By Ann Marie Shambaugh
As his 18th birthday approached, Jacob Henley knew that he wanted to become a chef. After all, he’d been concocting his family’s own recipes in the kitchen for years, as he required a gluten- and dairy-free diet long before it entered the mainstream.
There was just one problem: he has autism, and his verbal skills would have made finding and keeping a job in a traditional kitchen a tall order. But he didn’t let that stop him from chasing his dream.
Jacob, 20, teamed with his mother, Shelly Henley, to launch No Label at the Table. Every Friday, the Carmel residents and their employees – all people on the autism spectrum – rent space at 5280 Pantry Project in Fishers to bake a variety of items to sell at the Carmel, Fishers and Brownsburg farmers markets the next day.
And after just a couple months of being in business, they’ve already found success. Their snickerdoodles have sold out every week, and their ginger and lemon almond cookies are becoming top sellers, too.
“We pride ourselves in being indistinguishable (from items with dairy or gluten) or better,” Shelly said.
Facing a cliff
The idea for No Label at the Table sparked when Shelly realized her family was about to “fall off the cliff,” a phrase referring to what happens when special needs children age out of the school system and some support systems and programs. At that point, Shelly felt the options were limited for her son. Typically, someone in his position could find a day program or apply for disability and stay home, choices Shelly felt would lead to “total social isolation.”
None of those options felt right for Jacob, who is taking online classes through Hoosier Academy, so Shelly decided they would work together to create their own solution. She had heard of a carwash in Florida that employed people across the autism spectrum and decided it could work as a concept for a bakery, too.
So, without any formal business or culinary training, they launched No Label at the Table. It currently employs seven people on the autism spectrum, a condition that affects one in 68 Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A 2017 report by the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute showed that only 14 percent of adults with autism spectrum disorder had a paid job, although approximately 25 percent list it as a goal.
Shelly said that while her employees may require more training time than those without autism, once they embrace the job they are “loyal” and “honest” workers.
“In many cases they’re the most ideal employees,” she said. “Once you train them, they’re there.”
Jessica Reed of Indianapolis has been with No Label at the Table almost since its beginning. Every week she looks forward to individually packaging and labeling treats for sale and making the chocolate cupcakes, a job that’s hers alone.
Her mother, Patty Reed, said Jessica has tried to find work in the past but didn’t have a good experience. Now, she’s so excited to go to work that she gets everything ready the night before and is eager to go well before it’s time to head to the kitchen.
“She’s always liked cooking and baking at home,” Patty said. “Now she has an actual job, so it’s exciting for her to be there, to actually get paid for the job.”
A bigger vision
Shelly has been encouraged and surprised by the company’s early success.
“What’s been overwhelming is the amount of people reaching out to me asking for jobs,” she said. “Most of them would be a good fit for the kitchen, but in order to get more time in the kitchen it has to be scalable.”
No Label at the Table does not accept donations or volunteers, because it would impede the employees’ transition process into the community, Shelly said. Her employees work is of the same value as their non-disabled peers, and to operate as a charity would lessen their experience and opportunities, she said.
Shelly wants to expand the business by offering online sales in the coming months and opening a storefront this fall. Ultimately, her vision is far bigger than No Label at the Table, however. She hopes that her employees will gain the skills and confidence needed to land jobs at other businesses.
“I want to inspire other families to say no, (people with autism) don’t have to sit at home and watch TV and play video games all day,” Shelly said. “They can have a meaningful role.”
After seeing the difference No Label at the Table has made in her daughter’s life in such a short time, Reed is hoping its success mulitplies.
“I’m hoping that this will spark other ideas in other parents who are able to do something similar to create other employment opportunities, because there are so many young adults who cannot function in a typical job setting,” she said. “I’m hoping this can be the start of something bigger, that there can be other opportunities out there like this for other individuals who need this.”
Q&A with Jacob, Chef at No Label at the Table
What do you most enjoy about working at No Label at the Table?
I enjoy mixing the ingredients.
What is your favorite item to make?
The most fun is making pizza crust.
What is your favorite item to eat?
My favorite to eat is brownies.
What would you like to make and sell in the future that you haven’t tried yet?
What do you want customers to know about your business?
Everything is gluten- and dairy-free, and I make everything with my friends.
FIND NO LABEL AT THE TABLE
No Label at the Table will sell cookies, soy and almond milk and T-shirts at CarmelFest from 3 to 10:30 p.m. July 3 and noon to 10:30 p.m. July 4.
Its products can be found weekly at the Carmel Farmers Market, open from 8 to 11:30 a.m. every Saturday through Sept. 30 at 5 Center Green, and Fishers Farmers Market, from 8 a.m. to noon every Saturday through Sept. 30 at 6 Municipal Dr.
No Label at the Table also takes special orders.
Learn more at nolabelatthetable.com.