DALLAS, Texas – It's hard not to smile when you walk into the Howdy Homemade ice cream shop in Dallas, Texas.
You may notice something unique in the place, but then the samples start coming and you just get caught up in the experience.
In North Texas alone there are over 240,000 special needs adults looking for work. Howdy Homemade ice cream shop is looking to tackle that statistic as the first for-profit business to only hire special needs workers.
"There isn't anything warm and fuzzy about this. This is saying that we're a for-profit business. Our employees and the people that our employees represent are a huge opportunity for the restaurant industry and other industries to really start to hire," said Tom Landis, owner and founder of Howdy Homemade.
Special Needs Workers Provide Workplace Solutions
Landis sees special needs employees as a solution to some of the industry's biggest problems.
"Employee turnover and poor customer service – those are both solved I think by people with special needs. They're friendly continually, over and over again where I think the average employee isn't....and at Howdy we have a zero turnover rate – our guys love it and they want to stay around," Landis told CBN News.
Giving Special Needs Workers a Shot at Success
When he first felt this inspiration, Landis wanted to give these workers the best shot at success. As a restaurant veteran, he didn't feel like his chain of sandwich shops would accomplish that.
"We wanted to look for something with a slower cadence, one where friendliness was more important than speed. And the ice cream shop idea sort of rose to the top when we filtered everything else out," said Landis.
Coleman Jones was his first employee.
"One of the big football teams has its annual dinner at one of my other restaurants and we're busy and Coleman was there as team manager, but he just kind of started passing out food and helping," said Landis.
'Exactly What the Restaurant Industry Needs'
"I just kind of noticed him. Here's a kid that, he doesn't need to serve others he was there, I felt like by the end of the night he had more friends in that restaurant than I did...and that he's exactly what the restaurant industry needs," he continued.
"I like to help make the ice cream sometimes," Coleman said, "But personally I also like to be friendly and say 'Hi' to the customers or even say 'Howdy' to the customers."
Landis wants others to not only appreciate his business model but to replicate it.
"I think in five years, six years, you can walk into any McDonalds, any fast food place and someone with special needs is going to be working there. They might remember your order from a week before, they might give you a hug, but it will be better than what you're getting now," said Landis.
It's not just the restaurant industry he hopes to change.
Changing Industries Across the Board
"It takes some additional up-front patience, love, but I think God made those with Down syndrome to truly be the very best in the hospitality sense of the word. And also those on the autism spectrum, there's an incredible opportunity for those minds to be harnessed, I think in the restaurant industry but also beyond," said Landis.
As word spreads, interest grows. Landis says at least 50 people want to franchise Howdy Homemade, with new offers coming in each day.
"It just seems like there's this beautiful economic intersection where the economy is strong, there's a need for bussers, people to work behind the counter, a guy like Coleman, a guy like Mike Cruz...a few years ago no one was going to hire them. Now I'm a little worried someone is going to poach them," said Landis.
This isn't just about good business, Landis is out to show the world the capabilities of those with special needs.
"We get a lot of people who are driving from two to three hours away bringing their son or daughter, their grandson here to see that someone with Down syndrome, someone with autism, someone with an IDD can work. And what we love to do is invite them to come behind the counter, wash their hands and actually serve the ice cream and then ring it up," said Landis.
For some employees running an ice cream shop is just the beginning. Three are Eagle Scouts and one could become major league baseball's first announcer on the autism spectrum.
"I mean every customer that comes in that has a Rangers hat – for him to just know the stats is such a God-given talent," said Landis.
Each and every employee not only exceeds their boss' expectations but those of their parents, teachers and even their own.