Success Brewing at Dirt Coffee

By Danielle Krolewicz | Photo by Sara Fossum

A customer receives her cup of coffee from the Dirt Coffee truck on Oct. 23, 2015. Founded in 2013, Dirt Coffee works to change perspectives about autism by employing and empowering young adults with autism.

Dirt Coffee: No, it’s not coffee for worms.

On Friday mornings, the Dirt Coffee truck can be found at 2303 E. Dartmouth Ave. The truck sits outside of the Joshua School, which serves students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD); some of those students may serve you coffee.

The truck, which previously hauled furniture, was converted into a coffee truck two years ago. It is the brainchild of Lauren Thome, M.Ed who also founded Garden, Inc., a nonprofit that assists those on the spectrum and their families. 

At Garden, clients with autism are provided an array of therapeutic supportive services, including before and after school programs, support groups, and employment cultivation. It was through this programming that Thome saw a need to provide hands-on job training instead of outsourcing it to partner employers. 

After receiving a scholarship to Denver’s Greater Good Academy, an organization designed to help entrepreneurs create “triple bottom line” business plans, Thome developed the business plan for Dirt. Triple bottom line plans are designed to assess an organization’s success beyond purely economic factors. The business plan for Dirt incorporated environmental consciousness, community, and helping youth with autism.

“Coffee just made sense,” said Thome, who spent a week in Portland with professionally trained baristas before opening Dirt. “We want you to come to us for a quality cup of coffee and come back to support the cause.”

Dirt sources their coffee from Kaladi and their espresso from Coda, two local roasters in Denver. 

The focus of the employment readiness program is to get job skills up to par, especially social skills and cashiering. Students ages 18-35 partake in three months of individualized training and one-on-one coaching. Upon completion, 95 percent of participants receive specific placement in the community, according to Thome. Participants of the program move on from the training into supportive job placements based on their skills and interests.

“Our goal is for participants to be independent within three months,” said Thome. “We make a commitment to be support for the life of their job. We check on them and are the support for them and their employer.” 

Graduates of the program go on to employment at places such as Coda Coffee, Sprouts, King Soopers, Sports Authority, the Pepsi Center, and Dirt Coffee. 

One such person is Owen, who started at Dirt in 2014 as an intern and is now an employee. Before Dirt, he had a job at Sam’s Club, but it didn’t work out. Now, he can’t see himself working anywhere besides on the coffee truck. “Dirt makes me happy because we get to go around the metro area and sell coffee to customers. I work on staying focused, using a loud voice, selling drinks to customers, and raising awareness for autism,” said Owen.

Currently, about five Joshua School students and five interns from Garden per year gain job experience on the truck. Support abounds as two students take orders, work the cash register, and pass out coffee. On this particular Friday, one student works for about 30 minutes folding rags and helping the occasional customer, most of whom are staff of the school. Each customer greets him by name, congratulates him on doing a great job, and thanks him for the coffee when they leave.

“People on the spectrum usually see things in black and white,” said Thome. However, success is not that simple. Success is measured on a spectrum as well, reflecting the very individualized needs of the population Dirt serves.  “Last year, one student couldn’t even step onto the truck. Now, he can work for ten minutes at a time,” said Thome.

“Long-term, we would like to see people with autism doing everything for the coffee truck, from booking events to managing employees,” said Thome.

In addition to the truck’s regular hours at the Joshua School, Dirt can be booked for special events within the community. Next year, Thome would like the truck to be active at regular locations four to five days a week. Ultimately, she would like to expand to a storefront to be able to employ more people on the spectrum with more full-time hours. ■