Walk into Howdy Homemade on Lovers Lane, and you’ll immediately be greeted by a friendly employee with special needs who is ready to let you try as many ice cream samples as you’d like. The ice cream shop’s founder, Tom Landis, is providing much more than employment—he is giving people who may be overlooked or underestimated a platform to be seen and heard and, above all, an opportunity to succeed. But he’s adamant that what he’s doing is not charity; it’s just smart business with a pretty sweet mission. We stopped by to sample a few flavors and talk with Landis about his hopes for the special needs community in Dallas and beyond.
What inspired you to create Howdy Homemade? Where did it all begin?
One of my heroes is Coach Gene Stallings, a legendary football coach [at] Texas A&M, also with the Dallas Cowboys. He wrote a book called Another Season about his son Johnny [who had Down syndrome], and it was just such a truthful book, transparent about all their ups and downs. The thing that jumped out to me the most about it was them worrying about what would happen to Johnny after they pass away. … My goal is to be able to look [parents] in the eye and say, “You know what, I got this. You don’t have to worry anymore, because your son, your daughter, your grandchild is going to be independent.” It’s dreams they never, ever thought of.
I imagine the reaction from the parents of your employees has just been incredible. What has their response been like?
I wasn’t prepared for the amount of happy tears. For example, one of the moms calls me up and says, “I just got to tell you this. My best friend from college called and said, ‘Let’s do lunch Saturday, [you and your son], let’s the three of us go.’ I was like, ‘Hold on, let me look at my schedule.’” She looks at her schedule and says, “I can’t—Coleman’s working.” They both start crying because the last thing they ever thought was [their] plans [being] interrupted because her child has a job.
What do you hope your “people first” message inspires here in the Dallas community?
More acceptance and inclusion. I have nothing in common with, I’d say, 99 percent of the restaurant owners that are complaining that they can’t find good help. I don’t have anything to say to them anymore, and I’m frustrated that they are not hiring people with special needs. This isn’t about goosebumps or fist pumps or “feel good”; this is about sales bumps. If you want to hire someone with special needs for feel good, I’ve got zero interest in that—that’s a handout. We’re about a hand up. We see so much potential in our people. I’d like to see other business do that because it makes good business sense.
What skills and values have your employees learned through working here?
I don’t know if they’ve learned a lot. They’ve taught me—patience. Because you know what, if we’re honest on some levels, are you going to take a great sense of pride in filling a cup of water today? I don’t know. Is my crew going to take a great sense of pride in scooping that ice cream and making it as big as possible? They are. If anything, I think that all they’ve learned here is that the world says they can’t, and we’re saying they can—go do it.
We’re giving them that opportunity to do that. When you’re behind the counter, it’s interesting to observe people. Guy comes in the restaurant with all the money in the world, but he hasn’t worked, maybe never worked. He does not walk or hold his shoulders the same way the guy that is making minimum wage comes in who’s just put in a hard day’s work. That guy [has] his shoulders up; he might be tired, he might be aching, but he knows, Man, I’ve worked today.
How can the community help you achieve your mission of getting these young kids out there?
We get a lot of opportunities to talk to leaders, whether they own a business or if they’re overseeing other people. We always ask them, “[What is your] employees’ least favorite part of their job?” The common denominator is always repetition. People with special needs love to do the same thing over and over again. It’s fascinating. What does every restaurant want from highest end to lowest? They want culinary consistency. People with special needs are perfect for that. My hope is people just steal the idea—that’s the whole mission. It’s not to sell ice cream; it’s to realize potential and restore hope that has been missing.