A Dallas restaurateur created an entire ice cream franchise so he could help employ people with special needs obtain quality jobs.
Texas native Tom Landis, 54, spent years growing his fast casual food empire with pizza chains and sandwich shops, but when it came to hiring, he realized that people with special needs weren’t a good fit for rapid pace service.
Rather than choose to overlook applicants with Downs Syndrome and other disabilities, he created an entire restaurant concept where differently-abled people would be able to run the show.
Landis read legendary Alabama football coach Gene Stallings’ book, Another Season: A Coach’s Story of Raising an Exceptional Son, about his late son Johnny, who was born with Downs Syndrome.
Throughout his storied career, Stallings became a fierce advocate for projects that created better education and quality of life for people with intellectual disabilities.
Decades later, Landis discovered that the employment landscape for the developmentally disabled was still lacking in opportunities.
“Right now, it’s a sad state of existence that it’s not that way,” he told the Dallas Morning News. “We’re going to change it.”
To help turn the tide, Landis opened up Howdy Homemade Ice Cream in late 2015, and staffed the shop with high-functioning people with developmental issues, like Down syndrome and autism.
Despite the mission, it wasn’t all smooth sailing for Landis, who invested everything he had into launching Howdy Homemade, and nearly fell short two months prior to opening.
Landis was $25,000 short and willing to put his house on the line to fund the ice cream shops launch, when he met real estate attorney Jeff Matthews, who is also a passionate advocate for Downs Syndrome.
Matthew’s lent Landis the cash and told him to pay it back when he could afford it. “What Tom is doing is an extension of the mission that I’ve been working on for six years to make the prospects for families and children with Down syndrome better,” the attorney commented.
“You see the joy that comes to the faces of these families when they see that once their kids get out of high school there’s a job for them,” he continued. “I’d rather give 25K to that than just about anything else.”
Growing the business was a struggle for Landis, he sold of the last of his two sandwich franchises in 2017 to cover his debts, but found success at the Texas State Fair.
Howdy’s Funnel Cake ice Cream flavor, created by franchise Vice President Coleman Jones, who also has Downs Syndrome, was voted one of the 10 best food picks in 2018.
They also big with signature ice cream flavor, Dr Pepper Chocolate Chip, which is the only flavor officially sanctioned by the Texas-based soda-pop company.
Dr. Pepper granted Landis exclusive ice cream rights, and gave them a huge leg up with branding by creating marketing material and deploying ads on billboards and buses to promote the flavor.
“We appreciate Tom’s passionate support of Dr Pepper, but we also are big fans of his mission to provide work opportunities to people with special needs,” said the Dr. Pepper’s brand director.
Landis’ intention wasn’t just to start a single ice cream shop, but a franchise that could help employ people with special needs nationwide, and even globally.
“I want to make it as cheap as possible to get into,” he said. “Almost everybody who wants to open are families of children with special needs because no one else is hiring them.”
Currently there are 10 Howdy Homemade Ice Cream shops, located in five states across the nation.
“Our goal is that we would be in all 160 countries that hosts the special Olympics that we would be in China, where the rate of autism in America is now an astounding one in 67 in China,” he commented in an interview.