Business & Finance

With Rutgers Ties, Local Popcorn Company Employs Adults With Autism

Where the magic happens. Making caramel corn. Credits: TAPinto East Brunswick
East Brunswick Mayor Brad Cohen joins autism supporters to cut the ribbon at Popcorn for the People. Credits: TAPinto East Brunswick
Credits: TAPinto East Brunswick

EAST BRUNSWICK, NJ - Popcorn for the People, East Brunswick's venture into "social entrepreneurship," has officially opened its new location on Hart's Lane. True to its motto, "Autism at Work," the staff was preparing dozens of bags of fresh treats to be sold at the first Rutgers University football game, making sure to have enough cookies-and-cream popcorn, which has earned them local fame.

Started by Steven Bier in 2015 at the the Brunswick Square Mall, Popcorn for the People employs adults on the autism spectrum in a structured, supportive business environment. The company has grown to become a supplier of popcorn gift tins to local businesses and a constant presence in the area, including at the Middlesex County Fair and Rutgers Athletics events. It's also easy to grab a bag or three weekly at the East Brunswick Transportation Center and the Woodbridge Mall.

"It's not just the popcorn; it's the people," East Brunswick Mayor Brad Cohen said. "The people who work here and the people whom they serve."

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Cohen joined supporters of Popcorn for the People yesterday, Aug. 30, at the opening of their new production facility. Will and Amy Schafer of Ashley furniture, who donated all office furniture to the business, were also on hand.

Martin Markowitz, senior associate dean at the Rutgers Business School, was there to support the students who have become involved in Popcorn for the People through the Enactus program.

Markowitz sees his job as "brokering relationships" between business and the university. Enactus, which is based on driving social entrepreneurship, is a growing focus at Rutgers.

"I knew that Popcorn for the People would be a good fit for our students," Markowitz said. "Social entrepreneurship focuses on businesses that perform a charitable function, provide employment and turn a profit. These businesses as not just fundraisers. They are employers in the marketplace."

Markowitz noted that the Rutgers Enactus team is currently a finalist in the competition for the Hult prize, an international group that has pledged to help 10 million people by 2015. Next month, Rutgers students will engage in the final competition for the million-dollar prize at the United Nations building. If they are successful, they will use the award to support refugees in the Middle East.

Right now, though, these students are helping to support a business that makes popcorn in East Brunswick, providing work, dignity and pay for adults with autism.

Popcorn for the People hired Rachel Cheng, a graduate student in the Rutgers Enactus group, as its first chief operating officer. She faces the challenge of moving the organization forward as a larger supplier. Cheng was not available for comment, but her colleague Connor Shah, of Edison, a major in supply-chain economics at Rutgers, said he was "excited and happy" to work at Popcorn for the People.

Rutgers University's football team plays the University of Washington tomorrow night, Sept. 1, at High Point Solutions Stadium in Piscataway. And Popcorn for the People will be there.

"We are moving on to a nationally-televised event and will be there for every game this season," Bier said.

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