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A Fair Playing Field for Adults with Special Needs: An Interview with the Founder of Howdy Homemade

Howdy Homemade is an ice cream shop with a twist – and we’re not just talking about their flavors: According to their website, “Howdy Homemade is on a relentless pursuit to provide employment for individuals with special needs.” Unlike Hugs Café, whose founder we interviewed last year, Howdy Homemade is a for-profit business. We interviewed the founder, Tom Landis, recently, and he laid down some wisdom about the benefits of hiring people with special needs from a business perspective.

Note: The following answers were given by Tom, but some statements have been modified slightly and some answers have been shortened for clarity.

For Howdy Homemade, Hiring People with Special Needs Is a Passion

Question 1: Why did you become passionate about hiring workers with special needs?

The Restaurant Industry Has a Need

I few reasons but the main one is that I want to try and tackle the two biggest problems in the restaurant industry: Employee turnover and bad customer service. And we can solve that by hiring employees with special needs.

And for a little over two years now, we’re providing great customer service, and we don’t have any turnover. It’s tapping into the “specialness” of the special needs.

Adults with Special Needs Need Jobs

First of all, there’s 240,000 adults with special needs in the North Texas area that are just desperately looking for help, for a job, for someone to give them a chance. They can do it.

They just need someone that’s mature enough to say, “I’m going to have more patience and know that it takes a little more time to train you, but if I’m thinking about the long-run, it makes all the sense in the world.”

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People with Down Syndrome Are Great with Customer Service

Those with Down Syndrome are super friendly. They just continually see the good in people. People with Down Syndrome, over and over again, are just going to be friendly. They have an endless heart.

On a Friday or Saturday night, I’m not sure you or I would want to be nice to every single customer that comes in. We’d start thinking, “Gosh, how come we’re here? Everybody else is out having fun.” There’s nothing my employees would rather be doing than working, and that attitude is contagious with the customers.

People with Autism Are Great Managers

On the other hand, what every restaurant wants – from McDonald’s to the most high-end steak house – is culinary consistency, the same thing being produced over and over. If we’re honest, you or I don’t want to do the same thing over and over again.

Those on the Autism Spectrum thrive in something they can do over and over again. So, it’s taking those strengths each one of them has and putting them into use into the business world.

Special Needs Employees Are Great Business Assets

Question 2: When did you realize people with Down Syndrome and Autism could be an asset to your company?

Tom Realized the Players Were Good But the Playing Field Was Unfair

I’ve had a chance to work with people with special needs at some of my other restaurants over the years, and what I found was: There’s just so much potential within them. But sometimes the playing field wasn’t the right playing field for them. Maybe speed was a factor. People were only allowed an hour for lunch. They needed to get in and out quickly. That was hard for them.

I wanted to create a playing field (i.e., an environment) where they could truly succeed, and that’s why every element of Howdy Homemade is designed for someone with special needs to thrive and to succeed.

My customers aren’t coming into Howdy Homemade for a quick ice cream. They’re coming to take their time and enjoy it.

And I think that’s where it kind of all started coming together.

Howdy Homemade Helps Employees Succeed

Question 3: How does Howdy Homemade cultivate an environment that lets people with special needs “thrive and succeed”?

Howdy Homemade Is a Special-Needs-Friendly Environment

We have one knife in the whole place. There’s no fryer. Everything is designed – the point of sale system is designed for someone with special needs to really be able to handle and accomplish.

When you open our cash drawer, there’s no change in it. We got rid of the coins. Everything is to the dollar. And that’s because it’s fairly easy if it’s a four-dollar transaction, and the customer gives us a 10-dollar bill. It’s pretty easy to figure out that they should give back a five and a one.

Now, if the total is $3.01, and the employee needs to count to 99 to give back change – and a nickel sure looks like a quarter – it gets a lot more difficult. So, we did away with the change altogether to make working the register something they could accomplish, succeed at.

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Howdy Homemade Is a Healthy Challenge for Employees

We want to make sure we’re not pandering to or propping up our employees, turning them into a mascot. That’s kind of offensive to me. We want them to truly have meaningful jobs – because I think the way we make the social change is through the business world.

And that’s why we’re for-profit, because the goal is that we can look any CFO or any accountant in the eye and say, “It makes more business sense to hire our employees than it does to hire a lot of the current employees you have.”

Howdy Homemade Is in Salt Lake City

Question 4. How did the Howdy Homemade in Salt Lake City get started?

Tom Found Someone Else with a Passion for Employing Adults with Special Needs

We have a franchise that’s open in Salt Lake City right now that’s doing better than our store. It’s an exciting time. I think we’re at the start of something that’s going to truly change the restaurant industry.

One of the best things about Howdy Homemade is how fired up I am about it. But I think it would be somewhat offensive to say that my passion would ever match a parent with a special needs child. I’ve been living in the special needs community for, say, five or six years. They’ve been living in that world for 21 or 22 or 25 years – ever since their child was born.

Some people in Dallas had heard about and visited Howdy Homemade. They had friends in Salt Lake City, and one of those friends was actually dying of brain cancer and had sort of lost some focus on what he wanted to do. After he found out about Howdy Homemade, he said, “That’s what I want to focus my last couple of months on for my friend’s son, who’s on the Autism Spectrum.”

They flew down, and we met. They just have a beautiful heart and they’ve got five kids, one of them on the Autism Spectrum, Jack. They put together their plan, and it opened Labor Day weekend, this past Labor Day. It was just phenomenal.

How Working Benefits Employees

Question 5: How does Howdy Homemade impact its employees?

Howdy Homemade Brings Employees Together

I’ve had parents tell me that they’ve put their kids on the Autism Spectrum in different schools, therapy, occupational therapy – all the different therapies there are – and nothing has changed them like working at Howdy Homemade, where we treat them just like anyone else.

I had my last drink 11/05/06, and I think one of the great benefits of that is being around people that share the same problem that I do. It’s the most comforting thing. Some people can’t understand that I can’t have a drink without wanting more. It doesn’t make sense to them. But other addicts get it, and they’re there for me.

And I think that’s what Howdy Homemade is for the special needs world. It’s like, “Look, we’re all in this together. We’re all different, but together, we’re going to get through this thing. We get it, that maybe you don’t like looking people in the eye or maybe you’re not good at math, but we’ll make it happen.”

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The Hard Part of Working with People with Special Needs

Question 6. With special needs employees proving to be such a great asset, I’m sure hiring them must be easy. What are some reasons you’ve had to fire some of your employees?

Employees Aren’t Used to Being Needed at First

Most special needs people have been babied. They just have. And I don’t necessarily blame the parents – I baby my kids.

The first time you tell an employee, “I need you. Someone’s called in sick. I need you to show up,” it is amazing to see how somebody, who’s never, ever been told they’re needed, will react. Because sometimes it will be almost an adverse reaction.

They do not know how to absorb the fact that they’re needed, but then when it hits them that they’re needed, wow, the buttons almost fly off their shirt with pride.

Sometimes Parents of Employees Don’t Take the Job Seriously

We need that commitment from the parent as much as the employee. A lot of my employees don’t drive or can’t drive. If they’re showing up late, it’s because their parents are bringing them late.

It’s tough but I’ve got to tell the parent, “Hey, that’s on you.” Here’s the really tough reality of it: I’m running a for-profit business, and if you can’t get your child to work on time, I will fire them.

It’s got to be a collective effort between the family and the business. It’s not just the individual.

Why Howdy Homemade Makes Ice Cream

Question 7. Hiring adults with special needs is your main priority, so you could have chosen to serve anything. Why ice cream?

Ice Cream Is Perfect for Special Needs Employees

You can Google “ice cream,” and it just is not hard to make. I want my employees to be able to succeed and have the capabilities to do everything in the restaurant.

And there’s a lot of restaurants that hide behind the liability – like, “We’d love to hire people with special needs, but we’re worried about them sticking their hand in the fryer.” My employees are never going to stick their hand in the fryer. You know who is going to stick their hand in the fryer? The 18- and 21-year-old punks that are drunk or high at work.

With ice cream, you make it, you freeze it, you move it out and you scoop it and serve it. We make everything from scratch. When you start to break it down, it’s milk, cream, sugar, more sugar, but there’s such a sense of accomplishment when they’re able to truly do every aspect of the business.

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Special Needs Employees Make Howdy Homemade Stand out against Competitors

A lot of ice cream places lack customer service. We can beat our competition by hiring people with special needs. Put us up against any Baskin Robbins: The person behind the counter isn’t that interested. If you ask for more than one sample, they give you the stink-eye.

Our guys say, “Howdy!” when you walk in. That’s already better customer service than most ice cream shops. After that, I don’t even want them asking if you want samples. Our spoon is now the spokesperson. I want them to just give you samples.

Because it’s very important to me that the interaction between the customer and the special needs employee is a positive one: Now the customer is standing there with four or five spoons, giggling, because they’ve almost had their fill of ice cream just from samples alone.

Tom Landis Is Achievement Center of Texas’ Guest Speaker at Our 2018 Gala

To hear more of Tom’s wisdom on managing a team of special needs employees and giving people with special needs a chance to be who they were meant to be, you can do one of two things:

  1. Go down to Howdy Homemade on Lovers Lane and meet him in person. Get your fill of samples. (We recommend the mint chocolate shell flavor, which an employee affectionately termed the “Ninja Turtle.”) And also meet Colton, Howdy Homemade’s Vice President, who proudly represents those with Down Syndrome.
  2. Come to our 2018 Gala to hear him and his Vice President, Colton, give a 30-minute presentation on people with special needs and how we can help them succeed.

Click the button below to register for the gala. It takes place at the Garland Atrium on June 9th from 7:30 to 11:30 p.m. It’s a Kentucky Derby-themed formal event, where you can place bets, enter our hat contest, enjoy heavy hors d’oeuvres and hear Tom Landis speak.

We hope to see you there!

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Donate to Achievement Center of Texas

Before there are special needs employees, there are special needs students who are building the confidence to go to work. At Achievement Center of Texas, we offer job skills training, in which we teach time management, teamwork and the value of philanthropy.

None of our programs could be made possible without people like you who care. Donating just $10 could help us purchase supplies to help our students grow.

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About the Author

Amanda Woodard doesn’t have just one passion, but if you must give her a label, “Writer” would be the best fit. What she has learned about disabilities from Achievement Center of Texas has literally changed her life, and she wanted to help spread the word about the center through her blogs and interviews. When she’s not at work, she’s reading mystery novels, practicing self-care and learning new things. For more about Amanda, visit her website.

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