Caffeine and independence: Kennesaw coffee house celebrates one-year anniversary

Aug. 1—KENNESAW — A local coffee house that employs people with special needs celebrated an important day Tuesday.

Customers who enter Independent Grounds Cafe are quickly greeted with a booming "Hello!" from the staff, followed closely by ear-to-ear smiles at the front counter. The Kennesaw-based cafe offers personable, friendly service.

Originally opened in 2018 off Giles Road near Legacy Park, the cafe was forced to shutter in 2020 due to the pandemic. Now, Independent Grounds is celebrating its one-year anniversary of reopening for business. The Independent Grounds team is serving coffee to residents from their new location on the ground floor of the Bixby apartment complex off Busbee Parkway.

Like most traditional cafes, orders come in nonstop. There's an area for visitors to sit and work, with free Wi-Fi on location. Those serving coffee behind the counter help set the cafe apart from others. The operation is run by Lorna McNeill, the cafe's founder, and her staff, made up entirely of adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities who want to learn independence and on-the-job skills.

McNeill, formerly a paralegal, started Independent Grounds out of inspiration from her daughter, Emma Heid, who sustained a brain injury after contracting meningitis at birth. McNeill said as Emma neared high school graduation, they examined next steps for her and recalled the coffee shop that Emma worked at through the special education department at Kennesaw Mountain High School.

"I loved the coffee shop," said Heid, a barista at Independent Grounds.

In the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, following the initial shutdown off Giles Road, McNeill noticed the open space in the Bixby, and saw that it would be ideal for her business.

After finding the location, McNeill worked with the small business development center at Kennesaw State University, formed a business plan, and started the steps to reopen. She was also able to qualify for grant money through the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, a federal program that provided funding to struggling restaurants during the pandemic.

Taking the idea from the work program Emma did at school, and the mission of finding support for those with intellectual and developmental disabilities, led to the birth of Independent Grounds. Since the beginning, the cafe has employed 12 adults with special needs, some who are still with the cafe and some who have moved on to different jobs.

"It gives families the chance to see their child gain some independence and some work skills," said McNeill. "Anytime people give a coffee shop like this a chance, they're not just supporting the owner, but the families of all the employees as well."

Those visiting the cafe can choose from a variety of drink options. McNeill and the Independent Grounds team hope that the return of Kennesaw State University students for the new school year will add a surge of business.

Independent Grounds Cafe is open from 8 a.m to 5 p.m Monday through Saturday.