Louis Jackson pulled twice on a handle and watched as 12 grams of ground coffee poured into a single-serve pod. Then he handed the pod to Brett Curro, who slid it into a machine that sealed the top with plastic. Finally, Curro set the final product on a tray, and the process began again.
Jackson and Curro are part of a team of workers with intellectual or developmental disabilities who fill City Cups coffee pods at Wake Enterprises, a local nonprofit that helps people with disabilities gain independence and job skills.
Jackson, 45, said he enjoys the work he does on the two-person assembly line inside a small room filled with the aroma of coffee.
“It’s fun and challenging,” Jackson said. “It makes a lot more money, too.”
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Bill Landahl, owner of Oak City Coffee Roasters, created City Cups as a way to provide jobs for people with autism and other disabilities. Workers at Wake Enterprises are paid based on production instead of the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, but Landahl helps ensure his workers earn more.
The project has been Landahl’s dream since he left his job with a pharmaceutical and biotech company in 2013 to start Oak City Coffee Roasters, which now operates in a small space on Hargett Street near downtown Raleigh.
He initially launched a Kickstarter campaign in an effort to raise $20,000 for what he then called Care Cups – a version of K-cups. (He said two trademark attorneys urged him to change the name to avoid legal trouble with the Keurig company, so Care Cups became City Cups Raleigh.)
The online fundraiser failed, but Landahl, 56, didn’t give up. He helped Wake Enterprises win a $7,000 grant from the Duke Energy Foundation for the initiative.
A second Kickstarter campaign – this time with a goal of $8,000 – was successful and helped cover expenses.
Workers got started on the City Cups project this fall, filling 540 coffee pods per two-hour shift. That’s enough to fill 30 bags that are distributed to local grocery stores and coffee shops or sold online or at the Oak City Coffee Roasters shop. Each bag costs $14.
Landahl said the project isn’t profitable yet, but that wasn’t his main goal. The tag line on the City Cups bags is “1 City, 1 Purpose, 1 Great Coffee.”
“What I’d love is to sort of prove a point that people of Raleigh and the businesses of Raleigh can support people with special needs,” he said.
Eventually, Landahl would like to expand the project to other cities. He envisions City Cups Durham and City Cups Boston.
“Any city with a coffee roaster and people with special needs can have a product the market supports,” he said.
Landahl treats his employees like business partners, said Walter Weeks, executive director of Wake Enterprises, which serves about 250 people a day at two facilities.
“He came in recognizing that these are people who have real skills,” Weeks said of Landahl. “They just need an opportunity.”
Landahl founded Oak City Coffee Roasters as a way to provide good opportunities for farmers. He works with some importers, but he also works directly with four farmers in South America and Africa.
He said his goal is to pay farmers more than the fair trade price for coffee.
“I didn’t start the company to become wealthy,” Landahl said. “I started it to make a difference.”