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Food Company Champions Employment of Those on the Autism Spectrum

Writer / Shay McCoy
Photographer / Amy Payne

No LabelSupporting local businesses is incredibly important, especially right now during the time of COVID-19. Small business owners have found savvy ways to adapt and pivot despite regulations that hinder operations. No Label at the Table Food Company, located in the heart of the Carmel Arts and Design District, has found ways to adapt and provide its workforce with opportunities that are difficult to find for people with autism.

In 2000 Shelly Henley and her son, Jacob Wittman, discovered they needed to make changes to his diet after Wittman was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. Wittman, who is now 25, found it difficult to source gluten-free and dairy-free foods, so the family started whipping up their own recipes at home. Wittman expressed to Henley that he would like to be a cook someday.

“After a trip to Disney and seeing the restaurant chefs in their professional white coats, it just clicked,” Henley says.

He was inspired to dive into cooking full-force, create more recipes and refine his excellent palate. The family created four kinds of cookies to take to the Carmel Farmers Market, and things took off from there.

Thanks to Wittman’s expertise and Henley’s desire for her son to have a future, No Label at the Table began in 2017, with a storefront opening one year later. The small family business employs 20 people who are on the autism spectrum – an opportunity that means a lot considering that two-thirds of high schoolers on the spectrum have no plans after graduating to transition into higher education or the workforce. Underemployment and unemployment are high, and the small amount of opportunities presented to those on the spectrum lack accommodations needed in order to build their skills. No Label at the Table provides these employees with a place where everyone is accepted for who they are, and an environment to explore their skills in a safe space.

As cooking and baking are process-driven experiences with a tangible product at the end, they can work well for a person with autism. People on the autism spectrum are either hyposensitive or hypersensitive, and No Label at the Table leaders see autism as a superpower rather than an obstacle. People of every ability are employed at the company, and Henley has set up a curriculum to build upon their skills and expand their knowledge base, from preparing soups to decorating cupcakes. Some work around an hour and a half during the week while others work full time, and they are living a life of dignity.

These opportunities give relief to families of the employees as well.

“No longer do siblings have to make sure they’re responsible for taking care of their brother or sister, and parents don’t have to worry about their children lacking in their lives, and they know they are doing something that helps them live a life of dignity,” Henley says.

No LabelThe menu changes daily and is based on a number of factors. The plan generally depends on the skill levels of the employees working on a particular day, and how easy it is to source ingredients for the recipes. Wittman develops recipes by going to the local public library and checking out cookbooks, perusing them to see what could add some variety and change to the menu. No Label at the Table will soon add even more soups and meal kits to their menu, as well as vegan-friendly cheeses.

COVID-19 has dramatically changed operations at the company. There was a large concern for the employees generally; for those on the autism spectrum a structured routine is essential, and for many, shutdowns made things harder and took away all-important socialization opportunities.

Many of the employees are also immunocompromised, so reopening in a safe way was crucial, not only for customers, but also for those working in the space. Sourcing ingredients also became a bit of a challenge, so the menu reflects what staff members can get their hands on. The storefront has opened back up and the company has expanded into curbside pickup.

All of this has allowed No Label at the Table to pivot and adapt to the times and the needs of their customers. A lot of business prior to the pandemic was focused on wholesale, so pivoting their work to provide the community around them with more options was vital. They no longer make large batches of items like loaves of bread, because many people are working from home and not taking their lunches into an office. They’ve started to provide options like prepared meals and soups that are easy to pick up and take home. The amount of available products has increased, and the average price per item has gone down, giving customers an incentive to try out dairy-free, gluten-free and allergen-friendly items.

No LabelThe No Label at the Table staff hopes to set an example for other small businesses regarding the benefits and advantages of hiring neurodivergent employees. They see autism as their best strength, and the food is a testament to their hard work and dedication to their craft. They pride themselves on offering food options that used to be hard to come by, allowing people who are dairy free, gluten free, or have other food allergies to eat in abundance and enjoy foods they’ve been missing. The support of the community has been important, with local doctors’ offices and other small businesses purchasing products to give to their employees and spread the word.

This month the No Label at the Table staff will celebrate the third anniversary of their storefront opening, and their mission is as strong as ever – to provide a professional environment for people with autism, who then provide the community with allergen-friendly and tasty foods. Food will always be the focus, and they hope to come out of COVID-19 stronger, with a collective eye towards expand the storefront and product line. They’ll also be working with doctors to establish more plant-based meal plans.

No Label at the Table offers curbside pickup as well as delivery on Thursdays through MarketWagon.com. You can also find their products at Roasted in the Village in Zionsville, and Foundry Provisions in Indianapolis.

No Label at the Table is located at 111 West Main Street, Suite 145 in Carmel. You can reach them via email at contactus@nolabelatthetable.com, and visit their website at nolabelatthetable.com for more information.

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