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Can jobs for the jobless fuel franchises? The Human Element explores


Brian and Kimberly Grotz bought an I Heart Mac & Cheese franchise in part because of its program to employ people with disabilities.

Kimberly and Brian Grotz were first-time prospective franchisees, she with a hospital management background and he in the military. When they came upon I Heart Mac & Cheese, a Florida-based brand that began franchising in 2017, their kids, especially, loved the food. But the biggest attraction was its fledgling program called Mac Hearts You, aimed at employing people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

“We have been in the community of autism for the last 16 years,” said Kimberly, with their oldest son on the autism spectrum. “We know that it’s hard for them or anyone with disabilities in general to get a job and be able to stay in that position.”

I Heart Mac & Cheese is part of a small but growing group of franchise brands and their operators focusing all or part of their hiring efforts on people who are unemployed or underemployed, in some populations with jobless rates as high as 85 percent.

In this era of rock-bottom unemployment, it makes sense to them to tap such groups, including people with felony convictions, young adults who have never held a job, people who are deaf or people with special needs ranging from autism to Down syndrome.

The passion these employers express for their efforts is palpable, just like Kimberly Grotz’s. “This is a new day and age and everybody deserves a chance,” she said. But making such initiatives work and maximizing their impact—and avoiding potential pitfalls—takes much more than a feeling.

Diane Foos

Diane Foos, Dogtopia.

For dog daycare, boarding and grooming brand Dogtopia, the key is formalizing and measuring the efforts, said Jeri Kendle, executive director of the Dogtopia Foundation, formed as a 501(c)(3) in late 2017. But first they surveyed their stakeholders. “We went out to our franchisees and pet parents and asked them what they felt motivated them,” she said. “We gave them options, and they came back with one thing: employment for adults with autism.”

One of the foundation’s first tactics was to create a detailed employment manual, including basic information about what autism is. “We have a lot of brand new franchisees just opening up. We’ve suggested to them they should probably wait until they have everything in place for about six months before they bring someone with autism in,” she said. “People with autism, they want to follow the rules you’ve established.”

The manual also provides basic communications skills. “You have to be very specific. Many times they have trouble with verbal instructions, so write it down,” she said. Detailed checklists and visual clues, like stickers to show where certain supplies go on the shelf, can help.

She notes many times the accommodations help everyone in the workplace, not just people with autism, since clear expectations are a hallmark of any good employer.

Kendle said Dogtopia has 21 employees who have self-reported as having autism, including nine at its store in Tysons Corner, Virginia, home of a successful pilot program. The goal for 2020 is 60. Dogtopia has 125 stores open in the U.S. and Canada.

Another benefit: the mission attracts franchisees, including Diane Foos, owner and GM of Dogtopia of Rocklin, California. Formerly a special education attorney, she said Dogtopia’s foundation “was a huge factor for me. That’s kind of my heart and passion, is special needs kids and adults.”

Sometimes efforts to employ the underemployed morph beyond the original idea, like at MOD Pizza, the Seattle-based chain. Because of a general manager willing to hire convicted felons back in 2008 and ‘09, the chain began giving more employees a second chance, and recently beefed up support for those employees through a formal program. MOD also partnered with Best Buddies, a national organization, to employ people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, the type of partnership MOD co-founder Ally Svenson recommends.

At other times a commitment to a finite population limits growth. Mozzeria is a partnership between founders Melody and Russ Stein, who are deaf, and Communication Service for the Deaf, which contributed to the restaurant through its investment fund aimed at providing opportunities for deaf people.

Mozzeria’s original store, opened in San Francisco in 2011, is a destination, but plans to open a second store in Austin, Texas, as a template for franchising have not yet materialized.

As for Kimberly Grotz, whose I Heart Mac & Cheese store was set to open in Athens, Georgia, in November, she believes in the mission. “I’m not going to change the world by doing this, but I’m going to help, even if it’s two employees, three employees” with autism that she can hire, she said.  

How to hire the underemployed

#1 Address the basics. Any effort to employ the underemployed requires a champion dedicated to the team, such as John Faison, director of operations for Jackmont Hospitality’s TGI Fridays restaurants in the Northeast. In Baltimore in 2015, Jackmont was just breaking ground on a new mall-based store when riots broke out protesting police brutality. “We were able to talk to some of the young folks that were actually involved with that riot, we gave them jobs,” he said, and found “people 23 years old or 24 years old and never had a job before. They didn’t know how to read their paychecks. One said, ‘I didn’t sign up for FICA,’ why is that on the check?” he recalled, and he and other managers broke down all components of the job, from what FICA is to how to mix a cocktail.

#2 Tap resources. Dogtopia franchisee Diane Foos of California trained at the Tysons Corner, Virginia, store and helped write the brand’s employee manual. If employers have fears about this effort, “I can understand that they might be concerned, but there are a lot of programs out there to help employers to fill in the gaps,” she said, and advises reaching out to them on the local, state and national level. She cautions against making assumptions about any employees, whether on the autism spectrum or not. “They’re all different, just like we’re all different. If we can help them find what they’re comfortable doing, in my experience it sometimes works out even better than expected.”

#3 You won’t win ‘em all. One of MOD Pizza’s star employees was a young man with a felony conviction who rose in the ranks but then was fired. CEO Scott Svenson told him, “to live in integrity you have to clean up your mess,” a message he hopes will get through. Another employee “took a step up with another company,” he said. “Before MOD, he was washing dishes in prison. We cheered him on” and even helped him get the new role. A third employee is “leading our efforts to build a program to support our second-chance community,” to make sure each employee gets what’s needed to be successful. Just like with any employee group, the range of outcomes will vary widely.

The Human Element covers labor and human resources topics in each issue with a focus on solutions. Send story ideas to Laura Michaels, lmichaelsfranchisetmes.com.

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