SALT LAKE CITY — Chris Nielson knew if he wanted help for his son, he needed to take matters into his own hands.
Nielson’s 21-year-old son, Jack, who has special needs, was graduating from the special education program at Highland High School and was looking for his next step in life. The government helps provide employment opportunities for those with special needs, but Nielson had heard the waitlist to be placed in a job could take as long as two years, and he didn’t want his son to have to wait that long.
Howdy Homemade Ice Cream, located at 2670 S. 2000 East, was his solution. The ice cream shop, which opened its doors Saturday, Sept. 2, not only provides ice cream made in-house with fresh ingredients but also is unique in its mission to provide employment opportunities for adults with special needs.
“(Howdy Homemade’s) goal is for people to come in and be comfortable and for our employees to be comfortable,” said Wil Nielson, Chris Nielson’s son and Jack Nielson’s brother. “We want to show people the magic that comes through inclusiveness regardless of preconceived notions.”
Salt Lake City’s Howdy is an arm of the original Howdy Homemade in Dallas, which was started by Tom Landis, a veteran of the restaurant business who saw quick turnaround and low employee morale in the industry and decided to do something.
“Individuals with special needs were his solution … and we’ve already seen (their skills) so far,” Wil Nielson said. “The strengths of our employees are routine, being loving and kind and making everyone at Howdy feel like family.”
Chris Nielson, who is a general contractor by trade, heard about Landis’ mission from a friend and reached out to him to see if it would be possible to bring Howdy to Utah. Landis responded within hours of Nielson’s initial request, and the ball started rolling.
That was just six months ago. Two months ago, the Nielsons secured a space and started renovating it, and just a week and a half before opening, the staff — which includes Wil Nielson, who is studying business fiance at the University of Utah, and one other manager, plus 12 employees with special needs — had their first kickoff meeting.
“These employees really are ready and willing to work,” Wil Nielson said. “I think every single employee who has been here has made mention of the fact that they love coming to Howdy because before when they couldn’t find a job … they didn’t feel like they were serving a purpose, but they all feel better now that they are interacting with people and making people happy.”
Nielson hopes that in addition to providing employment opportunities for individuals with special needs that the store also helps reverse the stigma many people have toward them.
“Our main goal and hope is that people recognize exactly what our employees can do instead of what they can’t do,” he said. “I think when a disability or a special need comes up, often our mind starts running on to what are the limitations or the disabilities instead of thinking about (how) someone with autism, they have great retention skills, and someone with Down syndrome, they’re just naturally the most happy and loving people that you come across.”
With 24 different flavors of ice cream available, including Dr Pepper chocolate chip, a favorite at the Dallas store, and Cookie Monster, which is cookies and cream with blue food coloring, Howdy has a product that will likely satisfy customers, but it’s the interactions they have in the store that Nielson believes will keep them coming back.
“Our saying, and Tom (Landis) in Dallas came up with this saying, is, ‘Come for the ice cream but stay for the people,’ and I think people are seeing that’s true,” Nielson said. “They come and you have great ice cream … but you fall in love with these employees. I look forward to coming here every day because it’s a new adventure.”