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Inclusive Roastery Innovations Give 321 Coffee Liftoff in Raleigh

321 Coffee Lenovo

Accessible technology was made possible at the 321 roastery through partnerships with tech giant Lenovo and the nonprofit Engage NC. All images courtesy of 321 Coffee. 

With equipment and technology backing a mission to create a truly inclusive coffee business, 321 Coffee has been reaching new heights in North Carolina. 

The company’s growing roasting operation now supports multiple 321 retail locations in the Raleigh-Durham area, while providing tools that allow staff with intellectual and developmental disabilities to succeed. 

A Loring S15 Falcon at the heart of 321 Coffee’s 2,000-square-foot warehouse anchors a lineup of production equipment that includes a destoner, and weighing and packaging machines. 

“This space was designed as an inclusive facility from the start,” 321 Coffee Co-Founder Michael Evans told Daily Coffee News. “We took what we had learned from roasting on other machines to determine how we could design a more accessible and inclusive space for our staff to work independently.”

Inclusive Roastery Equipment and Technology

Evans credits the company’s ongoing partnerships with software company Lenovo and local autism/IDD employment support nonprofit Engage NC with helping to realize the inclusive vision. 

With green coffees coming primarily from Holly Springs-based importer De La Finca, 321 Coffee Roasting and Production Manager Lesley Robinson guides roasting professionals Sophie Pacyna and Paul Kocher in entering profiles into the Loring and understanding how different variables might influence a given profile.

321 Roasting Facility 3

321 Coffee Roaster Sophie Pacyna.

“Technology plus Cropster really help Sophie and Paul understand more about how to manage and curate a roast,” Robinson told Daily Coffee News. “It also helps them develop a work routine to follow when roasting, to nurture their independence as people who are exceptional coffee roasters.”

Pacyna and Kocher execute those profiles while completing all the other duties required of running a specialty coffee roastery. Assisting them is an interactive digital checklist built into touchscreen tablets positioned around the facility.

“My goal at work is to be more independent,” Paul Kocher told DCN. “Paying close attention to the instructions helps me do this.”

Custom AI software loaded into Lenovo hardware staff keep track of what to do and when, offering pointers and alerts when necessary, and providing a quick and easy way for them to contact an onsite manager with any questions or concerns.

“The goal is to meet our staff where they are and provide them with the level of support they need,” Evans told DCN. “Sophie, for example, used the coffee roasting checklists to learn how to roast independently and now no longer needs the tablets for that set of tasks. However, it is always there for her if she feels she needs it.”

321 Roasting Facility 5

321 Coffee Roaster Paul Kocher.

Other equipment around the facility has been modified to accommodate the needs of its operators. The destoner, for example, was modified to create clearance for bins on wheels beneath its chute. The company is currently working with industrial engineering students at NC State on additional modifications.

“One thing that makes my job more accessible is all of the vacuum lifts and wheels on the barrels of coffee because it helps me get the coffee where it needs to be all by myself,” Sophie Pacyna told DCN. “My favorite part is showing off my dark roast bag, Uplift, which is super awesome. It’s my favorite because it gives you energy and features my sketch on the back.”

321 Liftoff

321 Coffee was founded in 2017 in Raleigh by Lindsay Wrege and Michael Evans, who originally bought roasted coffee from local outfit Oak City Roasters to make drinks at the NC State Farmers Market.

“We started the business focused on an inclusive business model with coffee as the vehicle,” said Evans. “As we grew, we realized we needed to become coffee people to continue to offer a great product that goes hand in hand with our mission. At that point, I made an investment in learning everything I could about coffee and roasting by reading books, watching videos, and networking with some of the amazing people in the coffee industry in Raleigh.”

When the pandemic hit in 2020, 321 adapted by pivoting into roasting, starting with a 2-pound-capacity Sonofresco roaster at its farmers market location.

321 coffee

Fast growth led to renting time on equipment owned by De La Finca, while the company began making coffee deliveries with a Ford E-Transit electric van purchased after winning an Oatly Big Idea Grant. In 2021, the company opened its first two brick-and-mortar cafes, one in Raleigh and one in Durham.

Shortly thereafter came the investment in its Loring roaster, which has been up and running in the current location since May 2022.

“We’re always looking for ways to grow the impact we’re making,” said Evans. “This year, we’re really excited about some partnerships with large retailers that we will be announcing in the coming months. Our goal is to get 321 Coffee onto retail shelves across the country to let everyone be part of our mission.”

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