Smiling With Hope Pizza: NY Pizza With A Social Cause

Smiling With Hope Pizza
Lakeridge Pointe Shopping Center
6135 Lakeside Drive #101
Reno, NV 89511
Store: 775-825-1070
Home: 775-502-3004

Name of contact/founders: Walter and Judy Gloshinski

“Smiling With Hope Pizzeria is a pizza store modeled on the small family pizzerias/Italian cafes Walter grew up with. Walter’s mother and her family were great cooks from Italy and he became fascinated with their dishes as a young child.  His passion for NY pizza is going on 60 years! For 22 years Walter created award winning pizzeria/bakery businesses in CA/TX/OH public schools that trained students with disabilities for competitive work.  Their mission continues with the Smiling with Hope Pizzeria which trains and employs people with developmental disabilities.”

Smiling with Hope is in the Yelp top 100 restaurants in the USA, was recently named the best pizza in Nevada by TIME and MONEY magazines and MSN.  They were also recently called “the greatest little pizzeria in America” by Paulie Gee, owner of Paulie Gee’s Pizza Brooklyn.

The Visit:

I was greeted by Josh, a worker with disabilities who said, “Welcome to Smiling with Hope Pizza—would you like a menu?”  A steady flow of customers came in during my visit at lunch time and a doctor in scrubs, with his father and two children sat at a table and shared their experience.  Walter and Judy, the owners, shared their fascinating story of how and why these “free spirits” (he used the word “vagabonds with no money”) started a pizza store where people with disabilities work and families with children of all ages with disabilities feel free to dine—even if their children are “messy” or have issues in the pizza store.  The two spoke to me while doing prep work, answering phone orders, and serving customers. Much of Walter’s very direct wording is captured below—he has very strong feelings about “the system” and how it often fails people with disabilities.

Walter’s Extremely Interesting Journey and Reason for Starting the Business:

Walter notes that he grew up in South Orange, NJ and was a “terrible student with no interest in academics,” despite his father being a Wharton (U Penn business school) graduate.  “My father was a VP of United Trust down on Wall Street for 30 years but if you met him, you’d think he was a plumber. He just wanted to be left alone so he never taught us anything about the future, so I came out of the gate as a musician and played music all over the world…”

Walter has many talents and interests.  He is a musician who sings, and mainly plays guitar and harmonica.  As he reflects on what got him interested in the field of disabilities, he identifies two things:  He describes having a cousin with Down Syndrome who was ten years older than him. “He was older than me but seemed younger.  It confused me. It bothered me.” He notes, “Throughout my life, I kept getting at cross roads and intersections with people with special needs.”   In addition, looking back on a childhood experience during a parade, he remembers a “guy with a band uniform with a bass drum, cymbals and trumpet on the back walking on the sidewalk making his own music—and it was clear he had some type of special need.  And I thought to myself, oh, what is that?… It always attracted me for unknown reasons. Now, I know the reasons. These people can’t navigate the system. They have no abstract thinking which is needed to make decisions. They need people like us to help them.  If not, they will make wrong decisions.”

In the late 80’s and early 90’s, Walter and band were based in Austin, TX. It was during that time that he decided to enter the field of special education, first by serving as an aide in a high school self-contained classroom for students with cognitive disabilities.  

“That inspired me—after two and a half years, I decided I needed to go to college, because I had a goal.”  He was in his 30s when he decided to begin college at Texas State University, where he studied special education.  After graduating, Walter moved to California, since this is where he had his wife had spent some time in the early 80s.  

“I got in the self-contained classroom, I saw their abilities (he is referring to their challenges) and that they will never compete in any sort of academic based job.”   He decided he wanted his students to work. “I used my culinary skills which I had been around all my life–my mother and her family came from Italy. Even when I was playing music, I knew if I needed money, I could work in food service or a bakery or something—it pays more than digging ditches in the hot summer.  When I hit the schools, I used my culinary skills to create products that were better than anything that was available in the area. I created a functional, life curriculum. I finagled a home economics room and we made and sold food at school!” Once you have a business, it opens up everything you need to succeed in life.”

Walter’s ultimate decision to open the pizza store in Reno was the result of seeing what he describes as a familiar pattern in special education programs in several states.   “After 10 years in California, they decided these kids are going to college–even though they can’t do six plus six, so we retreated. It is like saying this oil can (pointing to a can of oil in his restaurant) can go to college if you teach it right—it is a big sham because society is not willing to face the fact that people with moderate to severe cognitive disabilities will never compete with non-disabled people in academic occupations.”   

Walter didn’t think this made sense and moved to Ohio where he could be closer to his family.    “All of my moves were based on my programs getting world-wide recognition—and getting ruined by the schools.   It is denial in our society. Everything, every illness (cold, broken leg, etc.) has a time frame for healing in our culture—if we don’t have a time frame, we just wash our hands of it and make believe it is not there.”  

Walter reports that he found a school district in Ohio, “all guided by the universe, God, whatever you want to call it—I follow my heart, it led us to this little town in Ohio.”  The school district was in the process of building a new high school. “I convinced them all to build my self-contained classroom for students with moderate cognitive disabilities as a commercial kitchen so then it would become a real business.  And that was the Smiling With Hope Bakery! We served up to 11,000 people a week in a 2,000 square foot commercial kitchen, adjacent to the cafeteria. They basically told me I could run the program but the funding was zero. I didn’t get one dime.  So I had to create everything. When I left, we were earning more than the band, the music and the athletics put together—we were the top earners. We ran it with 15 students—the most behavior challenged students and the most behavior challenged parents!”

Walter’s successful experience in Ohio included partnering with Bon Apetit food, which served the food at Denison University. His group created a healthy cookie, in conjunction with the Amish, which used organic wheat flours, and was in accordance in with that state’s wellness law.   “That’s where we sold tons—frozen cookies public schools could heat up and I finagled this space to be a business.”

I was able to do this for 9 years but a new direction was presented at the beginning of my 10th year.  The Smiling With Hope Bakery was going to be discontinued and academic remediation was the new course. “That was in August at the start of the school year.  I refused to be a babysitter and we bought a house in Reno. When the mortgage was approved in October (four years ago). We packed and moved!”

I started my teaching career in Texas with gang kids with learning disabilities.  I began cooking with them. Problems decreased and attendance increased. This was my first bump with the system. No Child Left Behind was created and it was decided they were going to go to college yet they couldn’t pass a 3rd grade test.  So we moved to California and I retreated to a self-contained class for students with moderate cognitive disabilities—until school officials decided they were going to college and they couldn’t pass a 3rd grade test.  Then we retreated to a self-contained in Ohio and started the Smiling With Hope Bakery, until school officials said they were going to do academics and go to junior college. The only step I could take was to stay self-contained (severely disabled) and just do tube feeding, etc—they are 24/7 care and it was not my calling. I ran out of options. In November, 2015, I decided to quit my 23 year fight with public schools and we moved to Reno and opened Smiling With Hope Pizza in January, 2016.  Now free to create our own universe of success for people with disabilities.”

Walter further criticizes the lack of perseverance and approach on the part of the school system.  “You know what they did? One of our employees, Larry, (self contained classroom) came in the pizzeria and didn’t know what we were about—and the parents say all Larry  talks about in their IEP meeting is working with us. The teacher thought it was volunteer work. I said no He is making $15 to $18 an hour working here and we want to hire Larry as the dishwasher every night. They say, ‘We just found Larry a job for $10 an hour ten hours a week at Diller’s Warehouse and that’s going to be a better future for him. I said, lady, get out of here—you are whacked!’    Same—with our other boy, Tyson who is high functioning MR and also in Larry’s class. He greets, mops, cleans—he worked with us almost whole time we were here and wanted to hire him 35 hours a week. His mother is cognitively delayed and the school officials convinced them our pizzeria wasn’t letting him reach his potential so they got him another job at Dillard’s Warehouse, ten hours a week, $10 an hour—well, he doesn’t work there anymore.  Here, we would have him for life, make connections with the community so when we retire he would have lots of contacts for work. He left our job which would have paid him $18 and hour for 35 hours a week, supported, for that job. People with cognitive disabilities self-destruct all the time without continual professional support because the adult world is so complicated for them to navigate. All these teachers want to do is put on the end of year report they found two people jobs and could care less about these people.  What other explanation is there for such decisions?

“The most frustrating thing is that we are not dealing with oil cans but with souls. We need to find the things they can do and build programs around this to maximize success and quality of life as adults, since they are identified at 3, and schools have them 18 years, this can happen.  But sadly schools mostly babysit them! Today they come to me with no vocational skills, poor hygiene… I look at the Cognitively Impaired population from a data perspective. I look at what has worked historically and what has not worked. Academic training does not work. Parental denial is often very strong and schools accommodate this. Unfortunately the world does not create a meaningful life for its citizens.  Each individual has to create this and since they are not able to compete with non disabled people for academic jobs most wallow in nothingness.   When the family can no longer care for them they end up in group homes which often are in the worst part of towns and the caregivers are marginal at best.

Walter’s successful experience in Ohio included partnering with Bon Apetit food, which served the food at Denison University. His group created a healthy cookie, in conjunction with the Amish, which used organic flours, and was in accordance in with that state’s wellness law.   “That’s where we sold tons—frozen cookies they could heat up—and it was all created in my commercial kitchen classroom space—I finagled this space to be a business.” It was then that Walter experienced the same pattern. Just after NBC News correspondent, Maria Shriver (her mother, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, was a sister of John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, and Ted Kennedy) did a news story on the program, “they said things were changing.”  Walter was told there was going to be a shift away from vocational training and back to academics. There would be eight periods of academics and only one of vocational training. “I said no!” reports Walter. “That was in August of the school year about to start in October (four years ago). We had bought this house in Reno and moved!”

“That has been my battle for 23 years,” reports Walter, summarizing his career.  “Awards and disciplinary actions. I was pushed out of ed—had no place to go because the community always supports what I do but the system doesn’t want to do what it really takes to train these people for maximum independence as adults.  Supervisors love to take photos with me but don’t like me because I work around them due to their laziness and stupidity. They would have to work harder to really teach the skills needed for success.”

Despite all of the frustrations and difficult systemic issues Walter has spelled out above, he notes that the business is doing well, he hopes to expand via selling his recipes, procedures, to others, and he recommends that others consider entering into similar businesses if they have a product or service that is in demand and have the skills to train and work with people with disabilities.  Some businesses would want to hire people with disabilities but they have no idea of how to work with them thus are afraid to try it. But he offers disclaimers. “I recommend others do it BUT have to be willing to lose money! Capitalism is a solo thing, not a communal way of living! If I can hire Shelly, the college student interviewed below, at $15/hour and she can do 50 tasks at speed 10, why hire Larry the autistic guy who can do only dishes, on speed 3?  If we are busy, I can’t ask Larry to come up here and do X (answer phone, cut pizza)-a for profit business person would never hire these people. In capitalism, you want to get the most out of paying the least.”   Walter stresses that “it is important to create a product that is better than the other products out there that you are in competition with (if you have a place like this and crappy pizza, they won’t come).”  He feels his training and hiring model applies to any business that requires repetitive manual labor and would love to see more pizzerias, landscaping, horticulture, quilt making, etc. Walter would love to see better housing so employees can live closer and he would like to own a van so he can arrange for more efficient transportation.  He would even love to offer paid vacations like cruises and trips to Disneyland for his employees. In closing, Walter says, “Like in the Blues Brothers movie, I am on a mission from God!”

Interviews with Employees:

Josh Raymond-Greeter (a person with disabilities): “four months here so far; found job by moving here, found this place on FB, came in one day to see if they were hiring.  Lives with my sister after move from California. 38 years old (was working doing piece work at a warehouse before—didn’t pay much, I like this job better.   I like the handing out the menus, greeting people, nice people to work with. I take the bus, door to door, which is a lot easier for me compared to city bus.  Works 3 days, 6 hours. Other hobbies/activities—Special Olympics, art class; I am not yet friends with the other workers–I am a little shy. I make boxes, do the spices, gives out menus, folds towels, and do dressing prep.   Josh has been with us over a year now and works 4 days a week with us. He is walking a mile a day with his walker to and from the pizzeria and has become a familiar face to customers. He is a valued member of our staff and his gift of kindness touches everyone he meets.  

Shelley Thomas-employee:

Student at university entering senior year—accounting and film studies (found job on university job listing).  30 hours/week. From Vegas. Most of her contact with people with disabilities is in passing. “I help them out if they need.”   (Walter adds, “This is work, a real business—the pizza maker doesn’t interact with the dishwasher unless we need dishes!”

Lessons Learned/Observations/Advice:

–Transportation is an ongoing problem-public transit problem is difficult and the ride share, ACCESS, is unreliable, often causing the client to wait for extended periods of time and arrive early or late.

—The school district should be better preparing clients for the world of work, focusing on hygiene/self-care, job readiness, flexibility to take jobs assigned without complaint, travel training (Uber, etc)

-Don’t decide (or let school district decide) for person and family what is better option and what is meaningful—must decide what is “good work’ for that person (there ae many factors to consider)

-Co-workers on the job site, including those with disabilities are often the best trainers and job coaches (“I make my employees the job coach.  Larry knows how to wash dishes. He doesn’t talk, that is fine. They pick it up fairly quickly…”)

-It is very costly and difficult to make a profit in these types of businesses.  You need to have a superior product and also recognize that workers are usually not equipped to do more than one or two jobs (whereas a neurotypical person who makes pizzas can pitch in to answer phones or go out on a delivery, a person with a disability can likely do the one job he/she is taught).

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