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Business Spotlight: Community Connector

Willard cafe makes good on goal to employ people with disabilities

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As it nears two years in operation, a Willard cafe’s primary intentions are fully in flight, officials say.

The Hive, in the East Center across from Willard Middle School, is designed to be a career launch pad for people with developmental disabilities. That population makes up nearly half of the cafe’s 14-person staff, says Melissa Skaggs, director of 501(c)(3) Hive of the Ozarks, which operates the business. The nonprofit does business as The Hive with the cafe serving as the first – and, to date, only – of its programs.

“Our community’s been very supportive,” she says. “Of course, we wouldn’t be looking at a second birthday if it hadn’t been for their support, and we’re very grateful for it.”

Fundraising efforts such as selling branded merchandise prior to The Hive’s March 2022 opening covered most of its $20,000 startup costs, Skaggs said, adding she signed a five-year lease for an undisclosed rate with Neal Wood. 

The 1,800-square-foot cafe, which serves sandwiches, salads, soups and pastries, along with a drink lineup of coffees, teas, smoothies and mixed sodas, is the brainchild of Skaggs, says Dr. Devon Jarvis, owner of Jarvis Family Eye Center LLC and a Hive of the Ozarks board member.

“Everything that is in there is the way she has envisioned it for years,” he says. “I always reference The Hive as the happiest place in town. When you go in there, you can’t help but leave happy. It helps that the food is good, and the atmosphere is good – but just the environment and what’s happening there is so positive.”

Hourly plan
A 30-year employee in education, Skaggs retired in 2019 from Willard Public Schools. That included work as a high school teacher in which her classroom had students with differing abilities mixed in with typically developing peers. She developed The Hive’s concept based on places she’d visited, such as Steamers Coffeehouse in Arvada, Colorado.

Skaggs said the goal was to create a workplace where people with differing abilities can develop alongside peers to learn all aspects of food production, service and marketing.

“Our goal is manifesting; it’s just taking more time,” she says, noting it can take a while for those with differing abilities to skill up in multiple food service areas. “But we’ve had some successes, and we have employees here that have learned a lot, and it’s pretty exciting.”

Employees are hired at the state’s minimum wage, which this month increased to $12.30 from $12 per hour. Thirteen people with differing abilities have worked at the cafe over its nearly two years in operation, Skaggs says. It’s also intended to be a short-term gig for cafe workers, as they are limited to 500 hours of employment to give opportunities for others.

“I don’t know if we will stick with that. That’s one thing I want to bring up to the board because 500 hours takes a long time when people don’t work very many hours a week,” she says, noting there’s a backlog of applications for future job openings. “It takes a long time to get other people in to give them a chance.”

Jarvis says he’d be in favor of reducing the hours.

“The goal isn’t for them to work there the rest of their life. The goal is for them to progress,” he says, noting one of the cafe’s first employees now works full-time for Mercy Springfield Communities. “The more people we can help, the better, if that helps facilitate it.”

According to the most recent data available from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the labor force participation rate in November 2023 was 41.5% for persons with a disability, ages 16-64, up from 37.8% a year prior. In comparison, 77.8% of those without a disability in the same age range were employed in November.

Financial aid
Aside from the funds raised prior to opening the cafe, Skaggs says financial assistance has been coming from sources both expected and surprising. Hive of the Ozarks received $11,729 as part of more than $1 million presented in November to children’s charities at Price Cutter Charity Championship’s Celebration of Sharing event. The nonprofit also recently was given a $4,800 grant from Veterans United Foundation, which she says will be used to purchase a freeze dryer.

The Hive additionally was awarded $20,000 in 2022 as part of the inaugural Intuit QuickBooks and Mailchimp Small Business Hero Day.

“Unbeknownst to me, that was an employee of Intuit that came in here and nominated us,” Skaggs says.

While declining to disclose 2023 revenue, which Skaggs says is still being calculated, she expects the year to finish roughly 20% above 2022, during which the cafe opened in March. Customer support was the biggest boost, but she adds the bottom line was helped by avoiding any major equipment purchases for the year.

“I just want to be in the black a little bit. Our goal is to make it to the third birthday,” she says.

In addition to a new freeze dryer, Skaggs says she plans this year to add more outdoor seating and purchase vending machines to offer food produced at The Hive to undetermined area businesses.

“I want to get a small vending machine that will work with a card reader and get it into some Springfield businesses with a lot of employees to try to get not only some of our food out there for some profit, but to get our word out there more,” she says.

Jarvis says he believes The Hive’s value to Willard goes well beyond customers looking for a meal.

“Any place that reaches out to include people that are developmentally different, it helps that person. But often, it helps even more the typically developed person who maybe doesn’t recognize how hard it is for some people to find work or do simple tasks,” he says. “We would love for every community to have a Hive or something similar.”

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