How do you fill 168 hours of meaningful activity after graduation???
It was a good question that Rob Resnik, of Phoenix, Arizona asked the audience at Autism Society of America conference today. Several years ago this was a heavy dark problem for Rob’s son Matt, who is around my son Nat’s age and has a similar degree of autism — a lot. Back when Matt was entering adulthood, he could tolerate about “6 minutes” of work, according to Rob, who is an attorney. What were they going to do to foster independence in their son, and a satisfying adult life?
Rob and his wife Denise, a public relations director, turned to Southwest Autism Association Research and Resource Center’s (SARRC’) “Rising Entrepreneurs” Program for help. Denise, Matt, and Rob did a little research and talking and thinking and came up with a bakery business. “I’m not a baker,” Denise said, smiling, “and you can ask my husband Rob: I’m not much of a cook at all.” Rob was not a baker either. Yet the idea of the bakery seemed right, seemed doable. With eight eggs, a Kitchenaid blender, and Denise’s grandmother’s mandel bread recipe, a biscotti company was born: SMILE, which means Supporting Matt’s Independent Living Enterprise.
Although baking was not their area of expertise, the Resniks were not burdened with fear of failure. In fact, Rob described his attitutde as “let’s see where this goes.” It may be that it was just this light, confident, but zenlike approach that brought them their success. They were wise to partner this outlook with very little capital expenditures — less to lose. They spent money on insurance but little else. They learned quickly, that making partnerships in the community was the way to ensure success. Rob said that there was no grants, no capital contributions, and no donations. They borrowed the commercial kitchen of a homeless shelter one day a week for baking. They were able to pay their employees — two other developmentally disabled young adults, Eric and Rachel — a living wage and stay in business. Eric is a coworker. He’d never worked before. But Eric eventually trained Rachel, another coworker. Rachel was working in her dad’s office. After two weeks of working for SMILE she quit her dad’s office. She does baking at home but also talks to the Point of Sale people at the markets.
The plan was to fit the company to the employees’ needs. If someone needed a particular environment, they could do their baking at home, rather than at the shelter kitchen. They fit the tasks to the skills. There was a strict routine: Sign in; do schedules for each person; do the packing; take breaks; etc. Matt started the day with instructions on his iPad, like “wash hands, put on apron.” Tasks were broken down into small steps if that was what Matt or his coworkers needed. Now there are six employees.
The Resniks added a special ingredient to their business: a thank you note written to the customer, by Matt and his coworkers, is inserted into each box. Denise explained that their edge would be that this product would make people feel happy about their purchase.
And Matt? He now works 6 hours a day. The bakery is his consuming passion. In fact, while I was watching the family present a workshop at the Autism Society of America Conference in New Orleans, Matt was seated at the table in the front of the room, wearing a chef’s hat and apron, working on a shipment.
Now the Resniks have announced that they are transitioning the name of their company to Supporting My Independent Living Enterprise — they are hoping to teach others around the country how to develop SMILE bakeries. This put a huge, well, smile, on my face because my Nat loves to bake and needs a new job…
SMILE is a success. They sold over 150,000 biscotti to date. Denise felt that part of this success is due to the fact that everyone by now has someone with autism in their lives. And only now are people beginning to see guys like Matt and Nat out in the world trying to make their way. But instead of wringing their hands, the Resniks roll up their sleeves. Because they have an idea that works. “When people approach SMILE, it’s not a ‘feel sorry’, it’s a ‘feel good,” Denise said.
And it’s a taste-good.