The Happy Cup Coffee Company is more than just a coffee roaster. The beans they roast have been ethically traded, meaning the farmers who harvested them were fairly paid.

But Happy Cup's mission is to employ some of Portland's developmentally disabled adults and provide them with not only a safe and productive working environment, but also something they aren't always used to receiving: a competitive wage.

If you haven't yet tried a cup of coffee made from the beans of the Happy Cup Coffee Company, you can be forgiven because the startup is still fresh—it only launched in mid-November of last year.

But, according to Happy Cup owner Rachel Bloom, some of you are already hip to it. It's been flying off the shelves of the city's various Whole Foods Markets for the last few months, and its growing popularity is likely not only due to Happy Cup's roasts, but because of its unique position as a for-profit business with a nonprofit mission.

Making Coffee Out of Soap

Employee Dale Dickerson stamps his name on the bags he will use to package coffee.
Employee Dale Dickerson stamps his name on the bags he will use to package coffee.

Twelve years ago, Rachel Bloom, a former special education teacher, launched Full Life, a for-profit business that employs adults with developmental disabilities, including 159 who were employed either part- or full-time in 2011. In those years, Bloom says, Full Life initiated several small "side businesses" to "provide jobs and vocational training" for those adults. One project was a flower and herb garden. With direct access to flowers and herbs, she set about researching ways to turn those plants into salable soaps and lotions, which led her to Trevin Miller.

Miller is a small business owner and a local authority on DIY culture. His Mississippi Avenue shop, Mr. Green Beans, not only sells Miller's own roasted coffee beans and all the equipment necessary to roast your own at home, it also hosts "how to" classes for the curious and the industrious who are interested in making their own cheeses and soaps.

When Bloom visited, they talked soap, but eventually the conversation got around to coffee. Miller, it turned out, was preparing to invest in upgrading the space that housed his coffee roaster to meet commercial roasting regulations.

And that's when the light bulb was lit.

"I offered to host the roaster in exchange for the right to use it during business hours," Bloom says.

By the end of summer 2011, what Bloom refers to as a "West Coast" agreement, sealed by a handshake, had been reached, and within two weeks, she found a space and signed the lease that gave both Happy Cup and Miller's roaster a new home.

Within a few months, Happy Cup was up and running. Using ethically traded beans sourced by Miller, who is also Happy Cup's present roaster, Bloom was able to put her employees to work measuring and weighing the beans before pouring them into Happy Cup's 10-ounce bags, which are then sealed and labeled with a personal stamp.

What's the Real Value?

John Poston gets a coffee at the Happy Cup coffee shop from Annie Dillon.
John Poston gets a coffee at the Happy Cup coffee shop from Annie Dillon.

 In addition to providing ethically sourced, locally roasted beans, Happy Cup also provides a service that many of her employees might not receive if they worked elsewhere: a fair wage.

According to an Oregon Health and Human Services Department document provided by Bloom and her husband, Scott, Full Life's CEO, the "average wage" paid to developmentally disabled individuals working in "sheltered employment" scenarios is $3.10 per hour. 

"Sheltered employment," Scott Bloom says, "refer[s] to segregated workplaces [that] employ people with developmental disabilities in a supported environment, where the employer receives some sort of subsidy in compensation for the reduced productivity of its disadvantaged workers—often by being allowed to pay its workers below the minimum wage."

Happy Cup, the Blooms say, pays employees "competitive wages," or Oregon's minimum wage of $8.80 per hour.

Robin Koch supervises Jacob Speake as he bags coffee.
Robin Koch supervises Jacob Speake as he bags coffee.

So what is the value of a bag of Happy Cup coffee beans?

The farmers in El Salvador and Brazil have been fairly compensated, the beans have been locally roasted, and the people packaging it up are not only being paid a competitive wage but are also being given an exceptional opportunity. Plus, Rachel Bloom says, should Happy Cup become a sustainable business, they can spread its wealth to serve other programs.

The plan, she says, is to use any profits earned by Happy Cup to fund a Full Life-driven charity, which she says is still in its infancy, and to help fund other organizations that "benefit the developmentally disabled community."

Visit Happy Cup online to learn more about where you can find their coffee or about how your cafe or restaurant can serve it.

Of course, you can always buy your beans direct online, or order up an espresso at the Happy Cup Coffee Shop (3331 NE Sandy Blvd.), Monday through Friday, between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m.