​The Elusive Inclusive: Speaker Discusses Hiring People With Special Needs

April 4, 2019

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According to writer Malcolm Gladwell, you are hired within the first ten seconds of an interview. For people with special needs, that eye contact, handshake, and smile isn’t necessarily an option. Entrepreneur Tom Landis wants to truly utilize the unique skills of people with Down syndrome and autism.

In 2015, Landis opened Howdy Homemade Ice Cream on Lover’s Lane in Dallas to provide job opportunities for a segment of our population that is often overlooked in the workforce. His employees, or “peeps” as he calls them, are trained in everything from customer service, point-of-sale, and food preparation.

According to his website, Howdy Homemade was founded on a steel conviction that the restaurant industry is about people first, then food. To this day, Landis still works with his first hire, Manuel Ramirez.

In North Texas alone, there are more than 240,000 special needs adults looking for work,” Landis said. “I’m not looking for goosebumps or fist bumps. We’re looking for sales bumps. We want to change the way people treat those with special needs. If you take care of your employees, everything else takes care of itself.”

During his recent presentation as part of the Mollie Cullinane Speaker Series in Social Innovation and Social Entrepreneurship, Landis—previously ran a marketing firm that served blue chip clients like Mars/M&M, Pepsi, and World Cup—he challenged TLU students to think about how their business could impact our world.

“Everyone should want to change something,” he said. “Let’s try to look at something bigger and better. How can we begin to make that change? That’s what social entrepreneurship is all about. People are caring more about what your business stands for, and not what you’re selling.”

The entire Howdy Homemade experience – from selecting your ice cream flavor to paying for it – is designed with Landis’ “peeps” in mind. Customers have just three choices: one scoop for $4, two scoops for $6, and one pint for $7. Guests are also greeted with buckets of golden-metallic plastic spoons in several places on top of the ice cream coolers.

“It’s a communication tool,” Landis said. “Speed is needed in restaurants, but with ice cream people tend to take their time. No one is ever in rush when they’re getting ice cream. Samples are also the key to interactions and it helps children communicate with people who have special needs. Sometimes people have a hard time knowing how to talk to someone with special needs so the spoon is the spokesperson.”

Landis challenges business owners to carve out a place for people with special needs if possible.

“Hospitals are starting to do it by hiring them to sterilize beds and rooms instead of having nurses do it,” Landis said. “Car dealerships are also hiring people with autism to manage new, complex computer programs for auto parts. When more businesses can figure out how to harness work for their special set of skills, it will be remarkable. We’re right at the edge of the ‘elusive inclusive’ where people with special needs are being invited into more situations.”

With more than 100 people in line to open a Howdy Homemade franchise, Landis sees his once hopeful venture continuing to grow.

“Most of the people interested in stating a franchise are the family of people with special needs,” he said. “They have seen what we do for individuals who remind them of their own children or grandchildren. I really feel called to do this.”

More About Tom Landis

After launching his own marketing firm, with clients like World Cup USA 1994, M&M/Mars and Pepsi, Landis opened his first restaurant in 1996. By 2000, Landis had opened 13 restaurants and had an incredible staff that lacked English skills. So, he transformed his restaurants into classrooms between lunch and dinner in a partnership with Dallas County Community Colleges. More than 1,300 Latino employees throughout Dallas were able to learn English and move from hourly kitchen jobs into management. He is the only non-Latino to earn the LULAC Businessman of the Year award. For his work he was also awarded the Center for Nonprofit Management’s “Social Entrepreneur of the Year” award in 2004.

In 2015, he opened Howdy Homemade inspired by legendary Coach Gene Stallings’ book, “Another Season.” Landis was awarded the inaugural “Ryan Albers Lifetime Achievement Award,” for his efforts to champion the rights of those with special needs in 2016. He also received the Texas Governor’s “Lex Friedan Employer of the Year Award” and the George Washington National Honor Medal.

Landis is the creator of Dr Pepper Chocolate Chip ice cream, and his partnership with Dr Pepper has enabled more than 175 people with special needs to work at the State Fair of Texas over the past three years. On May 14, 2019, he will be the eighth recipient of the Johnny Stallings Award, where he will share the podium with Notre Dame Coach Brian Kelly.


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