Sam Malek is the owner of More Than Coffee drive-through coffee shop in Ballwin, Mo. His goal is to make a difference in his community “one cup at a time,” by hiring employees with mental and physical handicaps and supporting local charities with the proceeds from his business.
Malek himself has overcome disabilities brought on by cerebral palsy. The Cairo, Egypt, native has undergone 31 operations. He is the recipient of the United Cerebral Palsy’s 2009 Life Without Limits Award. Malek’s coffee shop was renovated through ABC’s “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.” He recently appeared on EWTN’s “Life on the Rock.”
Malek spoke with Register senior writer Tim Drake.
Where are you from originally?
I was born in 1963 in Cairo, Egypt. The doctors thought I was stillborn, so I was thrown into a trash can. When I hit the can, I started crying.
What brought you to the United States?
I came to the U.S. with my father in 1968 so that I could be seen by Shriners Hospital in St. Louis. I was born with cerebral palsy and needed surgery. I didn’t speak a lick of English. The rest of my family came two years later.
Did you grow up Catholic?
No, we were raised Coptic Orthodox.
At one point, when my dad passed away, I got angry at God. I wasn’t going to any church. When I had the chance to help someone in need, it brought me closer to God. I realized that the more I help others, the more God helps me.
How did you come into the Catholic Church?
My wife had a family priest who baptized her and talked to me about the Catholic religion. He was at our wedding, where we had a Maronite priest and a Coptic priest. Catholicism seemed very similar to Coptic Orthodox, so I became Catholic, and we raised our sons Catholic.
How did you meet your wife?
I was the manager of a retail jewelry store. She was a customer. We’ve been married for more than 21 years and have 19- and 14-year-old sons.
Was it always your dream to operate a coffee shop?
No, it hadn’t been a dream. I used to run a computer consulting business, doing tech work and building computers. After my 30th operation, I wasn’t supposed to survive. I asked the Lord, “What do you want me to do?” My original concept was “Every Day’s a Sundae” — where I would hire disabled workers to go to parishes to sell snow cones and ice cream cones. I wanted to make people with disabilities part of the community. Our first attempt was the biggest fiasco. The ice cream melted.
Later, I saw this local drive-through coffee shop go up for sale. I called and got the price, but it was too high. The price kept dropping. I kept telling God, “I need this.” Two and a half years later, the Monday after Easter 2007, we ended up buying it. This is where God put us.
I’ve tried to hire workers with disabilities, with autism and Down syndrome and other mental disabilities. The problem was, if you were in a wheelchair or used a walker, I couldn’t accommodate you.
How has your faith helped you to overcome your disabilities?
One of the things I always look at is, if you look at Jesus dying on the cross for us and look at one of the nails that they put into his body, that’s something I could never handle. My pain and affliction deepens my faith and brings me closer to Jesus.
When customers shop at More Than Coffee and encounter a worker with a disability, they’re having an encounter with God. Whatever their daily tribulations might be — running late in traffic or unable to get to the grocery store — when they deal with someone less fortunate, it should help put their life into perspective. There is always someone worse off than you are. You have to be grateful for what you have. When people come through my coffee shop, they get three to six minutes of “my life isn’t so bad.”
Your coffee shop also has elements of faith, doesn’t it?
Our coffee cozies have inspirational sayings on them like “Believe in Miracles.” We often say two to three prayers in the shop on a daily basis. After a morning rush or stress point, we might say an Our Father and a Hail Mary. I recently met a gentleman at 7am who came back at 10am. He wanted to pray with me and for me. I don’t know too many businesses in this country that have that happening.
How many customers do you need daily to be viable, and how many are you receiving?
We need at least 50 customers every day. Yesterday we had 53. The day before, we had 37. Some churches, such as St. Joseph-Manchester and St. John’s Lutheran, have begun purchasing our coffee, cakes and sandwiches for daily use. We just did a luncheon for the archdiocese.
I’m not looking to franchise or build more of these stores; my mission is to plant seeds. The coffee shop’s mission is to empower disabled folks physically or mentally: to show them that they can learn new skills and tasks so they can be put in the workplace.
These are God’s children. The business is not about dollars and cents; it’s about empowering our employees with hope, pride and dignity. I have the most loyal customers you’ll ever see. They come in for a daily dose of inspiration. People get God’s glory each and every time they drive through.
Your coffee shop was recently renovated and made compliant with the American Disabilities Act through ABC’s “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” television program. How did that come about?
Contractors John Shea and David Dunlap worked together to generously donate their time, talent and materials to make the shop fully ADA capable. They did this in the middle of a recession.
When I saw the completed project, I was filled with great gratitude to all of the people who donated their time, talent and gifts. It gave me the ability to keep a promise I made to God: that I will try to never turn away a disabled person and the opportunity to give them a sense of purpose, dignity and life fulfillment.
You allow customers to choose the charities that you support with the proceeds from your sales. What charities are supported by More Than Coffee?
So far, we’ve supported about 30 different local charities. The rules are that the charitable money stays local and cannot go to pay administrative costs. It must go to help children or adults who we’re trying to help. The St. Louis Disabled Society used money for scholarships for people who can’t afford to pay for activities.
We also have a “Pay It Forward” program. On the back of our loyalty cards, we tell people if they don’t want their free drink after 10 purchases to pay it forward.
How many employees are working for you?
I currently have two on payroll and six to seven disabled people who volunteer. Over the past three years, we’ve helped about 25 people.
My ultimate dream is to have some sort of charity arm that can take over the day-to-day operations of the coffee shop so that I can do other things. We could be helping so many more people. This isn’t a business. It’s a ministry disguised as a business.
Tim Drake writes
from St. Joseph, Minnesota.