May 16, 2023

Brewed awakening

Coffee shop owner employees visually impaired and challenges perspectives
by Joe Kahn ’67

Gavin Kuangparichat ’03 draws a direct line between lessons learned in his Andover Spanish classes and Dots Coffee, the retail business he co-founded in Thailand in 2019.

“The classes were service-based, taking us into Lawrence, Massachusetts, to do projects with the Hispanic community,” he says. “I felt like I was learning the language in a very practical way. There was a real sense of purpose to what I was learning.”

Two decades later, Dots Coffee stands as an example of a purposeful and mission-driven business.

Dots Coffee, courtesy photo

In many ways a conventional latte-and-pastry enterprise, Dots is also an industry unicorn—all its baristas are visually impaired. Everyone performs the routine tasks—from morning setup and taking customer orders to making beverages and processing sales—familiar to any coffee shop worker. Trained extensively in customer interaction and employee safety, all have found meaningful employment and, its founders hope, a pathway to a fulfilling life and livelihood.

There are challenges, to be sure. However, none of the equipment used by employees is modified to accommodate their disability. And nowhere is there any signage suggesting employees should be approached differently or that Dots is some sort of charity enterprise. Rather, Kuangparichat says his business relies on quality products and excellent service to keep customers coming back.

“That shouldn’t be the selling point anyway,” he says. “It creates that hierarchical relationship where one side ‘helps’ the other. When our baristas make a sale, it’s based on the work they put into that sale and the product they’re selling.”

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Thailand is a country of 72 million, with the visually impaired numbering roughly about 300,000. This group is routinely discriminated against, says Kuangparichat, who lives in Bangkok with his wife and two young children. At best, those who are visually impaired are considered marginally employable.

Dots Coffee aims to give not only its employees, but also other potential employers—and the community—a different perspective.

The son of Thai immigrants, Kuangparichat grew up in Excelsior Springs, Missouri, near Kansas City, and followed brother Danai ’94 to Andover. At PA, he was a varsity swimmer, ran track, and captained the boys’ cross-country team. Influential faculty members included former English department chair Jonathan Stableford ’63, also his cross-country coach and house counselor in Newman House, and Jeff Domina, English instructor and another cross-country coach.

Sports played “probably the biggest role” at PA, Kuangparichat recalls. “Not because I was any good, but because I felt most comfortable in a team environment.” Focusing on endurance sports meant, “the harder I could push myself, the more my feeling of accomplishment.”

At Columbia University, where he studied engineering, Kuangparichat’s involvement in social-impact work deepened. He spent three summers volunteering with a public health nonprofit in Harlem, helping to improve participants’ management of their asthma, a condition he shares. The experience further increased his interest in social entrepreneurship.

After working for an NGO focused on poverty alleviation and microfinancing projects, he earned an MBA from the University of Michigan and then joined forces with his friend Julien Wallet-Houget in Bangkok. Wallet-Houget had designed a novel restaurant concept: an upscale dining venue staffed entirely by visually impaired servers. The two wondered if that model, DID—Dine in the Dark—could be scaled for a bigger impact while supporting a larger workforce.

Dots Coffee (the name refers to Braille dots) was their answer. Dots currently operates out of two locations: its original shop and a mobile booth that travels to high-traffic markets and fairs. The two founders recently signed a lease for a second brick-and-mortar location.

How will the business grow? Kuangparichat envisions that Dots Coffee will become a significant player in Bangkok’s retail economy and beyond.

“We look at the concept as becoming more universal,” says Kuangparichat. “If we build the brand properly, we will create a following for what Dots stands for. It’s not just about ‘inclusion,’ but also about overcoming preconceptions about what any individual can and cannot do.” ²

Joseph P. Kahn ’67, P’14, is a (mostly) retired Boston Globe features writer and former co-chair of the Alumni Council’s Class Secretaries Committee. In 2022, he co-chaired his 55th Reunion.

Categories: Alumni, Magazine Online

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