Howdy Homemade in Salt Lake City employs individuals with special needs

Howdy Homemade opens in Salt Lake City, churning up the workplace and employing individuals with special needs.

Story and gallery by JASMYNE REYNOLDS

Zach Morris, an employee at Howdy Homemade, said that to him, Howdy represents family. Morris said he was on vacation when he received a call from Will Nielson, a longtime friend, asking if he wanted to work at an ice cream shop.

“I fell in love with the place,” he said.

Will, co-manager of the Salt Lake City shop located at 2670 S. 2000 East, said his younger brother Jack Nielson was struggling to be placed in a job after he graduated out of the public-school system. Will said that for someone like Jack to get a job, it can take up to two years.

This is because Jack, like Morris and each one of Howdy’s hard workers, has some kind of special need.

Heidi Nielson, Jack’s mother, said her son had few options.

“We didn’t know where he was going to go,” she said. That’s when she and her husband, Chris Nielson, learned about an ice cream store that employs individuals with special needs, called Howdy Homemade. The Nielson family flew to visit the original store in Dallas, and just like employee Morris, they fell in love.

“When we first went into the store, I was amazed,” Heidi said. “You went in with the knowledge that there were special-needs employees, but when you walked out you had completely forgotten.”

After talking with founder Tom Landis, the family decided to bring the model home with them to Salt Lake, where the opened a Howdy Homemade of their own.

On opening night, Sept. 2, 2017, the line of customers trailed out the door.

“One thing we did not expect was the community coming together like they have,” Heidi said. “Families come and sit for hours.” Heidi feels as though the customers have taken Howdy on as “their ice cream store,” and said it has become a relationship-building place.

With 24 unique flavors and a warm “Howdy!” welcome every time you walk in, it’s easy to see why employee Morris says the best part of his job isn’t even his favorite Dr Pepper Chocolate Chip flavor. Instead, it’s “being around a happy place, and being away from the outside world.”

That world often places individuals with special needs behind the scenes of workplaces, such as in the back of the store where no one sees them. “We just want the public to know how awesome they are,” said co-manager Courtney Kirk. “They don’t have any setbacks. If anything, they’re amazing at certain things and that’s what makes them such good employees.”

Will says he’s seen firsthand that workers with special needs are capable much more than perceived. “A lot of times people think, OK what are the limitations or liabilities associated with that disability, and we need to change our way of thinking,” he said. “When I hear autism now, I think they have great retention skills, they’re hard workers, and they love showing up for things.” Will says Howdy’s employees with Down syndrome are the most fun loving, caring people he’s ever been around.

“People with special needs, they don’t have disabilities, they have capabilities,” Kirk said.

Patrick Cronin, another employee at Howdy, said the favorite part of his job is that “everyone is nice.”

Kirk said she has seen the employees grow from when they were first hired, due to the response from the customers. “The community has been awesome in just coming in and really talking to them when they are being served,” she said. “Their social skills are improving from people interacting with them, and it’s only been a few months.”

Will has also noticed a change in his employees since Howdy Homemade opened. “They feel a lot more fulfilled,” he said.

Most have told him that if they weren’t there scooping ice cream, they would probably be sitting at home doing nothing. “This place has given them a purpose, something to look forward to,” Will said. “They wake up and they know that they’re going to be interacting with people.”

As founder Landis said, “You’ll come for the ice cream, but you’ll stay for the people.” 

Carssen Damon, a University of Utah student who is a customer, said, “I don’t even like ice cream, I just love the employees.”

With big smiles on their faces, Morris, Cronin and the rest of Howdy’s heros offer generous-sized samples and a little piece of change in our community and in the hearts of every person who walks through the door.

“Whether it’s someone with special needs or just someone out on the street, you never know what that person is struggling with, and we just have to be patient with each other,” Will said. “There’s power, and there’s a lot of magic that comes from inclusiveness.”