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Autistic man who opened a cafe during the pandemic helps people with disabilities enter the workforce

'We just want this to be a safe place for these people to come in, feel of service and of value, learn some vocational skills.'

Autistic man who opened a cafe during the pandemic helps people with disabilities enter the workforce
Cover Image Source: Instagram/Barista Jake

Jacob McFarland has always loved making the perfect cup of coffee for his parents. So much so, his family even started lovingly calling him "Barista Jake" at home. Now, this nickname is widely known across their community in Norristown, Pennsylvania, since the 21-year-old opened a cafe of his own during the pandemic. Speaking to CBS News earlier this year, Jacob—who has autism—admitted that brewing a cup of joe for his dad is a passion of his. "It makes me feel very, very happy. It really does. I'm telling you the truth. It totally does," he shared.


"He's telling you the truth!" Jacob's mom, Angela, confirmed. "Jacob is his father's biggest fan, and my husband loves coffee. So, everything my husband loves, Jacob loves. I didn't know though, that Jacob was immersing himself in all types of research about the proper beans to use, the different coffee blends, the best water, the water temperature, the technology of the whole thing. I didn't know any of that." The McFarlands own a record store in town and had to temporarily close it during the COVID-19 pandemic as it was not an essential business. The lockdown also became a challenging time for Jacob—who was 19 at the time—as he was still in continuing education courses after graduating high school and those too came to a halt.


"He craves routine and he didn't have a routine anymore because of the pandemic," Angela explained. "So, we decided to do a curbside coffee cart outside of our store." This proved to be incredibly beneficial for the entire family as the coffee cart ensured they still got customers even though they couldn't shop for records inside the store. Meanwhile, Jacob could live out his dream of being "Barista Jake," Angela added. "What that turned into was an overwhelming community appreciation of Jacob."


Eventually, as lockdown restrictions were lifted, the coffee cart was moved inside the record store and The Coffee Closet with Barista Jake took on a new life. "I got to make the hot coffee, we watched a video, learned how to do iced coffee. Then, we got our license to start serving food. So, we do breakfast stuff," Jacob said. The coffee business has made a substantial difference in Jacob's life. "It just has been a whirlwind ever since. The person Jacob is now – the fact that you asked a question and he jumped right in with the answer, that never would've happened two years ago," Angela said.


"While he had people that he was in school with, he's never had a sleepover, he's never gone on vacation with a friend, he's never brought a friend on vacation. He didn't have some of those experiences," she revealed. "And now, when I hear him having very organic, casual conversations with his coworkers, and they're high-fiving, and, 'Hey, good to see you, buddy,' I can't tell you what that does to me. Because I never thought that he would have that. And he's really making his way." Now, the McFarland family is spreading the positive change they experienced by employing other young people with disabilities and helping them get into the workforce.


"We just want this to be a safe place for these people to come in, feel of service and of value, learn some vocational skills," Angela explained. "I also help them with resume design and preparation, we do mock interviews... We'll eventually have a little storage facility where they can have interview attire, so they can get ready to go out and interview and put their best foot forward." The Coffee Closet with Barista Jake also holds regular fundraisers for local charities and has raised about $27,000 for scholarship funds and organizations that help the homeless and people with autism.


"I think he feels like he has a purpose. And he gets really excited to come to work, and he will see certain people, he knows their car and he'll start making their coffee before they've even walked in the door," Angela said of the impact the business has had on her son's life. "He's found the social side of himself. And if this were to all go away tomorrow, the advancement in Jacob in two and a half years has been worth everything." 

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