From a sweet end for a first date to a treat after a youth league sports game — well, depending on the result (wink) — ice cream is beloved by all. But the shared adoration for this dairy dessert is only part of the draw of a new ice cream shop opening in Barcroft Plaza, which is also aiming to give a sense of fulfillment to its staff of adults with special needs.
With an opening slated for mid-July, at the very latest, Jake’s Ice Cream will be fully staffed by adults who live with cerebral palsy, Goldenhar syndrome, have chromosomal deletion and are on the autism spectrum, among other conditions. It’s the brainchild of optometrist Robin Rinearson, who recruited patients to be employees through the practice she’s run in Bailey’s Crossroads for nearly 45 years.
While the idea to open an ice cream shop came from her longtime financial advisor (and also a patient), she was inspired to give a boost to adults with special needs after witnessing how her nephew was laid off at the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“My nephew, Jake, who is special needs, has been working for a company for eight years. And when Covid hit this particular company, they let all 18 of their special needs adults basically go, but they didn’t shut down the rest of the business,” Rinearson said of her nephew, who is the store’s namesake. “So I’m going to create a job for Jake and other special needs adults.”
It wasn’t an easy sell for her to make to potential landlords. Rinearson’s first attempt at nabbing a spot in Shirlington started out with her jumping through hoops — such as demonstrating her ability to run a business, verifying that she could pay the lease or being asked to earn her food manager’s certificate.
She tried to reason with the landlord’s representative, saying that they would be better served by having someone occupying the vacant storefront than no one. But when she laid out that she wanted to open an ice cream shop that’s staffed by people with special needs, it all but shot down the possibility of her getting that location.
“He could not get his head wrapped around the difference between special needs adults and derelict homeless people,” Rinearson said. “There was nothing that I could say or do to convince him that there is a world of difference between those two populations.”
Despite going over his head and speaking with the vice president of the leasing company, Rinearson still hit a dead end and squandered three months of her search on it. That was when she turned her sights to Barcroft Plaza in greater Falls Church where she received a much warmer reception to her plan and a landlord willing to bring her on.
Getting the lease proved to be one challenge. Now there comes hiring contractors and architects to complete the space and getting the right permits from Fairfax County’s zoning office, among other things, before the ideal opening date of early next month. One thing that hasn’t been a challenge has been training the employees themselves, with Rinearson dedicating every other weekend to getting them acquainted with their responsibilities (and proving the Shirlington landlord wrong in the process).
The staffers will be making milkshakes, ice cream cakes, pies, waffle cones, hot cocoa bombs, and cake pops. And yes, knowing how to make all 24 flavors of ice cream (including four vegan ones) is part of their job, which includes some classics as well as a house specialty with a vanilla base along with pralines and a maple swirl that Rinearson is trying to perfect.
Being a part of the community is also important to the ice cream shop owner. If a delivery is late and the shop needs something, she’ll send them over to the nearby Harris Teeter with a grocery list to check off. Their customized aprons have to be dry cleaned, so they’ll have to learn to go down to the Zips dry cleaning in the plaza and drop it off.
Rinearson also plans on having the staff visit the police substation located in the Mason District Governmental Center to make connections with law enforcement (and give away some free ice cream coupons as well).
She is getting help from job coaches provided by the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board, but she makes sure there’s no drop in professionalism given her employees’ developmental hurdles.
For instance, she has her neighbors put in orders during her at-home training sessions so the staff can get used to meeting the demands of customers. Those who still need to work on their skills are given Play-Doh to practice on at home so they know how to roll the cake in ball form. Even employees who have perceivably unworkable disabilities, such as one who’s missing part of his hand, are given tasks such as cleaning and labeling that they can efficiently do.
The effect that it’s having on the employees, as well as their family members who a good chunk often live with, is tremendous.
“[His mother] looked at me and goes, ‘I’ve never talked with anybody that was encouraging. Most people look at him and say “No,”’” Rinearson said, relaying the conversation she had with the parent of the employee who only has one good hand. She then swung back to speaking from her perspective. “He’s a sweet kid, he’ll fit in fine. We’re going to give him a shot at it.”
Rinearson expects to make plenty of mistakes, or “paying tuition” as she put it, during this venture. She emphasized that it’s not about producing a profit, but about having fun — which was her selling point to the store’s manager who has two decades of experience in the service industry (and, you guessed it, is a patient as well).
On each job application, Rinearson asked the applicants why they wanted to work for Jake’s. To a “T,” (and without any coordination) they said they wanted to because “Ice cream makes people happy.” By giving them an opportunity no one else would, Rinearson will soon realize that she’s the one making them happy.