Customers at Spencer’s Place have noticed there’s something special about the Surprise coffee shop, and it’s not just the long list of lattes.
Spencer’s Place is staffed by people who have intellectual disabilities, and founder Karin York says it’s been a success not just as a business, but as a building block for job skills and work experience for adults who have a hard time transitioning from special education programs in high schools into the workforce.
York conceived the coffee shop in 2006, when she was a special education teacher at a Valley high school. Her son, Spencer, was one of her students. York says that as a student with Down syndrome, Spencer had access to resources and programs to assist him with finding employment after graduation, but a lot of her students did not. She kept in touch with many of her former students and their families, and learned that many of them “were just staying at home and doing nothing,” she says. “They were bored, they were lonely, they had lost skills.”
As a coffee aficionado, York thought a java-centered business would be a natural fit. “I love coffee. My husband and I are both connoisseurs and we love to go to coffee shops all over the place,” she says. “And I thought, ‘If I can do anything well, I know I can do coffee.’”
After several fundraisers and years of planning, York stopped teaching and established Spencer’s Place in 2019, and the doors to the coffee shop opened in January 2020. She hired some of her former students.
“We were open for five amazing, really, really busy weeks, and then the pandemic hit,” York says. “Everything had to change within a moment’s notice.”
York currently has a staff of 26 (all people with disabilities with the exception of eight job coaches) and a waiting list of about 100 applicants. The employees do everything, from making espresso and operating the cash register to stocking and cleaning.
“We have a lot of employees. For a small coffee shop, we have as much as some Starbucks,” she says. “My goal is to be a launching pad and actually move people out of the coffee shop and into another job after being here, because then we can move new people in.”
The coffee menu at Spencer’s Place is extensive, seasonal, and full of specialty brews. Everything is sourced locally – coffee beans from Cult Artisan Beverage Company, and baked goods from Suss Pastries, Sweet Cheryl’s, and SaludEats.
Lavender lattes are the specialty, inspired by York’s visit to actor Hugh Jackman’s Laughing Man Coffee & Tea shop in New York City. The seasonal menu currently consists of tropical concoctions like the Hula Dancer, made with a mix of brown sugar, butter, pineapple, espresso, and the customer’s choice of milk or non-dairy option. “It tastes like a pineapple upside-down cake,” York says.
Spencer’s Place is also known for its seemingly endless arrays of caramel macchiatos and creative drinks like strawberry shortcake frappés. CBD-infused cold brews from Cactus Licker Coffee are available, too, as well as Cactus Licker kombucha on tap.
The food menu isn’t as fancy as some of the coffee selections. There are charcuterie snack packs of meats, cheeses, fruit, olives, and crackers. The baked goods are the main attraction, York says, specifically mentioning the pop tarts from Suss Pastries and the sugar cookies from Sweet Cheryl’s. “The pop tarts have real fruit and quite a following. They sell themselves. It tastes kind of like a fruit turnover,” York says, “And the sugar cookies are gorgeous. They’re like little pieces of art.”
Ultimately, York would like to expand Spencer’s Place to multiple locations to employ even more people, but for now, they’re extending the hours. Business is good, York says, and one of the best parts has been customers coming in who are not aware that the team consists of people with disabilities.
“I think what’s been really cool is to kind of informally educate and transform the community,” she says. “Some people have said, with tears in their eyes – and we get this a lot – ‘I’ve never interacted with an individual with autism or an individual with Down syndrome. I’ve always wanted to, but I’ve never known what to say… I’ve never had this opportunity.’ People have said it has changed their lives. It sounds dramatic, but they really have. It’s just been beautiful.”
Spencer’s Place is located at 15341 W. Waddell Rd., #B101, in Surprise. Hours are from 7:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday–Friday, and from 7:30 to 2 p.m. Saturdays.