The guest of this month’s Supersense Presents is the founder of the White Cane Coffee Coffee Shop, Erin Willman. She came up with the idea of opening a coffee shop where they would hire blind people after going through a rough patch when she struggled to find a job as a blind person. Erin calls coffee “as the greater uniter,” and here we are listening to her story of opening White Cane Coffee with the help her dad, Bob Willman!
Read on for the warm conversation we had with Erin and Bob.
Note: the audio of this interview is not available due to some technical issues.
Shane: Welcome back to Supersense Presents! Today, I’m here with Bob and Erin from White Cane Coffee. How are you guys?
Erin/Bob: Thank you for having us; we’re doing well!
Shane: Absolutely, it’s really great that you’re here. Thanks so much for giving us your time. Tell me about how you got started, and what you’re doing!
Erin: Well, White Cane Coffee basically came out of me having a bad day. I was extremely frustrated that no one would hire me because of my blindness. The only thing they saw was my white cane, and what I couldn’t do, so me and dad started talking to try and distress. He asked me if I could make any job I wanted, what it would be, and we came up with a coffee company. Coffee is what we like to call the great uniter, so we had said from the beginning that we would hire people with disabilities, have Braille on all of the packaging, etc. We kept talking about it for a few days until we realized that we’re actually going to do this! Because we couldn’t find a job, we made one.
Shane: What a message; that’s pretty crazy. Where are you based?
Erin: We’re in Warren Pennsylvania (it’s about an hour away from Erie.)
Shane: Nice, you’re on the side of PA closer to me, so you’re on the right end. Anyway, how long ago was this. And how have you progressed?
Bob: We started brainstorming in November of 2018, and that's when we started getting things together. We needed to hire attorneys, we needed to hire accountants, we needed to find a master roaster who would work with us, etc. We were very fortunate to have gotten in contact with people who could get behind us. Earlier, Erin mentioned putting Braille on all of our packaging. That is definitely easier said than done! Nobody had done it before, I mean, no one. A lot of research and development went into that, and now we are the only company in the United States that has Braille on everything that comes out of our store.
Shane: That is seriously really cool. How did you find investors?
Bob: We started small. We self-financed. We were working off of our kitchen table for a while, since we started our internet store, and it didn’t take long before our house was full of coffee, and we found a brick and mortar building about a block away from where we live. They were fully embracing of what we do, so they aren’t too brutal with the rent. When we started, we only had seven products, and now we’re up to 113.
Erin: And even people in the community would come in to support their local blind girl, and would stay because this is really good coffee.
Shane: Absolutely, you’re making a quality product. What role do each of you fill in the company?
Erin: I am the CEO and Founder, and my dad is the executive assistant.
Bob: It is a unique dynamic. People ask me if I have a hard time working for a 24-year-old girl, but I’ll follow anyone if they know what they’re talking about and headed in the right direction. That’s really one of Erin’s gifts, her forward thinking. She knows where she wants to be with product, quality, everything. She laid all of that out, and everyone who works for her has absolutely no problem following Erin’s lead.
Shane: That’s really good to hear, because I know that’s a pretty big issue right now in business. There are a lot of up and coming business people who are really young, and the younger you are, the more you have to prove yourself. Bob, is your pay ever cut due to family disputes?
Erin: No, not at all!
Bob: I ask her if she’ll ever fire me, and she always says “if you only wish.”
Erin: I joke that he has the white cane equivalent of tenure.
Shane: Where are your products currently being carried?
Erin: We have stores carrying us all over the map. We’re in Florida, New Jersey, Pittsburgh, everywhere.
Shane: And then, what kinds of products are you carrying?
Erin: We got coffee, we’ve got hot chocolate, we’ve got ice coffee…
Bob: 100% compostable K cups, whole bean, ground coffee... We have cold brew packets which are premeasured and pre-filtered. All you have to do is throw it in a quart of water, stick it in the fridge for 24 hours, take out the filter, and it’s ready to go. Of all Erin’s strengths, she can’t measure to save her life. We made the packets so she could make her own cold brew, but also sighted people would make a mess.
Shane: Absolutely, I imagine that’s a real convenience for a lot of coffee drinkers. Where are you going from here?
Bob: We just got on Amazon, we just finalized our UPC coding so we can be carried in larger grocery stores…
Erin: The ultimate goal is to have a white cane coffee in every community. Our community isn’t the only one that has disabled people who aren’t getting hired, and the more coffee we sell, the more capable we are to hire them. We want to help people who are blind and disabled.
Shane: How many people have you employed so far?
Bob: I think on any given day, it’s between eight and ten, but then we have affiliates all over the country who work from their homes helping to sell our product. Some of them make a pretty good living posting every day on Facebook, and they get commission off of all those sales they make. They’re not limited to having to come to a brick and mortar store.
Shane: That’s really cool, I love that! Where can people buy your product?
Erin: We are at whitecanecoffee.com, we are on Twitter, we have a Facebook page, etc. You’re welcome to use the contact page on our website…
Bob: The website is probably the easiest way, and there’s a contact button there. We do answer people’s questions and you can find our phone numbers too. We’ll walk you through the sales process. We ship everything priority mail, so most people get their product within two or three days.
Erin: We do want you to have a fresh cup of coffee!
We’d love to have a conversation. If you are a part of the blind and visually impaired community, you’d like to be part of our mission, or share your ideas and collaborate with us, get in touch with us.
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