Community By The Cup: Autistic Man Grinds Way To Coffee Stardom

NORTH SMITHFIELD, RI — When Michael Coyne opened his coffee shop, Red, White and Brew, he wasn’t setting out to change the world, he was just chasing his dream. In the the three weeks since, he and his family have started a fire in the community, inspiring others and bringing people together in one of the simplest joys of life: sharing a cup of coffee.

Coyne has quickly become a celebrity in the North Smithfield community and beyond. He is recognized nearly everywhere he goes these days, his mother said, from Walmart to restaurants and beyond.

Michael Coyne, like many 23-year-olds, worked several jobs after high school. But his mother said he wasn’t given many chances in the professional world because he has autism. Denied opportunity after opportunity, he found himself without a job and with few prospects.

Where others may have admitted defeat, Coyne decided to make his own opportunity. Thus, the idea for Red, White and Brew was born.

Over the next months, Coyne took classes with the Rhode Island Disabilities Council, learning the fundamentals of running a business, marketing, financing and more. From there, he enrolled in an eight-week retail bootcamp, where he was believed to be the first person with a disability to successfully complete the program. He took home the second-place prize in the camp’s elevator pitch contest.

This past summer, Coyne and his family found the perfect location for the new business: a sunny space nestled at the end of a complex on Great Road.

“In Rhode Island, it’s hard to find a good location to open a coffee shop, since there are Dunkin’ Donuts on practically every corner!” Shiela Coyne, his mother, said with a laugh.

On the day I stopped by, I wasn’t able to meet Michael in person, since he had taken the day off for a brief respite from the spotlight. Nevertheless, his joyful spirit, and that of his family, filled the building, making everyone who entered feel welcome.

The cafe is airy and spacious, with big windows and cheery, colorful decor. One half of the space is filled with chairs, tables and a massive display case chock-full of local goodies, while the other half displays the work of local artisans of all abilities, the perfect place to find holiday gifts.

Handmade items from local artisans of all abilities fill the shelves. (Rachel Nunes/Patch)

“This is all my family,” Sheila Coyne said, gesturing to the flow of people coming and going.

It truly is a family affair. Everyone, from the bookkeeper to the barista to the handyman is a member of the family that pitched in to help make Michael’s dream a reality.

Nobody could have predicted the cafe’s overnight success, Sheila Coyne said, and the three weeks since opening have been a whirlwind. On opening day, families of children with disabilities crowded in, “until you couldn’t see where one family ended and the next began.”

And that’s what the cafe is all about, bringing together people of all abilities to get to know each other. While the staff is all family now, Sheila Coyne said she hopes to hire more people with disabilities, partnering with local businesses to help autistic and other differently-abled people find fulfilling jobs in the community.

For his part, Michael Coyne is basking in the attention.

“He’s loving it!” Sheila Coyne said smilingly. “Sometimes he’ll spend an hour sitting at a table, chatting with a customer he just met.”

Michael Coyne has been interviewed “more times than I can count,” his mother said, and he’s enjoyed nearly every moment of it. Stations as far away as Los Angeles and Toronto all want to hear his story.

With all this attention, Sheila Coyne said she hopes their family can inspire other business-owners around the country and world to give disabled workers a chance.

“I want to show others that this business is profitable, marketable and the right thing to do,” Sheila Coyne said. “This is a real business.”

The coffee community is a tightly knit one, Sheila Coyne has quickly learned. Just a few days ago, she was approached by the owner of A&E Coffee, originally from Cranston, who sent a special bag of “Michael’s Roast” coffee to celebrate the cafe’s opening. Now, they’re hoping to partner with the company and sell the coffee in their shop.

“Michael’s Blend” coffee. (Rachel Nunes/Patch)
“We didn’t ask for any of this,” Sheila Coyne said. “Everyone has been so kind to one another through this whole process.”

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