NJ nonprofit hires disabled workers to make tasty snacks
PISCATAWAY — There is a very successful non-profit in the Middlesex County township that was established in 2016 to create career opportunities for the disabled community.
How did Popcorn for the People start?
It is called Popcorn for the People and the idea came to founder Dr. Steven Bier when his son, Samuel, who is on the autism spectrum was only able to get a job pushing shopping carts at a local supermarket.
On a hot, summer day, Bier said Samuel went to work and forgot to put on sunscreen and he came home “burnt as a lobster.”
It was Bier’s wife, Barbie Zimmerman-Bier, a developmental pediatrician who has dedicated her life to diagnosing and treating kids with developmental disabilities, who became so upset over Samuel’s sunburn, that she told her husband to “go out and start a business for their son.”
So, he got a book about businesses for sale in the neighborhood and the very first business to appear at the top of the page was a popcorn stand for sale, Bier said.
“I thought, hey, popcorn. Everybody loves popcorn. That’s seasonal. It cuts through all socioeconomic barriers. Everybody likes it. So, we started a popcorn stand,” Bier said.
That stand then ballooned into Popcorn for the People.
What is the goal?
The goal is to create unemployment for the disabled community. Bier said there is at least a 90% unemployment rate in the autism community.
“We find these kids who are unemployed, many of them have never worked before, or maybe they have one part-time job that may be that fulfilling,” Bier said. So, Popcorn for the People is designed to create meaningful, sustainable employment for this community of people.
Bier said there are about 80 workers who are on the autism spectrum at Popcorn for the People, including his son, Samuel.
What are the jobs?
There is a job for everyone, depending on capability, starting with the popcorn bags.
Some workers who are low-functioning will simply spend their days putting flavor stickers on the bags.
Others cook the popcorn and the flavorists flavor the popcorn. Bier said everything is done by hand at this company. There is minimal automation.
For example, when the hot cookies n’ cream popcorn come out of the cooker, workers melt white chocolate, pour that chocolate over the popcorn, then put Oreos in a bag, smash the Oreos with a hammer, and spread the cookies all over the chocolate on the popcorn.
The popcorn gets bagged and shipped out to places around New Jersey and New York.
Bier said there’s another group of workers that will go with the popcorn to a Rutgers football or basketball game, where they will set up a tent, hand out samples, and engage with the crowds.
What kind of popcorn flavors does the non-profit make?
Popcorn for the People makes about 11 flavors of popcorn. Cookies n’ Cream is probably the most popular flavor, Bier said.
“We also make a dark chocolate espresso. The kids melt Belgian dark chocolate over the popcorn and they infuse Bustello espresso into it,” Bier said.
Another big seller is good old-fashioned butter. However, at this company, they use real cream. There is nothing artificial, he added.
Old-fashioned caramel corn is a fan favorite. Then there is a Chicago-baked cheddar. This is a real, thick cheese flavoring that gets baked into the popcorn.
Last year, Popcorn for the People made more than 200,000 bags of popcorn and online sales continue to be a huge hit across the country, Bier said.
100% of the money made goes right back into the company.
“We just keep hiring and hiring. We started with one worker, my son, and now we have over 80,” Bier said.
What is the exciting news for 2023?
Bier said he’s super excited to announce work has begun at Lincoln Financial Field, home of the Philadelphia Eagles football team for a popcorn factory and processing center within the stadium for Popcorn for the People
“There will be nothing like that on the entire planet,” Bier said.
Hopefully, the factory will be up and running within a few months, and those with autism who are capable of going to the stadium and working, will do so, he said.
To order popcorn or if you or someone you know with autism is looking for a job, visit here.
By working at Popcorn for the People, people with disabilities can make some money, have some responsibility, make some friends, and have a sense of belonging.
Bier said it’s all about normalcy at Popcorn for the People. It’s a regular workplace with normal complaints, normal concerns, and normal fun.
It makes Bier feel good to know that these people enjoy coming to work every day with a sense of purpose.
Otherwise, they just may be home playing video games.