All day long, the sound of popping kernels fills the Piscataway, NJ facility.
One employee fills a machine with ingredients. Another scoops popcorn into a bag, sealing it shut to keep it fresh.
About 50 employees — some on the autism spectrum or with developmental disabilities — come together each day at the Popcorn for the People facility to make gourmet popcorn, which is then sold at Rutgers sporting events, corporate parties and online. Flavors have included butter, cookies n’ cream, Chicago baked cheddar cheese, French toast, caramel apple, Buffalo, salt & vinegar and dark chocolate espresso.
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Popcorn For The People, a nonprofit organization, has changed a bit since it started in 2014 as a pop-up vendor in the Freehold Mall. It has moved to different locations, including one in East Brunswick, and most recently to a facility in Piscataway. It has gone from one employee to about 50.
Although there have been changes, the nonprofit’s mission remains the same, according to Popcorn for the People Co-founder Steven Bier, which is to provide a quality product and jobs for adults on the autism spectrum in an economy that he says lacks employment for these individuals.
“When you order a tin, you get a card and it’s signed by the young man or woman who made the popcorn, so it makes for a very powerful gift,” said Bier. “A lot of small businesses use us for their holiday gifts and for events.”
Steven Bier's son Samuel, 28, is on the autism spectrum and also helped establish Popcorn for the People.
“There’s an 80 to 90 percent unemployment rate in the autistic community,” Steven Bier said. “We wanted a self-sustaining business, something that will be here for many years and hopefully ship mass orders.”
Data from the U.S. Department of Labor website, although not specific to adults on the autism spectrum, shows that about 80 percent of people with a disability were not in the labor force in 2017. The data also shows that the unemployment rate for people with a disability is more than double the unemployment rate for people without a disability. About half of individuals with a disability are age 65 or older, according to the data.
Samuel Bier said that at Popcorn for the People, making great popcorn will keep the customers coming back.
“Our plan is to grow using the quality. We’re not going to over-expand and we want to keep the quality as good as possible,” he said.
So what’s with all the unique flavors?
The flavors are created by Agnes Cushing-Ruby, who works at the facility and has a daughter with a developmental disability. Cushing-Ruby comes from a culinary and medical research background.
“Agnes is our little mad scientist who came up with the flavors. It was such a hit,” Steven Bier said.
Some of the popular flavors are cookies n’ cream, which is made with Oreo cookies, and dark chocolate espresso, which is made with Belgian dark chocolate and espresso. French toast is Samuel Bier’s favorite.
Savory options include white cheddar, salt & vinegar and Buffalo.
Where can I buy Popcorn for the People?
You can order Popcorn For the People on Amazon or the Popcorn for the People website, www.popcornforthepeople.com.
In addition to Rutgers sporting events, the popcorn is also sold at the Lyric Theater in New York City and at the Molly Pitcher rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike. The popcorn has also been sold at corporate events with large companies and small businesses and at community fairs such as the Middlesex County and Monmouth County fairs.
Looking for more information on hosting a fundraiser with Popcorn for the People? Interested in working for Popcorn for the People?
Contact Popcorn for the People at 201-621-2245 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit their website at www.popcornforthepeople.com.
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