When people come into Pat Barnett’s Dunkin’ Donuts shops, they are likely to see something they don’t see in other coffee shops or quick service restaurants. Barnett hires people some might consider unemployable, people with disabilities that may overshadow their abilities.
“I hire them so they can feel good about themselves,” she says. “I want to give them abilities they can use other places.”
Barnett’s Dunkin’ shops, which she’s had since 2003, are located in Daytona Beach and New Smyrna Beach, Florida. Six of her eight stores employ people from the Conklin Center. It’s an organization in Daytona that helps people with visual impairments and additional disabilities like productive lives. Conklin hadn’t been able to find jobs for their clients and asked Barnett to consider hiring them. For this group, being able to work at a job 25 hours a week is the first step to living independently.
So Barnett created the Dunkanista program. She gives these new hires special aprons and has them work in the dining room where they clean tables, refill napkin holders, and sweep floors. They can do this, she explains, by counting the steps from the door to behind the counter and to other spaces in the stores.
Talking about some of her Dunkanistas, Barnett describes one woman, who lost her sight as a teen and can only see shapes this way: “She has a bubbly personality; most people can’t even tell that she’s blind,” but, she says, “No one will hire her.” Another woman, who is totally blind, is self-conscious and won’t speak to guests. Barnett makes sure her regulars know her and look out for her so she can feel comfortable.
“These people are unique in their abilities, in what they need and can do. Most other fast food places don’t hire them because they don’t want the liability. But there’s a tremendous benefit for us as well as them,” Barnett says. When the Dunkanistas are keeping the dining area staffed, the counter staff can operate more efficiently. And their hours aren’t counted against her stores’ labor hours, giving her more hiring flexibility.
Buoyed by the success of this program, Barnett recently signed up with an independent group that has people with Downs Syndrome. One woman now works in the store she frequents with her mother. It’s her first job ever; Barnett says the young woman cried when she heard she had been hired.
“She’s very social,” says Barnett. “She’ll say, ‘Hi, Mrs. B., I’m here, I’m having fun. You see that man? He lives up the street from me, he came in to see me this morning.’ If you’re having a bad day, you can’t help walking away feeling better for interacting with her.”
Barnett grew up in Florida, one of nine children. “Growing up, I didn’t know I was poor,” she says. “I realized in middle school we didn’t have as much as others. Now I try to do as much as I can for those less fortunate, while making them feel like it’s their own accomplishment.”
In addition to hiring community members, Barnett also works with a local Girl Scout troop, giving them space at her Edgewater store to plant vegetables and flowers. The vegetables go to the local food pantry and the flowers to nursing homes.
And for the past seven or eight years, her crew has donated the pennies from their tips year-round to donate to Toys for Tots. At the end of the year, they tally it up and give it to the local police department, who say it’s provided a lot of toys for a lot of kids.
“We probably get a couple thousand dollars from that,” says Barnett. “The crew gets to see that, to see the impact their pennies can make.”
But her signature program, the one she’s proudest of, is her Dunkanistas.
“I wish I could see more of them out in the community,” she says. “They’re so enlightening to be around.”