Ice-cream store with special-needs employees overcomes pandemic’s business obstacles
Photo: Howdy Homemade founder Tom Landis, right, along with his vice president, Coleman Jones, outside the Howdy ice cream truck. (Courtesy of Howdy Homemade)
By Jake Lourim Oct. 29, 2020
Tom Landis was 46 when he gave all he had to open a business he felt called to run. On Dec. 26, 2015, the ice cream store Howdy Homemade opened in Dallas, employing mostly people with special needs, from servers to cashiers to managers. “Howdy,” as Landis calls it, thrived as locals praised the store’s mission and liked the ice cream, too.
And then the consequences of the novel coronavirus pandemic almost wiped out Landis’s creation.
The store began operating at a loss in March, when stay-at-home orders decimated sales, and it continued that way through the hot summer. By September, Howdy faced the possibility of closure, so Landis closed the original location and moved to a nearby, cheaper spot.
On Sept. 1, a supporter named Jaxie Alt set up a GoFundMe page to save the shop. Within six weeks, the page raised $100,000 and kept Howdy in business. As a bonus, Landis acquired a truck so that Howdy could serve ice cream more safely.
The store is now open again and appears poised to become a national operation. Potential franchisers have popped up in Asheville, N.C., El Paso and Las Cruces, N.M. Landis and his vice president, Coleman Jones, who has Down syndrome, took a road trip last week for meetings in San Antonio about putting Howdy ice cream in the massive H-E-B grocery chain and in Austin about opening a Howdy store on campus at the University of Texas, Landis’s alma mater.
Landis grew up in Bethesda, Md., with a mother who battled polio. He attended Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School and had a part-time job delivering The Washington Post in the mornings. He now has two children, neither of whom has special needs; he said he felt moved to serve the special-needs community in part because of his ailing mother, in part because of inspiration from a former football coach and in part because of a calling from God.
Landis spoke admirably about the work of former Alabama coach Gene Stallings, who had a son with Down syndrome and became a vocal advocate for those with special needs. Howdy Homemade, according to its website, “is a tribute to Gene Stallings, Bear Bryant, and every underdog out there.”
“When you have someone with special needs, it takes a little bit longer to train them, but when you train them up, they’re fired up, and they put smiles on customers’ faces,” Landis said. “There are days I walk into the restaurant and the employees are in better moods and are happier to be there than me. They’re more proud of Howdy than I am.”
Landis’s store became one of Texas’s top employers of special-needs workers, and his hope was that Howdy’s success would change the way companies thought about hiring people with special needs. But when the pandemic sparked an unemployment crisis, Landis saw his cause pushed to the back of the line.
“Before covid, a lot of people were so excited about what I was doing,” Landis said. “After covid, they’re kind of looking at me — they know me well, they’re pulling me aside — and whispering in my ear, ‘Come on, man, there’s a lot of other things to focus on and a lot of other people.’ ”
Landis was undeterred. He remains proud of five years in business with zero employee turnover and knows his employees with Down syndrome and autism have a place in the economy, in any industry.
“It doesn’t matter what your paygrade is — up and down, the worst part of our job is doing anything with repetition,” Landis said. “We don’t want to do the same thing over and over and over and over again. And then God designs people with special needs, and they actually thrive on it.”
In 2015, soon before Howdy opened, Jones met Landis at a banquet for the football team at Highland Park High School in Dallas, where Jones was a senior at the time. Landis told Jones about possible hiring opportunities, and the next day Jones called Landis to follow up. Jones, now 24, started as a bus boy at one of Landis’s Texadelphia restaurants and said he “started at the bottom and worked up to the top” — he’s now the vice president of Howdy Homemade.
Landis cherishes stories like Jones’s. It’s why he told a local newspaper in 2015 that to start this business, he sold his Texadelphia restaurants and went “all-in.” Five years later, his ambition is to see two Howdy franchises in every state.
“We really think it’s heading in that direction,” Landis said. “We think the writing is on the wall on that one.”