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  • Penny Hieb

Spencer's Place brews up love and opportunity in Surprise

Updated: Mar 4, 2020

An ebullient crowd was gathered outside of Spencer's Place in Surprise when I arrived Thursday afternoon. As I approached, I could spot owner Karin York among them. Adorned in a crisp black Spencer's Place apron, York was encircled by a large group of well wishing patrons on their way out of her cafe. There were smiles, hugs, words of encouragement, and more hugs; it was a giant love filled send off, the likes of which I have not seen at any other local coffee shop. Sure Spencer's Place serves great coffee, but the story behind this cafe is even richer and sweeter than a well brewed Cafe Americano.

Named for York's enterprising 28 year old son Spencer who happens to have Down's Syndrome, the cafe marked its grand opening this February. I had just missed Spencer when I arrived to interview York. Spencer works at the coffee shop three days a week and balances other work commitments he has through his advanced independence day program. A former special education instructor and academic interventionist with Dysart Unified School District, York explained that Spencer's Place has become more of a place for her former students, many of whom she saw struggling to find meaningful employment as adults. York had spent years preparing these very students through her work as an educator and was discouraged to find that employers were not even giving them a chance in the workplace. York believes wholeheartedly that there is a place and position for everybody. Patience and job coaching are what is paramount. For critical roles like cashier, York employs one person with disabilities and one person to monitor their work. "Some have never worked, so they have a job coach to help direct and redirect," she explains. It may take an employee with cognitive disabilities a greater length of time to grasp tasks, but as York tells me, "their work ethic is unsurpassed. I have staff that show up two hours before their shift and want to stay after." With her background as a certified special education teacher who also received a master's degree from Grand Canyon University in curriculum and instruction, York is uniquely qualified to push her employees out of their comfort zones in order to help them grow. She often focuses on helping staff with communication skills and customer interaction. During our interview, she introduced George, a young man whose family advocated very strongly for him to have a job at Spencer's Place. York usually hires her former students but found George's story so moving that she took a chance on a stranger. She was rewarded many fold with his tenacious work ethic. I asked George what he does at the cafe. "I do everything except the register and make coffee. Basically, keep the place clean. I don't have a favorite thing to do. I'll do anything you ask," he says to me while glancing over at York.

Karin York's inbox is full of emails from families who desperately want a job for their special needs adult child. She gets hundreds of applicants and wishes she could accommodate all of them. In order to fund Spencer's Place, York found herself dipping into her savings and retirement, so she helped set up a 5013c non profit called Employed and Overjoyed to help fund construction and raise money to hire more employees with intellectual disabilities. "The more money we can obtain from donors, the more we can hire," she explains to me. All donations will receive a letter of acknowledgment for tax purposes. https://www.facebook.com/employedandoverjoyed/

Looking back, York says she can see how each step in her journey has prepared her to helm Spencer's Place. "As a teacher, I always worked a minimum of three jobs, because, let's face it, teachers can't make it with just one job. I taught, coached, sometimes even waited tables," she tells me. "All that time management and exhaustion...all those jobs were preparing me for the energy level and stamina I'd need here." She describes working 70 hour weeks between managing the cafe, ordering the supplies, and analyzing the finances. Her commitment to the operation and what it stands for propels her momentum, despite the exhausting pace. Her passion is palpable and when I look up from my notebook, I see tears welling in York's eyes. "I'm a very reflective and innately responsive person," she tells me. "I'm always thinking about how I could have done something better or said something better." And sometimes she wonders when she will ever get a day off, but her drive to help others keeps her going through it all.

York considers herself a very non confrontational person but during the building phase of Spencer's Place she learned how to be increasingly assertive. "The construction phase was catastrophic," she describes. "We had to start and restart. Plumbers would start a job and then not come back and finish. The same with the electricians." The building process took several months longer than York had originally anticipated, all the while the rent was due each of those additional months. At times, she wondered if she was doing the right thing. "I contemplated going back to teaching and almost reconsidered the whole idea," she reflects. She feels she really grew in those times and that learning to be more assertive was, ultimately, good for her. "All those experiences were preparing me for this," she states. "Looking back, I see so many obstacles that were preparing me this whole time."

While contractors may have fallen short of their commitments time and time again on York, the family she has created through Spencer's Place has not. She describes talking about an area rug she wanted for the space while working in the cafe one afternoon. The next day, it was there. A lady having coffee in the cafe had overheard her and the rug York always envisioned was brought to her the very next day. York then points to her smart looking Spencer's Place apron. "There's a guy who rides his Harley up to the shop all the time. One day he came by and handed these aprons to me and said, 'I made these for you'."

York and her team have created a warm and inviting environment at Spencer's Place. She and her daughter-in-law searched auctions for many of the cafe's fixtures and restaurant equipment. For instance, the big butcher block table that anchors a reserved space in her cafe was purchased from a brewery in Scottsdale that went out of business. The cafe's decor features trendy shades of gray, wood grain table tops, simple black chairs, and unexpected touches like the dipped-in-glitter feathers in glass vases. There are also thoughtful features like tables with disability access and an adult changing table in the restroom. York strives to make the cafe an accessible, safe place for everyone in the community. Parents with disabled children or children with behavioral challenges can "feel safe and accepted here," she assures. She recently had a frazzled father in who was very apologetic about his son who was screaming in the cafe. "I told him, if he can't scream here, then we haven't done our job. It's ok," she explains.

York sources her coffee from Cult Artisan Beverage Company, a family owned business with a long history in Arizona. http://ilovecult.com/ Though she bristles at the name, she says she "fell in love with their espresso," and she has found their team incredibly supportive. "I still told them that their name was creepy, but they are good people," she assures. She and her staff went through hours of hands on training at the company's top of the line facility in North Phoenix and received great mentoring from the executives. Cult Artisan Beverage Company serves many coffee shops, restaurant chains, and other venues in over 30 states. The coffee menu at Spencer's Place includes classics like drip coffee, the Americano, mochas, lattes, and espressos, as well as Cult's cold brew. The cafe's specialty coffee beverage is the Lavender Latte which York went to great pains to perfect. Beverages can be customized with Monin brand syrup, available in several flavors. Patrons can also choose to add honey, cinnamon, sugar in the raw, or stevia and monkfruit at a separate flavoring station. Spencer's Place also carries an organic roast from Honduras that York chose for its wonderful flavor nuances and the commitment Cult has made to fund women's health in Honduras with the proceeds of this single origin roast. Their commitment has saved thousands of lives, York tells me.

The cafe offers scrumptious baked goods such as bagels, banana loaves, cinnamon roll muffins, scones, and brownies. These include vegan and gluten free options and are procured through Boyer Bakery, a scratch baked licensed home bakery in the West Valley. http://www.theboyerbakery.com/ In the spring, Spencer's Place will be introducing salads and sandwiches to their bistro menu. York's products are all natural and she strives to stay local. The cafe offers great products and an inviting atmosphere. "The reason that we've had such an outpouring of love is that you can come in here and look into the eyes of someone you are supporting. Often when you give, you don't see that person you're helping, you can't look into their eyes. Here, you can," she explains.

Come try one of the shop's delicious Lavender Lattes, grab a yummy scone, take a seat and plug into the their zippy wifi (password: placewithpurpose). You should stick around a while and check out the wall of artist rendered staff caricatures adorning the hallway or the great soundscape playing overhead (tunes by Ed Sheeran, Louis Armstrong, and Lady Gaga played while I was there). Or just hang out and make some new friends. You'll be loved and accepted here. Spencer's Place is located in the Marley Park Plaza Shopping Center at 15341 W. Waddell Road B#101 in Surprise. The hours are Mon-Sat, 8 am to 4 pm.


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