EAST BRUNSWICK, NJ - Sam Bier was tired of being the "cart guy" at the Shop-Rite. He was glad for the opportunity to work, and he worked hard. It was very hot some days, and very cold other days.
He worked in East Brunswick, Ewing and Clark from 2009 to 2015. He worked all the time, yet it was time to find a new job. His dad thought so, too: "Some companies mean well, but they are limited in what they can offer."
Last year, East Brunswick's Dr. Steven Bier purchased a pre-established popcorn store at the Freehold Raceway Mall so that Sam, and other young people like him, could work inside and do what they do best--interact with people, enjoy their work, and feel proud of their accomplishments.
Steve and his wife, "rock star" developmental pediatrician and Rutgers professor Dr. Barbie Zimmerman Bier, an expert in the study of Autism, told their son, "You may not want to work, but you have to." They were interested in Sam's having some structure in his life and a sense of purpose in living.
Having lost their lease on the Freehold location, the Biers settled in a new location at the Brunswick Square Mall, in the store that was formerly Subway. They were supported by Mayor David Stahl, who told them that "we definitely want you to come" to East Brunswick and who has worked with them extensively to get established at the mall.
As a result, the Biers have opened the Pop-In Cafe, a non-profit popcorn, bagel, and sandwich store run primarily by young adults on the autism spectrum. These are intelligent workers who were bored with the repetitive and mundane tasks relegated to them in their former positions. Like anyone else, they want to be interested in their jobs.
The Pop-In Cafe serves bagels and coffee in the morning (mainly to mall employees) and oversized sandwiches at lunch. The star of the show, though, is the popcorn which comes in varieties ranging from jalapeno to chocolate. "These guys are the best workers," Dr. Bier said. "It is the central aspect of their lives. They get experience in many tasks from simple ones to complex ones."
Dr. Bier noted, "Unemployment of the autistic community is close to 90 percent. Higher-functioning people on the spectrum have even more difficulty." Bier suggested that higher-functioning disabled people become bored more easily and feel the repetitous work and isolated conditions more keenly. He was delighted that one young man worked the cash register at the Pop-In Cafe and said, "I want to work here forever!" Bier said, "We make popcorn for the people!"
The Biers are not going it on their own. They have received support not only from Mayor Stahl and East Brunswick Chief Financial Officer Louis Nealy (who are currently encouraging them to open a branch at the East Brunswick Transporation Center to sell popcorn once a week) but also from local Boar's Head distributor John Palermo, who gives them a discount on the foods they use to make sandwiches for the Cafe's growing lunch crowd. Bier added, "We make a dozen New York-style sandwiches with quality meats for a great price. What's not to love?" Their new sign was donated by Visual Graphic Systems of Carlstadt, NJ and President Milton DiPietro.
Volunteers help make the Pop-In Cafe work, too. Agnes Cushing Ruby volunteers in support of her daughter, an employee of the store. She is instrumental in developing the flavors, selecting the flavors that people want most, and slow-roasting them onto the corn. All flavors are natural and made by hand. Family friend Paul Campanaro is using his retirement to oversee operations.
East Brunswick High School will get involved, too. Dr. Zimmerman-Bier had "an extensive conversation" with Sharon Weber-Oleszkiewicz, of the EBHS Special Education Department about student work placements.
The new non-profit business is proud to be one of many "non-chain" eateries in East Brunswick. The Pop-In Cafe is the first business of its type in town. Says Dr. Bier, "Eat well. Do good."
*The Pop-In Cafe is currently offering a 25% discount to customers who mention TAP into East Brunswick when ordering. Enjoy!