In New Jersey, a gourmet popcorn company is turning its profits into an opportunity for new employees. Those employment “popportunities” are for adults who are living on the autism spectrum according to A Plus.
Dr. Barbie Zimmerman-Bier is a Ruger’s university professor who created Popcorn for the People with husband, Dr. Stephen Bier. The company is a nonprofit subsidiary of their charitable organization that focuses on “creating meaningful and lasting employment for adults with autism and developmental disabilities.” The name of that organization is Let’s Work for Good and they have done a lot of good for others. They saw the people who had developmental disabilities were lacking in employment opportunities so they decided to use their popcorn company to create jobs. The profits from the popcorn venture would go toward a charitable organization. Their website states that every tin of popcorn that somebody purchases “provides at least an hour of meaningful employment” for adults with developmental disabilities, including autism. They would be hired for marketing, labeling, making popcorn and other duties.
In 2015, they had the idea for the business and nonprofit because Sam, their son, was tired of his job at a grocery store. Sam is 27 years old and is on the autism spectrum. He had worked as a “cart guy” for six years and decided to try something different. After quitting he discovered that it was difficult to find employment. Any job that provided the resources for someone with autism was usually associated with menial work. It was difficult to find a skilled position.
“Some companies mean well, but they are limited in what they can offer,” Steven Bier told TAP Into East Brunswick in 2015.
Adults with autism have a particularly difficult time finding employment. Drexel University reported last year than only 14% of adults with autism who are using state-funded disability services are paid for working. Autistic adults who are high functioning are more than capable of working with a technical career but it can be challenging to get hired. Those individuals who have autism may struggle with understanding the social issues associated with the interview process.
That is where the popcorn business came in. When it started in 2015, it was known as the Pop-In Cafe and they still operate in New Jersey. That company now offers flavored popcorn to a worldwide audience. They started with a staff of 4 three years ago, one of whom was on the autism spectrum and now they have a staff of 50 with almost half on the spectrum. They plan on expanding their production facility in July.
In order to help employees learn hard skills, they provide an environment that is conducive to learning. They describe it as their “watercooler life skills.”
“There just aren’t many programs that teach these sorts of things in a real-world environment, with all that entails,” Bier told My Central Jersey. “These are skills that the kids can use here, and elsewhere.”
A Plus said you can buy Popcorn for the People in New Jersey at the Red Bull Arena or even in Times Square at the Lyric Theater. They offer 12 flavors of popcorn, including cookies and cream, Buffalo wing, and French toast. All of their popcorn is created by a chef that donates 40 hours per week to the company, Agnes Cushing-Ruby.
“I never thought that the little pop-up shop would grow into this,” Sam told A Plus. “It makes me so happy to see we have helped so many people.”
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