Tom Landis is trying to change how businesses hire people with special needs.
Landis, who has opened 13 restaurants in over a little more than 20 years, is opening Howdy Homemade, an ice cream parlor in University Park that will be staffed almost entirely by special-needs adults.
“Can we really make a change in this world, in business, the way they hire special needs?” Landis said. “I want to show that it makes business sense to hire them.”
He believes those with Down syndrome have the friendly personality needed to provide quality customer service, while those with autism can provide the consistency needed in the kitchen to run the store smoothly.
Landis has been working with the Transitions program at Highland Park High School for two years. He gave a few of the students internships at his Texadelphia restaurants, including 19-year-old Coleman Jones, who he will bring on to help staff Howdy Homemade.
“Coleman has a great spirit,” Landis said. “I can see him being an assistant manager someday.”
The HPHS Transitions program is for special needs students who have completed their four years of high school, and want to continue their learning to help prepare them for the real world. The program involves vocational training and other practical-skills lessons like shopping for groceries and managing a budget.
Yvette Cardenas, coordinator of the Transitions program, looks forward to having the parlor in the old Maudee’s Tea Room space at Miracle Mile, within walking distance of the high school.
“It’s just another classroom that has ice cream instead of books,” Cardenas said.
The ice cream parlor, which was slated to open in late December, will serve ice cream in a variety of flavors from vanilla to fruit punch and sweet tea, along with sandwiches and soda. One employee’s job is to fill $1 sodas for customers.
“We want it to be classy, elegant,” Landis said. “The ultimate father-daughter place.”
Clay Honeycutt, the manager of Howdy Homemade, says everything in the store from the types of scoops employees use to the point-of-sale system, is designed to accommodate their skill sets. Instead of working eight-hour shifts, they will work two or three hours at a time. The starting staff will be about 15-20 people.
“It’s about embracing their abilities,” Honeycutt said. “With everything geared toward them, it makes them shine and then they overcome their disabilities.”
Honeycutt, 19, has been around special needs kids most of his life. His mother is a special education teacher and his best friend has Down syndrome.
“They make me happy,” he said,” and why not fill your life with happiness?”
Landis has big plans for Howdy Homemade, and opening the first location is just the start. He plans on selling their signature flavor, Dr Pepper Chocolate Chip, in grocery stores, and his plans don’t involve profit. Proceeds will benefit institutions across the country like the Rise schools, which focus on early development of special needs children.
“In the end, this is a business about people and not food,” Landis said. “We’re trying to make them come in here and smile.”