By Kristen Grace / Photos Provided
On Elm Avenue in Norman, nestled between the University of Oklahoma dorms and Greek houses, you’ll find a warm, busy coffee shop called Not Your Average Joe.
At 4 p.m. on a winter Tuesday, the place bustles with a steady stream of college students getting their caffeine fix. The baristas frequently call out cheerful greetings to regular customers by name. A sign on one wall reads, “Wear your Greek letters on Monday and receive 15% off your order.”
Some customers leave as soon as they get a cup in hand, and others set up a place to study. Wearing messy buns or North Face gear, laptops and textbooks spread over the tables, they set up camp with lattes or espressos. Nothing about this humming coffee shop would immediately clue a customer in to the fact that Not Your Average Joe hires workers who have IDDs — intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Tim Herbel, executive director of the five Not Your Average Joe coffee houses across Oklahoma, purposely designed the business to provide not only coffee to the masses but also quality, meaningful jobs to those with disabilities.
“At this time last week, you would have walked in and heard four different languages,” Herbel said. “We were hosting a dinner party for international students. We believe in radical inclusivity.”
He then excuses himself to help a new customer — a psychology major who needs a pick-me-up. He suggests they try a power ball made with gluten-free oats. The extensive menu boasts not only coffee drinks but quiche, scones, salads, sandwiches, burritos and ice cream.
“We are very proud of our menu,” he said. “We cater and host parties. At our Midtown location, we also offer Micheladas and Black Lava — a mix of espresso and dark beer.”
But back to why inclusivity matters so much for Herbel and Not Your Average Joe: When asked what inspired him to open the first location in Midtown on Jan. 1, 2019, Tim speaks about his deceased nephew, Braxton, who was born with cerebral palsy and hydrocephalus.
“One day, his church called a meeting and invited Braxton to stop attending Sunday School,” Herbel said, and pauses, allowing the full weight of that sentence to sink in. “He wasn’t wanted there. These coffee shops — five locations in this state — are about radical hospitality and inclusivity. People with disabilities need community just as much as they need jobs. We want to work with those who have intellectual and developmental disabilities. That means people with Down Syndrome, Autism Spectrum Disorders, Cerebral Palsy and those with sight and hearing disabilities, to name a few.”
While we are talking, a barista has taken a seat at a nearby table and has begun drawing with a Sharpie on coffee sleeves. Herbel nods towards him and then opens up the photographs on his phone.
“Many of our employees are artistically gifted and like to draw on the sleeves,” he said. He scrolls through art that has found a home around someone’s cup of coffee, and he mentions that if they could find 1,000 donors a month at $5 each, they could afford to hire a special needs coordinator full-time.
As we talk, a barista brings round a sample of a new drink they’re trying called the Honeybee Latte. Notes of lavender and honey gently flavor the coffee. Every customer is offered a small cup. Light from the setting sun filters through the windows, and for a moment, it doesn’t feel like we are a collection of strangers, but a community raising a cup in celebration of a safe place where all are welcome.