effective way.”
Wrege and Evans encountered a significant obstacle when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, as it threatened 321 Coffee’s business model as a brick-and-mortar beverage shop. The Andrews Launch Accelerator program, which provides NC State startup founders a 14-week entrepreneurship program and funding, helped them adapt.
“The encouragement we got from that program was to look at other ways to diversify the business,” said Evans. “They got us thinking about ways to stay relevant in the space if people never went back to coffee shops in person.”
The experience led them to start roasting their own coffee and open an online store.
“We knew we needed a product that really represented 321 Coffee and brought that experience home for people,” said Evans. “Roasting our own coffee has opened up a lot of doors for us. It was something that was initially a hurdle, but ended up broadening what we’d be able to do in the long run.”
Even after graduating, Wrege and Evans continued to find support from NC State. In 2021, they received the Miller Fellowship, which provides newly graduated NC State alumni a stipend for six months to cover “rent and ramen” while they pursue their business ventures full-time.
“There was no certainty that it was all going to work out, but the Miller Fellowship reduced our risk,” said Wrege.
A Freshly Brewed Partnership
The co-branded Greater Good coffee marks the next chapter in the 321 Coffee-NC State story. The name of the coffee alludes to the company’s and the university’s shared mission to advance the greater good, champion a culture of inclusion, and bring about social and economic development across North Carolina.
The Greater Good partnership will fuel the 321 Coffee ecosystem by creating more jobs and more work hours for existing employees. It will also benefit NC State students, with part of the proceeds from the coffee sales going toward need-based, merit-based, study abroad and athletics scholarships.
“That’s something Michael and I are really proud of, especially just having been on the receiving end of NC State scholarships,” said Wrege.
Wrege and Evans also take pride in honoring the people who make it all possible — their employees. The team roasts all of the coffee the company sells, fulfills online orders and prepares drink orders at each of 321 Coffee’s four locations. They’re also front and center on the company’s packaging. Each coffee bag features an employee’s name, photo and quote.
Centering 321 Coffee’s branding and operations around their baristas and roasters is a top priority for Wrege and Evans.
“Historically, a lot of individuals with IDD end up with jobs that are menial or behind the scenes. We were looking to create a business that brought those individuals to the forefront and amplified their voices, their presence and what they bring to the table every day,” said Evans. “We want to ensure that representation of the staff is present every day in the business, on the shelf and wherever 321 Coffee is.”
When deciding on an employee to feature on the Greater Good packaging, the choice was obvious: one of 321 Coffee’s earliest employees, Sam.
“Sam has given so much to 321 Coffee — he was one of our first employees. He started out by serving our coffee on folding tables on NC State’s campus,” said Wrege. “It doesn’t hurt that he’s the world’s biggest NC State fan.”
As for the coffee itself, the 321 Coffee team tasted more than 25 samples before deciding on a Guatemalan medium roast coffee with notes of chocolate.
“We wanted a coffee that was super approachable, something that people would be excited to start their morning with every day,” said Evans. “But we also wanted a specialty coffee that represented how special this partnership with NC State is. We’re really excited to share the Greater Good coffee with both the NC State community and the broader community that ends up enjoying the product.”
For Wrege and Evans, their partnership with NC State is a full-circle moment.
“We feel like we’re an example of students who were given a lot of great access to new resources, and through that we were able to do a lot of good for the community,” said Wrege. “That’s something we’re really proud and appreciative of.”
This post was originally published in NC State News.