Food Truck Serves Up Jobs For Those With Special Needs
A food truck famous for its gooey butter bars and rocky road cupcakes has a higher purpose — it’s a training ground for people with head injuries and disorders such as autism.
When the economy tanked in 2008, finding jobs for people with disabilities became an even bigger challenge, said Donna Gunning of the Center for Head Injury Services, a St. Louis nonprofit.
“So we decided to take matters into our own hands and create jobs,” she said.
Advertisement - Continue Reading Below
Gunning was looking for an alternative to a sheltered workshop, a business she could break down into steps like an assembly line, and she thought of making desserts.
“Some people could pre-measure things, others might mix frosting or be good at the decorative part,” she said.
She initially floated the idea of a company that delivered freshly baked cookies to college campuses but nixed the idea because of the headache of finding dependable drivers. Gunning opted for a food truck instead, and Destination Desserts was born.
The nonprofit business started in 2012 with the help of grants from the Kessler Foundation and Developmental Disabilities Resources, and that first winter it sold 15,000 dozen cookies to corporations and others.
Then a year ago this month, after buying a secondhand box truck from California Power & Light, the business hit the streets with its goodies. The truck, which was retrofitted with a galley kitchen, is bright pink and decorated with colorful drawings of cupcakes and cookies.
Finding work has been an important component of recovery for Laura Schweitzer, 30, who was injured in a shooting. She previously planned to be a language teacher but now has found satisfaction decorating specialty sugar cookies.
Schweitzer said she was unable to keep a job in the private sector because she didn’t work quickly enough. She’s been at Destination Desserts since October.
“When my other job let me go, it was devastating for me,” she said. “Here I create some of the designs and decorate with much greater freedom.”
Destination Desserts sell its cupcakes for $3 each. The menu, which rotates every week, includes a turtle cupcake filled with caramel and a Nutella version topped with chocolate shavings and a rolled wafer.
This summer will bring an ice cream cupcake. Customers opting for something lighter can purchase gourmet coffees or fruit smoothies.
Denise Samuels, program director, said the trick was finding a niche in the afternoon snack market.
“We have a lot of businesses who like us to come at that time just for their folks to come out, walk away from their desk for a minute, get a snack and go back in,” she said.
On a recent morning, the truck visited Numotion, a provider of custom wheelchairs, in Earth City, Mo.
Even before Julie Bauer, the truck manager, could open the doors, a line was forming.
“The first time they were here, they sold out of everything,” said Numotion employee Samantha Peters.
Co-worker Hannah Weekly said that the desserts were tasty but that the biggest draw for her was that the proceeds supported a worthy cause.
On the truck, Genece Jordan, 23, who has autism, listened as customers gave their orders and quietly filled them. She’s been with the food service since it started and takes two buses to get to work.
She said she liked to shop and used her earnings as spending money.
In 2013, Destination Desserts had $68,000 in sales, and this year it’s on pace for $105,000, Samuels said. She is hoping to add a second shift soon.
The company employs 15 people with disabilities who work alongside other staffers. They work four-hour shifts and earn minimum wage. As at many other businesses, employees clock in and wear a uniform.
But there are differences. The measuring cups are color-coded, and pictures of each menu item are displayed on the wall, so workers can get the toppings right. The recipes are broken down into more steps. Workers might use their smartphones to keep the names of their co-workers straight until they memorize them.
“The biggest change for people after a brain injury is memory skills,” said Gunning. “We are experts at helping the person create strategies to work around how the memory doesn’t work any more.”
Samuels said the goal was to train people with disabilities so they could graduate to jobs in the private sector. So far, two workers have moved on, one to culinary school.
“I would love for that to happen more often, because we want to affect more people’s lives,” she said.
Read more stories like this one. Sign up for Disability Scoop's free email newsletter to get the latest developmental disability news sent straight to your inbox.