Ethan & the Bean Coffee Shop Aims to Empower Individuals With Disabilities

Last November, Pam Donovan opened this Little Falls coffee shop to create job opportunities for people like her son, Ethan. We caught up with her to discuss the highlights—and challenges—she's encountered during the first year.

Ethan & the Bean employees Bryan and Michael. Photo courtesy of Ethan & the Bean

After Pam Donovan’s disabled son turned 21, she knew there was more for him to do, despite his schooling coming to an end. Donovan began a program out of her local church to train and employ people with disabilities, and it grew into Ethan & the Bean, a nonprofit coffee shop in Little Falls, “where hope is always brewing.”

Donovan’s main goal was to create a space where people with disabilities can hold a job, with the opportunity to be engaged with the community. Over 50 percent of the employees at Ethan & the Bean have intellectual or developmental disabilities. “There’s engagement with the community, even if it’s only for a few minutes. It’s still exposure,” says Donovan. “It’s about people knowing what we’re doing, and knowing that your cup of coffee changed somebody’s life.”

This small coffee shop is working hard to do big things—and their goal is to change the mindset of society’s view of individuals with disabilities. We caught up with Pam Donovan to ask about the coffee shop, its incredible staff, and what her main goal was when beginning this project.

Table Hopping: Did you have any experience in the coffee or food industry before starting Ethan & the Bean?
Pam Donovan: Outside of being a waitress and a bartender during my college days, no. I’m actually in sales so I have my own account base, so I know we have to meet budgets and things of that nature!

TH: So with no experience, how has it been trying to navigate running a coffee shop?
PD: We were fortunate enough to find a manager, Danielle, and she came on board and was willing to take a chance on us. We only opened in November and it has been a work in progress. We partnered up for a period of time with Caldwell University and their autism program and they were kind enough to have students working on all of our training processes and programs.

Little Falls has been an amazing community to be in. Our landlord, he has been so excited to have us from the start. There are good people still out there. It gives you hope.

TH: Who is the famous “Ethan” in Ethan & the Bean?
PD: Ethan is my son, he just turned 21 this year. He has autism, he’s nonverbal, and he also has epilepsy. When he goes in [to the coffee shop] he loves it. It gives him purpose and confidence and he gets to be able to meet with the public.

TH: Was he the inspiration for your idea?
PD: I have a lot of close friends that I used to go on a trip with and everybody at that time was talking about their kids going off to college and talking about all of these milestones, and my son wasn’t going to be doing those kinds of things. I was like, what is he going to do when he turns 21? Why is school over because he turns 21 when it’s not over for typical kids?

We went to a place that was in Wrightsville Beach, and it was a cafe run by people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. There were 10 women on this trip and eight of us came back and said, “We’re going to do this.”

TH: What was the original response when starting this program?
PD: We ran a pilot program out of the basement of a church, and, lo and behold, it really worked. We just set up a website with no idea exactly what we were going to do or how we were going to do it. I walked into Java Love in Montclair and I said, “Hey, can you sell us some beans?” The owner, Jodie Dawson, agreed and asked what we were doing.

TH: And you still work with Java Love?
PD: They are now our exclusive roaster. She was totally on board with what we were doing. They have been our partner ever since! They’ve helped us, supported us, trained us, and supplied us with knowledge that we need for the coffee world.

Ethan & the Bean manager Danielle, left, with employee Bryan. Photo courtesy of Ethan & the Bean

TH: What’s your process for hiring the employees?
PD: Our underlying training methodology is based on ABA, applied behavioral analysis. For example, Tori, who does training and procedure, will take our employees through a process, and she would show a video of how to brew coffee. It would have a verbal cue, but you could also mute the verbal if you don’t need it. A lot of employees don’t need verbal prompting, they just need a visual prompt. Our staff gets training from a variety of methods based on the employee.

TH: How did you navigate staying open during the pandemic?
PD: We were shut down for two months. We were scared but we don’t look back, we just look forward. We didn’t lay off any of our employees during Covid and we just kept paying everybody right through. I said, we can’t lay off people. Our mission is to employ—I don’t care if I have to pay these people out of my pocket, we’re not laying anybody off.

TH: Did you make any permanent changes to E&B after closing?
PD: People just weren’t coming out because of Covid. Food was going bad so we decided we have to bake some of our own things like banana bread, zucchini bread, apple cider donuts, protein bites. Danielle and Tori have been awesome developing recipes. That itself brings more job and training skills to the staff.

TH: If anyone is interested in getting involved with Ethan & the Bean, what can they do?
PD: We can’t bring on anybody else at this moment in time, but we definitely want to make sure that that pipeline is open. Our goal is to definitely expand and we are working on those processes now. Go to our website or you can contact Danielle, the manager at our cafe, and she will put you in the right places and take the right steps.

TH: What has been the most rewarding part of starting Ethan & the Bean?
PD: It’s an opportunity for meaningful and gainful employment. [Our staff] will engage you whether you want to be engaged or not. They are just infectious.

Ethan & The Bean is located at 98 Main Street in Little Falls. Open Monday–Saturday, 9 am-4 pm and Sunday 10 am-2 pm. Shop for coffee, E&B merchandise, or submit a mobile order for pickup online. Interested in being a part of this non-profit? Contact Danielle at 973-826-9880.

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