Goodness Report, News

Irvine Unified Special Needs Instructors Open Coffee Shop to Employ People with Autism & Other Disabilities

February 24, 2021

By Susan Christian Goulding, OC Register

Employees at Able Coffee Roasters may require a little extra time slathering toast with Nutella for its Hazelnut Heaven. Some avoid eye contact; others might neglect to say “thank you.”

It’s all good; they’re learning. Many of the servers and kitchen workers at the new Huntington Beach cafe have autism or other disabilities, but in the estimation of Able’s founders, everyone contributes to the workforce in a meaningful way.

Last year, Irvine Unified School District special needs instructors Anthony Palmeri and Adeel Asif percolated the idea of creating a space where people like the students they work with could find employment.

“Students graduate from their adult transition program around the age of 22,” said Palmeri of San Clemente. “After that, there are not a lot of job opportunities for people with special needs. Many of my students end up just sitting around at home.”

A week before Christmas, the novice business partners opened Able Coffee on Edinger Avenue near Golden West College. It was the thick of the pandemic, when only takeout could be offered. But that meant a better lease deal for a great location.

The coffee shop fulfills double callings.

“I’ve always wanted to be an entrepreneur,” said Asif, who lives in Mission Viejo with his wife and child. “This place also ties in with my passion for helping people who have disabilities.”

Already, Able is a hit, attracting 10-minute waits in line.

“It’s so worth it,” said regular customer Cathy Mai, who discovered the coffee shop on Instagram.

The Los Angeles teacher is particularly fond of the Sensory Latte, minus the cinnamon, plus a drizzle of caramel.

“The employees are so patient with my complicated orders,” Mai said with a laugh.

“I love the customer service. I love the coffee. I love the mission. And I love the welcoming environment,” she added. “This sounds corny, but I feel so at home.”

Palmeri, 36, and Asif, 30, met on campus at Woodbridge High. Asif left his job as a behavior therapist at the end of the fall semester to manage Able Coffee. Palmeri, a specialist in autism, still teaches.

“We are in the profession of training people in life skills so they can go out into the world, but then there’s nowhere for them to go,” Asif said.

Carlene McCurry, an assistant principal at Woodbridge High, describes Asif and Palmeri as “amazing young men.”

“They have super-big hearts,” McCurry said. “It’s always wonderful to see them in action with students. They don’t focus on deficits but on possibilities.”

The coffee shop grew out of another venture the friends sprouted two years ago — a rolling coffee cart with which their students could practice job skills. Before the coronavirus hit, students ground, brewed and delivered coffee to teachers and staff.

The coffee cart concept expanded to two other Irvine Unified campuses. And on their website — theableworkers. com — Palmeri and Asif promote the service to any interested school.

“After the initial startup costs, 100% of the profits fund field trips and other school activities,” Asif said.

The online store also sells coffee beans from around the world, T-shirts, socks and beanies. Everything sports the Able logo: a puzzle piece. Both the symbol and its blue color represent autism awareness.

The theme carries through to the shop’s interior design. The mirror in the restroom is shaped like a puzzle piece, and the blue color motif extends from the walls to the cappuccino maker.

Able Coffee currently employs 15 part-timers, 10 of whom have disabilities ranging from mild to severe.

Of course, the weekly paycheck is rewarding on multiple levels.

“It’s good to have money in my pocket,” said Huntington Beach resident John Hobson, 19, who has moderate autism.

W herever he goes, Dana Point resident Chase Tsuma, 33, who has severe autism, clutches a small toy truck. It’s his comfort object, his bosses explained.

“Chase was our very first employee, huh, Chase?” Palmeri said, turning to Tsuma with an air of big brotherly pride.

Palmeri noted that Tsuma earns his keep.

“Chase likes stamping coffee cups,” Palmeri said. “And he’s really good at scooping ice for cold drinks. He’s the man.”

Alfonso Morales, 27, of Huntington Beach, doesn’t have a learning disability but he does grapple with bipolar disorder.

“Autistic and bipolar behaviors share some similar aspects,” he said. “We have a knack for saying inappropriate things.” Laid off from his threeyear job at Disneyland after it closed due to the pandemic, Morales came across Able Coffee in an online job search.

“I felt an instant connection to its objective,” he said. “Bipolar disorder and autism aren’t something that you are, they’re something that you have.”

Able Coffee’s pursuit may take center stage, but the owners have a deep affection for the shop’s main product.

“Our Colombian coffee is rad,” Palmeri said. “It’s grown at high altitudes and is so intricate and pretty, with chocolaty notes.”

Asif raves about the “awesome” Indonesian beans, observing that they’re grown in volcanic soil which, he claims, lends “a unique tropical flavor.”

“We talk about coffee the way other people talk about wine,” Palmeri said.

For Huntington Beach mom Gloria Pekala, Able Coffee has proved “an answer to my prayers.”

After hearing about the coffee shop from a church friend, she submitted a job application on behalf of her son, Nick Hanarhan, 25, who has severe autism.

“When I walked in and saw the puzzle pieces, I just felt so supported,” Pekala said. “If you don’t have a child who’s been looked at funny in a grocery store for mumbling to himself, it’s hard to fully appreciate that feeling of relief and acceptance.”

Every Friday morning, Hanarhan sits at a back table stamping pastry bags with the company emblem.

“He tells me, ‘Mom, I work fast,’” Pekala said. “I am so grateful for Adeel and Anthony. They’ve provided a beautiful place for our guys and girls to serve as productive members of society.”

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