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DALLAS (AP) — Tom Landis is an angry man with a big heart.
The 46-year-old owner of two Texadelphias is out to prove to the restaurant industry — and the rest of the corporate world — that special-needs employees can be business blessings.
And he's annoyed with the excuses. "I want to say BS to every HR and legal department that says their companies can't hire 'those types because of liabilities.' I want to ruin their Labor Day weekend.
"There are 232,000 adults in North Texas with special needs who need jobs," Landis told The Dallas Morning News (http://bit.ly/1McSlbU) going into the Labor Day weekend. "I want to put together an example of what the restaurant industry could be doing on a bigger scale and show that it's not that difficult or science fiction."
Landis has been hiring employees with special needs for Texadelphia stores for four years, working with the Irving and Highland Park school districts and nonprofit groups.
Now he's taking that a step further. His newest concept, Howdy Homemade, will feature custom ice cream and gourmet sandwiches prepared and served by these special forces.
"In five years, I could have 50 stores, and 1,000 special-needs people would have jobs. Then only 231,000 would be desperately praying for what I, and maybe you, and all our homies take for granted."
Yolanda Warner, director of education for the Association for Independent Living of Dallas, runs a life-skills campus near Bachman Lake. Its 54 residents from 19 to 67 have developmental disabilities.
"It's often very, very difficult to find work for them," she says. "Tom's new concept will allow for more of our residents to have jobs, which means freedom, opportunity and socialization in the community."
One resident, 20-year-old Rickey Cowdrey, who has an intellectual disability, was hired as a cashier at Texadelphia in March and plans to work at Howdy's when it opens. "He loves the job," Warner says. "He works three days a week and wishes he could work more."
Because of regulations and benefits, many people with special needs can work only 20 hours a week. So Landis envisions four shifts.
Two kitchen crews will be primarily people with autism who might not be comfortable chit-chatting with customers. But they are perfectly suited to do food preparation that others might find tedious. A case in point: making arugula dressing, which involves a whole lot of slicing and dicing.
"My first lazy thought was, nix it off the menu. Then we realized that is exactly the repetitive job autistic peeps were put on this planet to master," Landis says.
Many of the other two crews will be staffed with people with Down syndrome who will be tapped to interact with the customers. "They have over-the-top, Willy-Wonka-good customer service, right?"
In a world of automation, Landis is adding jobs. The typical self-service soda island will become manned behind the counter. "A special-needs person is going to take a tremendous amount of pride in filling that drink to perfection," he says. "One person's job is nothing but fill sodas on demand, $1 sodas. I've gotta sell 15 more sodas an hour to cover soda champ's position. We are betting that people are sick of zero personal interaction."
Landis thinks he's finally close to signing a lease in University Park after months of searching for a location with low rent that's close enough to the high school.
He has lined up a bank loan that's contingent on signing a workable lease. "With the bank, my savings and employees, we got the moolah to roll."
Landis figures it will take $75,000 to $100,000 to launch Howdy's and $400,000 in first-year sales to keep the doors open — but he admits that's just a guess. "It's tricky to figure labor costs, in part because of the wide spectrum of people with special-needs abilities. And because it ain't really been done before."
The key to making it happen will be catering, he says. "And all my catering clients are already on board. They've tried the ice cream and sandwiches and are ready to roll."
One of his allies, Yvette Cardenas, coordinates the Transition department at Highland Park High School. She's trying to prepare eight students from 18 to 21 with special needs for the real world.
Cardenas, who's been working with people with special needs for 13 years, says many employers mistakenly think there is a liability issue. "They don't even give me the opportunity to say that we are an extension of the classroom, so all of our students are covered through our insurance."
Cardenas was skeptical when Landis came to her to recruit interns. She often gets offers with no follow-through. But Landis has hired four of her students at Texadelphia since the spring.
Sara, a.k.a. "Happy," Waterman, a 20-year-old with Down syndrome, started as an unpaid intern last spring and is now drawing a $9-an-hour paycheck as a part-timer busing tables and doing prep work in the kitchen.
"Tom surprised me with his passion. He even opened the kitchen to Happy, who cuts all of the vegetables at home," Cardenas says. "I'm thinking, 'Man, is this guy for real?'
"Sometimes Tom's thinking so fast, he loses me. But I know that he has a pure heart and vision."
Every year for the last decade, the Highland Park High School football team has gathered at Texadelphia Old Town the night before its first game.
This year's chow-down was more than a pep rally. The 100-plus teammates were served by classmates in the Transition department. Brielle Robertson, a 19-year-old Transition student, was passing out baskets of chips and queso and looked down at them longingly. "I'm on a strict diet, so this is hard," she says.
Landis also used the occasion to introduce the Howdy Homemade idea to the crowd.
"If there is one thing true in Texas, as the football team goes, so does the community," Landis says, watching the gathering of young men, parents and teachers. "It's my goal to have the special-needs people not just be accepted but be viewed as cool. So we're starting with the football team."
Head coach Randy Allen was on hand. "Our players love our students who have special needs and treat them with a lot of respect," he says. "It's a neat combination to have the team meal the night before our first game and also have the chance to see some of our students help with it."
Allen likes the idea of a Howdy Homemade shop nearby. "Our people would really rally around and support this."
Being a burr under the establishment's saddle is nothing new for Landis. He tried to run for Dallas mayor in 2001 but didn't get enough signatures to make the ballot.
He has also opened 13 restaurants — including his current two Texadelphias — that have generated more than $26 million in revenue.
I first wrote about the iconoclastic entrepreneur in 2000, when Landis launched a program that taught English to his Hispanic staff members on his dime.
He's irreverent yet spiritual. The University of Texas marketing and public relations grad's favorite verb is "ain't," and his lingo is peppered with slang. Yet he wrote a masterful business plan for Howdy Homemade filled with facts, figures and industry insights.
An example: "There are 6,452 restaurants in the Dallas market. Yet there are very few independent ice cream shops. And of the independents, none offer a hybrid of catering and ice cream."
Landis is a mess physically. His back has been repeatedly pieced together with metal. He keeps his mind off his distress by focusing on the struggles of others.
Dallas attorney Eric Ostermayer, who has an 11-year-old daughter with special needs, is helping his longtime friend with the project.
"For a long time, we've talked with voices in the community who've said, 'Gosh, it would be great if ...' and 'We would sure be behind you if ...,'" Ostermayer says. "Tom's not a lip-service and wouldn't-it-be-nice kind of guy. He's scraping it together and making it happen.
"Now it's up to those people who said they'd join the bandwagon to actually get on it, or, even better, get behind the bandwagon and push."
Landis is also getting support from Bob Sambol, the founder of Bob's Steak and Chop House who now works with Phil Romano at Trinity Groves. "Tom does 99.9 percent of the work, but I'm trying to help him focus and get this thing off the ground — create awareness, get supporters, get sponsors, and then of course the ultimate: get this restaurant open and running," Sambol says.
"It's going to work. It has to work. And when it does work, it's going to be magical."
At the end of the football party, Landis has a new hire.
Coleman Jones, who has Down syndrome, started work at Texadelphia on Labor Day.
"I watched him work and knew I had to hire him," says Landis, who doesn't really need another employee at Texadelphia but is stockpiling talent for Howdy's. "I definitely could see him managing someday. When I offered Coleman the job, he asked how much he's going to get paid. I respect the heck out of that."
Information from: The Dallas Morning News, http://www.dallasnews.com
Editor's note: This is an AP Member Exchange shared by The Dallas Morning News.
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