Perky Planet forced to lay off employees but to remain open

BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) A Burlington shop that serves up coffee has provided an important source of employment for those with disabilities, but the pandemic is now threatening those jobs.

"I feel like a piece of me, when I was laid off, a piece of me was left behind," said Ian Macleod, a barista at Perky Planet.

Macleod is one of five employees laid off in mid-March when the coffee shop's owner determined the model wouldn't work during the pandemic because his immune-compromised workers' health would be jeopardized.

"To me -- and I think to a lot of people -- it's more than just a coffee shop," said Macleod.

He says when the business launched a little more than a year ago, the job gave him his life back.

"It just made me feel like I was someone, not just something," he said.

"Emotionally, it's been a toll. Financially, it's been a toll," said Richard Vaughn, the owner of Perky Planet.

After almost three months, the shop is selling cups of coffee with a cause again, but without its employees. Vaughn and his wife and daughter reopened for takeaway and outdoor seating only.

"There was a real question as to whether we could keep them safe and we could keep the public safe even doing that, and I still don't know the answer to that," said Vaughn.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, about 80% of Americans with disabilities are unemployed and the pandemic has further strained that statistic.

Vaughn says the pandemic poses a threat to the shop's whole purpose, employing people with disabilities and connecting them to the community, so he's come up with a creative way to keep the company afloat in the meantime by serving creemees.

Through a GoFund Me campaign, Vaughn has raised more than $19,000, a portion of which funded the soft-serve machine.

"The amount of support from the community is really a testament to my employees and this business model and the community itself," said Vaughn.

"I'm just hoping this holds us over," said Macleod.

Vaughn says he doesn't know when or if they'll be able to completely reopen anytime soon -- or ever -- but they are working toward a brand new project. At the end of July, they are planning to launch an online coffee roasting company called coffee.gay. That will help produce funds for coffee-producing nations and the LGBTQ+ community.