A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Kentucky by Heart: Warmth, comfort and inclusion is ‘percolating’ at Lexington’s McLeod’s Coffee House

By Steve Flairty
NKyTribune Columnist

On a warm December morning at McLeod’s Coffee House, where “no one is excluded,” Brewster McLeod is sure of one thing. Those he terms “VIPs,” his employees, are perkin’ pretty well after six weeks in on his and their dream project.

In fact, you might say Brewster is still dancin’ with the ones who brought him to this point of glee, which he likes to characterize as “over a year and a half of planning, five years of dreaming, and twenty years of dancing.”

On this day, he is all smiles about those he did the dance with for two decades while teaching their Sunday School class and sharing life outside the confines of the class. They are the scores of individuals with special needs-“handi-capable” persons—who make up the bulk of the approximately 70-member employee force at the coffee house business at 376 Southland Drive, in Lexington.

And also on this day, a steady group of appreciative customers and happy employees stopped by Brewster and my table over a 90-minute period. The long-time minister on staff at the Southland Christian Church juggled the conducting of our interview, expressed pleasantries to the patrons and gave encouraging direction to his employees like the master people person he is.

He talked about his employees, and then about those from his former Sunday school class who have other jobs but like to show up at McLeod’s to help a bit or simply see the excitement demonstrated by old friends.

“Morgan (Alexander) has quite a following… and lots of times just shows up at lunch (to be among friends while not on the clock),” noted Brewster about an employee. He also referenced with praise names like Gabby, Shanna, Jonathon and others. “They all (the VIPs) attract customers.”

In sharing past experiences that shaped his idea of opening a place like McLeod’s, he loves to talk about one of his old-timers, a person with special needs who was a bit of a pioneer back in the seventies in breaking through employment challenges. “Johnny Creech is a trustee at this place,” said Brewster. “Back in the seventies, Bob Slone, of Foodtown, gave Johnny a chance to sack groceries.” The hiring was a huge success on several levels. Sloan, impressed by how Johnny Creech seemed to make everybody better at his store by his inspiration, asked his parents to allow him more days to work, and they obliged. Brewster calls Slone a “hero.”

Christmas party at McLeod’s (Photo provided)

The crowds have been very good during the several times I’ve visited McLeod’s; I’d expect that to continue because of the warmth and comfort one finds. Mindy and Brian Groff, along with Cheryl Johnson, all of Lexington, recently hosted a Christmas party for their extended family at McLeod’s after the Groffs’ daughter’s basketball game. “It’s a place with lots of space where we can spread out and not feel rushed,” said Cindy. Brewster encourages others to bring their groups, such as book clubs, too. “We’ve had several book clubs meet who didn’t have books with them,” he said with a grin.

McLeod’s décor has a comfortable, homey feel, with stuffed leather couches and retro accessories, along with original artwork (some by the VIPs and available for purchase) on the walls, and plenty of room to maneuver in the expansive rectangular-shaped shop area. For sale, among other things, are souvenirs such as coffee mugs with the McLeod’s label and t-shirts with Brewster’s signature personal expression, “Later, love ya, bye.” The store sells lots of gift cards along with hot and cold drinks, sandwiches, donuts and “limited edition” stickers. And dig this… to raise more revenue for the project, some furniture and accessory items currently being used in the shop acquired at low prices are available for purchase. “Customers can buy the items and pick them up about a week later as we replace them,” Brewster noted.

The real warmth of the place mostly comes from the presence of the VIPs, however. I interviewed people like Vladimir Stafford, in a wheelchair, who works with store technology about 20 hours per week and is available for freelance work outside McLeod’s. “This place means the world to me,” he said. “it’s just like family, and it changes a lot of lives.”

Brewster McLeod, in glasses, with some of his VIPs (Photo provided)

There’s 21-year-old Will Nave, who says he “likes to greet people a lot” as he sits upfront by the entrance door. He also works in the back doing things like taking out the trash and sweeping. It’s his first job. “Brewster is my favorite guy; he’s crazy,” Will said, playfully. “I like this place so much. I won’t leave ever.”

Special education classes from local schools and outside the county have visited, with Brewster calling them “future employees.” Derrick Ramsey, Secretary of Education and Workforce Development Cabinet, has been in McLeod’s, too. The program is both a high curiosity one and a model to study for those in other communities interested in enriching their people and culture.

Brewster has an overriding dream for what McLeod’s will become. “I’d like it to be a place for meaningful employment and a hub for potential employers to come to McLeod’s and see our VIPs working… for it to be almost (like) a ‘temp’ service,” he explained. He also emphasized that as director, he wants his employees to “work with me, not for me.”

For some four decades, Brewster McLeod—a good and respected man–has shown that working together with him, and not for him, in ministry has worked amazingly well. That partnership has changed literally thousands of lives for the better, giving hope and often simply the acknowledgment of a deserved sense of dignity.

McLeod’s Coffee House has hours of 7:30 am to 2:30 p.m., Monday through Saturday. If you would like to know more about McLeod’s Coffee House, call 859-492-8483 or visit the Facebook page, “McLeod’s Coffee House.”

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Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of six books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and five in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #4,” was released in 2015. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly KyForward and NKyTribune columnist and a member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)

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