When coffee can be found just about anywhere, there’s a thin and distinct line between a great coffee shop and just a place to get a cup.
Overwhelmingly, voters in the News & Observer’s Triangle Coffee Bracket declared 321 Coffee, a brand built to offer jobs to people with developmental disabilities, as the area’s top coffee shop. As the winning cafe, 321 seemed to resonate with coffee fans as an expansion of the community, not just the coffee community.
“A big thing about coffee, it’s about conversations and community spaces,” said 321 Coffee co-owner Lindsay Wrege. “People look for a place to hang out and linger over coffee, to meet friends and family. People are slowing down and getting to know our baristas. It’s an opportunity to be in a normalized setting and get to know someone with a disability and discover those commonalities.”
Over five rounds and 32 coffee shops spread across the Triangle, 321 Coffee prevailed in a region steeped in specialty coffee, world-class roasters and talented baristas. Pine State Coffee was the runner-up.
Today we’d say that 321 Coffee started as a pop-up, which is to say it started as an idea without a space of its own.
In 2017 as college freshmen at NC State, Wrege and Michael Evans started 321 with a couple of coffee pots from Target and some rented folding tables. They would set up at football games and accept invitations to corporate offices and everywhere in between.
It was a mission even before it was a viable business.
Wrege said she was inspired to start 321 Coffee after seeing some of her closest friends growing up struggle to find meaningful jobs due to developmental disabilities.
“These girls couldn’t get jobs that weren’t cleaning bathrooms or doing the dishes,” Wrege said. “The mission was very focused in showing there’s more than one way to do anything.”
The name 321 refers to Down Syndrome, which some of its 31 employees have, meaning the third copy of the 21st chromosome.
The shop is run like a typical cafe, with cashiers and baristas taking orders and making drinks. But those baristas may have autism or Down Syndrome, or be non-verbal, Wrege said, and sign “Thank you” as they hand over an ordered coffee.
“This isn’t your standard coffee shop,” “Wrege said. “But the coffee has to stand on its own. You’re not coming in here to pat yourself on the back, but the social component is a byproduct of that.
“We’re not going to be your fastest cup of coffee, we don’t have 300 flavors of drinks, but you’re going to support something greater,” Wrege said.
In 2019, 321 opened its first physical space, setting up as a booth inside a building at the State Farmers Market in Raleigh. That move meant taking an idea that worked in offices and parking lots and trying it in one of Raleigh’s busiest retail centers, where thousands come through on weekends to buy produce and crafts.
“The day before we opened at the Farmers Market I was scared no one would show up,” Wrege said. “We completely sold out of coffee in three hours.”
321 would later expand and take over the next door booth, building it from a kiosk to something more like a cozy cafe.
Then the COVID 19 pandemic hit and like everyone else, 321 had to pivot, adding a roaster to start making beans.
“We knew that people weren’t going to stop drinking coffee, but they might stop going to coffee shops for a while,” Wrege said. “We were able to ship our coffee everywhere.”
Now 321 has even bigger expansion plans, as the News & Observer previously reported, moving into the new Pendo building in Raleigh, with more brick and mortar locations to come.
With 321 standing out in the Triangle’s coffee scene, Wrege said coffee was just a means of building a large community.
“It means everything,” Wrege said of winning the coffee bracket. “It shows people are a part of it. We couldn’t do this without our baristas and our customers showing up. It’s not just me. It’s this team, we’re truly grassroots.”
Pine State Coffee: A neighborhood gem
Pine State Coffee is owned by Triangle coffee veteran Lars Robinson, who has been a barista for 16 years in some of the area’s top shops and roaster.
While it’s a small neighborhood shop, Pine State Coffee has enormous support, collecting tens of thousands of votes over the two-week coffee bracket, before being edged in the end by 321 Coffee.
After working in a number of local shops, Robinson has carved out a place of his own, a comfortable cafe tucked off of Capital Boulevard, next to Mordecai.
“I think we have a lot of following here in the neighborhood,” Robinson said. “We’re a little different than most shops, you’re not going to find another that looks and feels like this one.”
Before he started the brick and mortar, Robinson roasted and sold Pine State beans. Roasting, he said, is the only way to stand out in such a coffee-obsessed market.
“It’s the magic of the bean,” Robinson said. “If you’re not roasting in-house, I think it’s difficult to stand out from another shop if you’re serving the same beans.”
This story was originally published November 18, 2021 2:57 PM.