Popcorn for The People

Address: 140 Ethel Rd W suite m, Piscataway, NJ 08854
Phone: (732) 287-0158
Co-Founder: Steven Bier

“Popcorn for the People is a nonprofit established to create meaningful employment for those with Autism and other disabilities. We aim to combat the current 80% unemployment rate in the autism community with the training and hiring of adults with Autism to create, cook, package, and sell uniquely flavored gourmet popcorn.”

From the Website:

It all started with Samuel Bier. Samuel is a high functioning 24-year-old with autism. He wants to travel, have fun, and work just like everybody else—we ask ourselves: where can a bright, energetic young man that simply views the world slightly different find work, fulfillment, and happiness? Just when we thought the options were limiting, we spotted a popcorn store in East Brunswick available for sale and this ignited the spark that started it all. We decided to combine America’s favorite snack with Samuel’s passion and unique worldview to create a popcorn with a purpose. We invited other individuals, like Agnes, a star chef and mother of a child with autism, to join our team. While Agnes experimented with new flavors, Sam cooked the popcorn. Before we knew it, we gained an overwhelmingly positive response and began a movement, inviting more individuals to feel empowered, take bigger risks, and embrace accountability.

When fulfilled and empowered, individuals become more responsible, thrive creatively, take on bigger risks, and are able to embrace accountability. Popcorn for the People employs those who wish to challenge themselves, overcome obstacles, and strive to be their very best.

We ensure that our gourmet popcorn is popped to perfection using only the finest NON-GMO Kernels, NON-GMO Sunflower Oil, and ALL-NATURAL ingredients to deliver and maintain only the highest quality. Certified by GoKosher, listed in Kashrus Magazine, our popcorn is 100% KOSHER and HAND-CRAFTED by our gourmet popcorn experts on the Autism Spectrum. All flavors (excluding Cookies n’ Cream) are GLUTEN-FREE. Our product is NSF certified and manufactured in a NUT-FREE facility (we do use coconut) in Piscataway, New Jersey.

The Visit:

I discovered Popcorn for the People in the most unique and wonderful way: I stopped at a rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike while traveling with my family from New York to Philadelphia. My family had gone in to the rest stop while I watched the packed the car. When they returned, they urged me to “grab your camera and pad and go in!” When I entered, I was immediately greeted by people sitting or standing at a table, all wearing shirts which either said “Popcorn for the People” or “Autism at Work.” Friendly workers were offering small cup samples of several flavors of caramelized popcorn. The rest stop store featured a display of bags of several flavors of caramelized popcorn for sale. This was my first “taste” of the product, the company and the wonderful workers. I made a note to reach out to “Popcorn for the People” and arrange a visit later in the Summer of 2019.

On July 31, I drove to the company’s headquarters in an industrial area of Piscataway, New Jersey, not far from Rutgers University. There are several companies in the same complex, all sharing a parking area. I entered the building and sat in a small waiting area, admiring displays of various products, photos of happy workers, and articles about the company. I then met with co-founder, Steven Bier, who shared the background to the company.

Bier explained that his son, Samuel (now 28), who is on the autism spectrum, had consistently been assigned to jobs which were not appropriate for him. In considering more appropriate employment options for Samuel, the family purchased a popcorn vendor booth in the Freehold Mall and then relocated to a different location as a store in East Brunswick, New Jersey. Bier then met Rachel Cheng, at the time a Rutgers student studying non-profit consulting. Rachel, who currently serves as COO, helped develop Popcorn for the People.

The company, which is a nonprofit which Bier reports is “run like a real business,” started with a 4,000 square foot space and were producing 200 bags of flavored popcorn per week. Last year, the company produced 350 bags/week and currently producing 3,500 bags/week. They proudly train and employ people with a range of disabilities including people with cerebral palsy, people who are blind, and people on the autism spectrum.

Bier and Cheng have found that it is useful to offer a wide range of shifts, noting that “a 40-hour work week doesn’t work” for most participants. The “employment” link on the company website (https://www.popcornforthepeople.com/pages/employment) indicates that there are five 3-hour shifts. In addition, the site indicates: “We have different jobs including sales person at events, popcorn cooker, bagging popcorn and labeling bags.” It further notes: “In order to decide which job would best suits you, please answer the following: ability to make change, put labels on bags, comfort level selling products at a booth at events.” The company proudly goes out of its way to create a job, even when it might be done more quickly by technology or automation (labeling/placing a sticker on a bag of popcorn is one example).

On the tour, we viewed the kitchen were the popcorn is popped and caramelized, and where various flavorings are added. There are currently 48 people with disabilities and 16 without disabilities working for the company. Customers can purchase products online, at several rest stops along the New Jersey Turnpike, and at various sporting and theater events (soon, it will be possible to purchase popcorn at Newark International Airport).

Lessons Learned/Challenges/Advice:

  • In producing food, there are many regulations and health codes which require careful compliance.
  • It is important to offer a range of jobs since each employee has different interests and skill sets.
  • Minimum wage is double edged sort—while it sounds wonderful and beneficial for employees, it can also make it nearly impossible for employers to cover costs—it is possible to cover production and other costs while paying employees $10/hour, but not $15/hour.
  • The most cost effective way of doing business may lead to eliminating certain jobs. Where possible, company had opted to create more jobs by not always moving toward automation. It would be cheaper in the long run to purchase a labeler, but having a person manually applying labels means a person has a job.
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