Image of staff working at Cameron's Coffee and Chocolates

By Tatiana Peralta

Fifteen minutes from SourceAmerica's Vienna office there's a nonprofit that sells warm cookies, flavorful jam, delicious coffee and a wide assortment of Belgian chocolates. All of these exquisite treats are made daily by young adults and people with disabilities. As soon as we stepped foot through the door, we were greeted with big smiles by their employees and Ellen Graham, one of the store's founders.

We had an opportunity to learn more about the business, including how the family got started in its journey selling chocolates and the success they have had in integrating people both with and without disabilities in the workplace. According to Ellen one of the most rewarding parts of her job is seeing the growth in everyone they employ and how all their employees change the perspective of people not just on work, but in life.

Ellen and other team members of Cameron's Coffee will visit SourceAmerica's National Office on October 2, 2019, during National Disability Employment Awareness Month. Keep an eye on SourceAmerica's Facebook page for details on a live stream of the event. In the meantime, we want to share their journey to success!

The Journey to Cameron's Coffee and Chocolates

Some people try out a couple of different things before knowing exactly what excites them to go to work every day. From an early age, Ellen's daughter Cameron knew she enjoyed baking. While in high school, Cameron joined the Best Buddies program and participated in an event called "Life Is Sweet," in which she partnered with local chef Patrick Bazin forming a bond that is still strong today. In fact, Bazin's on Church serves Cameron’s Coffee hazelnut brownies paired with their sundae dessert.

As Cameron progressed at the Fairfax Davis Training after high school, she participated in a culinary class with high expectations for everyone. It was during this training that Cameron’s passion for baking really took off, and Ellen started to realize how important baking was to her daughter. She immediately took steps to become a substitute teacher and learned the training philosophy that made Cameron so passionate. As graduation grew closer and closer, her family realized they wanted a similar environment for Cameron to continue to follow her dreams and grow.

Their journey led to them Chilmark Chocolates in Martha's Vineyard which employs people with intellectual disabilities. That company's integrated work environment represented everything they wanted for Cameron. The store’s owner set them up for success with recipes, advice, and tips and tricks for how they could start their own successful store.

With a model to follow, a location in Fairfax, and three employees, they started to fundraise. Ellen asked everyone she met about what skills they might be able to offer the new organization. With that simple question Cameron’s Coffee started coming together. Friends helped with everything from decorations to painting, and others helped in different ways. Their generosity set the foundation for a location that employs 22 people with disabilities today and 14 without.

From Chocolates to Coffee and More

Although the family's business journey has been rewarding, it's also come with challenges. For example, 95% of chocolate sales occur between Halloween and Mother's Day. That leaves four months out of the year with lower sales. As they looked to overcome the sales challenge, Ellen and her family realized there was no place to get a cup of coffee around the area. This was their opportunity to be a one-stop-shop for people to grab a cup of coffee, pick up some chocolate or pick up some lunch.

In order to thrive, the business has never stopped innovating. As Ellen and team assessed the needs of their business, they added quiche, introduced wraps and salads for the lunch rush, and have even added jam to their inventory! The first year they sold jam, it flew off the shelves. New jam flavors are always being introduced. When we visited their store this month, delicious blueberry jam and peach siracha were the new temptations being offered.

Ellen says she got some great advice when they first started out. She was told never to mistake the concept that because supporters believed in the mission that they would not have to provide a superior product because of who made it.  The way to combat that is to ensure that Cameron's Coffee products are better than the competition. Everything in their bakery case is made from scratch daily with the freshest ingredients. At 4:00 pm each day, they discount remaining products by 40% and what doesn’t sell is donated to a local homeless shelter.

Aside from their phenomenal product line, Cameron's Coffee and Chocolates is successful in partnering with the community. One of Ellen's most memorable moments was her work with Rolling Thunder-Ride of the Patriots organized by Larry Larson.  When she heard that they were in town, she wanted to give them treats to thank them for their service. The business partnered with Fairfax EDA, Fair City Mall, Central Fairfax Chamber of Commerce and Larry to figure out how they could help. They figured out that riders are often hungry when they reach the Pentagon, so Cameron’s Coffee and Chocolate set out to provide treats and snacks.

As a nonprofit, Cameron's Coffee needed help underwriting the cost of the sweet treats. Everyone wanted to help and thank the Veterans for their service, the four partnering organizations each assisted with a percentage of the cost. This was a big mission moment for both Ellen and the employees as they walked through the crowd and were thanked for the snacks provided. Their participation in the event showed the capabilities of people with disabilities and allowed them to engage in the bigger community.

The Importance of Integrated Employment

According to Ellen, the most important part of starting a similar business is listening to the people with disabilities you employ. It's crucial to find out about their passions and help them pursue their goals. Often, professionals with disabilities have jobs that don't allow them to chase their dreams. Cameron has thrived at the coffee shop because she is passionate about what she is doing. Her work is dynamic and there’s never a day when she does the same task over and over.

Many employees look for a job just like the ones offered at Cameron's Coffee. It isn't just a job for them, it's so much more. And this applies to everyone, whether they have a disability or not. One of Ellen's team members once told her that while all her friends complained about having to go to work, she enjoyed coming to work every morning. The integrated work environment shows young adults without disabilities that everyone is on the same playing field and breaks down preconceptions people often have regarding people with disabilities.

Failure is valued at Cameron's Coffee. Ellen is a strong believer that failure is important to developing self-sufficiency. At Cameron's Coffee, everyone is allowed to encounter failure; in fact, it helps them grow and become stronger. This integrated workplace in an ideal environment because it reduces the stigma associated with failure. It encourages everyone to rise to the expectations that are placed upon them.