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When the City of Peabody was looking for an organization to open a coffee shop downtown they turned to what many might think of as an unlikely place…Northeast Arc.

Helping people with disabilities become full participants in the community has been Northeast Arc’s mission for more than 60 years. Opening and running a coffee shop would be another way to show what those with diabilities are capable of doing.

“Breaking Grounds is a win-win for the City of Peabody and the Northeast Arc,” says Mayor Edward A. Bettencourt, Jr. “It helps the city meet another goal in our master plan for downtown revitalization and fulfills Northeast Arc’s mission of inclusion and opportunity for our neighbors with disabilities.” 

At first Northeast Arc was unsure about opening a café. After all, the agency was already busy with several businesses it operates to train those with disabilities, such as Heritage Caning, Heritage Shredding, and Shine Jewelry. The agency had no experience in the food business, but it quickly became clear that running a coffee shop closely aligned with its goal of helping those with disabilities become active members of the community.

Less than a month after deciding to move forward with the endeavor, Breaking Grounds, located at 67 Main Street in Peabody, opened its doors. 

The café, which displays revolving exhibits from local artists—with and without disabilities—has quickly gained a following among a steadily growing group of regulars who like the food and coffee, but also love the concept and the people who are greeting and serving them each day. 

“I think Breaking Grounds perfectly fills the City of Peabody’s need,” says Deanne Healey, president and CEO of the Peabody Area Chamber of Commerce. “When most people are spending money, they feel better knowing that there is a socially responsible mission associated with it.” 

Breaking Grounds, open seven days a week, currently employs up to six individuals with disabilities who work as hosts, as well as job coaches who assist them, baristas who modify their roles based on which hosts are working, and a manager who oversees the operation.

“The goal is to help the people we are training find out what areas of the food and customer service industries they really like,” says Tim Brown, director of innovation and strategy for Northeast Arc. “We are not creating lifelong jobs, but rather Breaking Grounds is a training ground where people can learn the skills necessary to go get jobs at restaurants and other businesses in the community.”

Chris Stark of Wakefield was among the first hosts hired when Breaking Grounds opened in November 2016. It wasn’t long until Stark was hired at Flatbread in Salem, where he enjoys greeting customers, doing side work such as filling salt and pepper shakers, and organizing utensils, as well as some basic cleaning. 

While there is not a set timetable for hosts to be trained and ready to move on, the idea is that once hosts like Stark find jobs elsewhere, Northeast Arc will bring in new workers to train.

Tim Brown, director of innovation and strategy for Northeast Arc

“Having the ability to train in a safe and supportive environment to see if the types of jobs available in a restaurant or retail establishment are something they want to do for the long term is extremely helpful,” says Brown. “It’s important to note that this project wouldn’t have been possible without the support of the City of Peabody, the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanic Association, and all of the customers that have come through the doors and made us a regular part of their routine.”

Breaking Grounds is also using music to bring some nightlife to downtown Peabody. Open mic nights have provided avenues for talented up-and-coming musicians to try out new songs and play crowd favorites. It is a way to expand the concept of a coffee shop from the place you go for your daily dose of caffeine in the morning, a sandwich for lunch, or an afternoon latte to a place to spend some time with friends in a relaxing environment at night.

 The partnership between Breaking Grounds and the City of Peabody does not stop at the café doors. The café has been integral in several events geared toward increasing social activity throughout the city, including Ice Bar, Pop Up Pub, Green Fest, and Touch-a-Truck Day. “These events not only are supportive to the city, but have also been good at teaching hosts how to translate skills and tasks from one environment to another,” says Brown.

Perhaps Jo Ann Simons, CEO of Northeast Arc, sums it up best when she says, “Breaking Grounds is an innovative approach to training people with disabilities. We are changing lives…one cup at a time.” 

Breaking Grounds Café

67 Main St., Peabody