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Cafe targets underemployed workforce

The Hive in Willard is hiring people with disabilities for plans to open in March

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A cafe in Willard plans to open its doors next month with a concept its owners hope will bring attention to an underemployed segment of the workforce.

It’s called The Hive, and it plans to take flight at 304 E. Jackson St., Ste. 5E, in the East Center, across from Willard Middle School. The cafe is intended to serve as a community hub and career launch pad for people with developmental disabilities. The business plan calls for those with disabilities to make up roughly half of the eatery’s 16-person staff.

“Other businesses similar to this have opened up across the state,” said Melissa Skaggs, who developed the concept through the Hive of the Ozarks 501(c)(3) formed in 2019. “There’s nothing like this in southwest Missouri. I feel like our community, southwest Missouri and the Ozarks is ready.”

The goal: Create a workplace where people with disabilities can develop alongside peers to learn all aspects of food production, service and marketing.

According to the most recent data available from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 19% of persons with a disability were employed in 2019. By comparison, 66% of those without a disability were employed that year.

Skaggs said The Hive was patterned off of places she’s visited, such as Steamers Coffeehouse in Arvada, Colorado, and the recently shuttered Bloom Cafe in St. Louis.

Employee plan
Employees will be hired at the state’s minimum wage, which last month increased to $10.30 an hour from $9.45. As part of a ballot issue voters passed in 2018, Missouri’s minimum wage will continue to annually increase until 2023, when it hits $12 an hour.

Skaggs, who retired in 2019 from Willard Public Schools after a 30-year career in education, said all of The Hive’s workers essentially are short term. They will be limited to 500 hours of employment in order to expand opportunities for others.

“The reason we’re doing the 500-hour cycle is because we are wanting to provide the maximum amount of job opportunities for people,” she said. “We’re after a 50/50 ratio of typically developing and people with differing abilities.”

Board member Tiffany Dutcher said eight people at a time will be on shift for breakfast and lunch service. Employees will alternate jobs daily, so that everyone learns to serve, run the register, wash dishes and prepare food and drinks.

Dutcher, who is a teacher at Willard Intermediate School-North, said she was inspired to get involved in the nonprofit by former co-worker Skaggs, as well as several of the students with disabilities she’s worked with over the years.

“They’ve helped me see everyone does have genius, everyone has potential,” she said. “It’s just finding that inside.”

Skaggs said The Hive is working with Preferred Employment Services, a division of Preferred Family Healthcare Inc., to help boost its workforce. Mehgan Kensel, regional director at Preferred Employment Services, said it has a food service skills training program for people with disabilities at its 2626 W. College Road facility. The program, typically 12 weeks long, has been running since the 1990s, she said.

Kensel and Skaggs say the connection between the two organizations is mutually beneficial.

“Potentially, we’d like to use the last couple weeks of the program where they can do an externship at The Hive,” Kensel said. “Hopefully, in turn, they identify who might benefit from our services that they will refer them to us as well.”

There’s a vital need to provide employment for people with disabilities, Skaggs said.

BLS data noted 7% of persons with disabilities actively seeking a job were not employed in 2019, a statistical improvement of 0.7% from the prior year. Still, it’s more than twice the unemployment rate of those without disabilities, at 3.5% in 2019.

As of July 2019, 71% of Americans with disabilities of working age, generally considered ages 16-64, reported a barrier to employment, according to BLS data.

Building a foundation
Startup costs are currently around $4,000, but infill is yet to take place at the 1,800-square-foot eatery, said Skaggs, who also serves as president of the nonprofit board. That may increase the total to around $20,000, she said. The Hive’s five-year lease is with Neal Wood, who also is providing architecture services for the organization.

The nonprofit largely has depended on local donors for funds, and $5,000 has been raised so far, Skaggs said. Fundraising efforts have been hampered by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’ve tried to do as many events as we can, but those have obviously been limited this past year,” Dutcher said, noting the cafe will sell branded merchandise that’s available on the organization’s website,

While there are no current plans to spread The Hive outside of Willard, that’s the organizers’ long-term goal.

“I would like to see the community just really rally and support it and our local workforce here,” Dutcher said. “I could see from there going to other places, like Springfield. Willard is a good place for this to start.”


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