Welcome to the Autism Advantage podcast! I’m your host, Tom D’Eri, the COO and co-founder of Rising Tide Car Wash. In case you’re not familiar with what we do, we employ a fantastic team of individuals with autism, allowing us to empower our staff while offering a fantastic experience to customers. We believe that individuals with autism are an incredible untapped resource for many business, and this show is dedicated to proving that employing these people can create real competitive advantages.
Valerie Herskowitz is one of my fellow South Florida autism entrepreneurs and the founder of The Chocolate Spectrum Cafe and Academy. So far, the cafe only employs adults with autism or developmental disabilities, and Val has been learning to do just about every aspect of running the business herself. While this is complicated in the early stages, it’s a strength in that she’ll be intimately familiar with every facet of the business.
Val had been involved in pastry and chocolates as a hobby, never thinking she would turn it into anything more. After semi-retiring, though, she had the time to expand this sweet hobby into a full business. Coincidentally, this timing worked out just as she was looking into post-high-school resources for her son Blake, who has autism.
After Blake graduated from high school, he got more and more involved in the kitchen. Val realized that a hobby of making chocolates wasn’t going to be enough to keep Blake busy, so after getting some great reviews from friends and family, they expanded into an online venture and started selling locally. The business grew organically, until Val saw it as an employment opportunity for individuals with autism and other differently-abled employees. Now, they’ve opened a brick-and-mortar cafe.
In this conversation that took place just two months after the cafe opened, Val and I talk about her experience with turning a hobby into a full-time business and social enterprise. The best and biggest piece of advice she can give to listeners considering opening a retail location is to expect the unexpected, but she has many, many other gems of wisdom that anyone working with people with autism or considering opening a business will benefit from hearing.
Tune into this episode to hear about topics including how Blake and other employees have reacted to the opening of the retail location, her advice to people who are considering opening a business staffed by people with autism, what financial considerations you should have in mind when opening a business, and why the food business is one of the hardest areas to be in.
In This Episode:
[00:58] - Val takes us back to the beginning of her entrepreneurial journey, and explains why she started The Chocolate Spectrum. She walks us through the process all the way from the beginning ideas through the opening of their retail location.
[05:09] - We hear more about the moment when Val realized that this could be a full-time business, not just a hobby anymore.
[07:12] - Tom draws out an important point that Val has made regarding the responsibility business owners have to their employees.
[08:40] - The brick-and-mortar location has only been open for two months, and Val’s biggest piece of advice so far is to expect the unexpected.
[11:24] - Val explains that even her little shop seems overwhelming, but expects it to become easier as it becomes more familiar.
[14:07] - How have Blake and the rest of the team responded to the opening of the new location? Val describes how Blake has reacted, and the sorts of things that she has needed to teach and work on with the other employees.
[17:33] - Tom talks about the scripting and training for people with autism for interacting with the public, which is part of Rising Tide Car Wash as well.
[19:01] - Val takes a moment to rave about their local community in Florida, which is relatively autism-aware. She then mentions things she adds to the script, such as recommendations to visit the dry cleaners next door who consistently promote the cafe.
[22:33] - What advice would Val give someone who’s looking to start a business and employ people with autism?
[23:58] - When Tom gives workshops and reaches the part about funding, he needs to point out that there really aren’t very many grants out there for this subject and that grants probably won’t be your primary source of funding.
[25:10] - Val didn’t decide to start an autism-focused business and then settle on one that fits that criterion well. Instead, she opened a business in something she was already doing. In hindsight, she might have done things differently.
[28:02] - Tom points out that every social enterprise has its own path.
[30:20] - Val passes along one other piece of advice that she has found invaluable, which is to find people who know what to do who are willing to help you.
[32:04] - How can listeners get involved with The Chocolate Spectrum? She recommends visiting the cafe, but if you don’t live locally, you can shop online too!
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