Dan Hackett has a sweet job at SpectroDolce Confectionery.
He loves the role so much, he spends two hours on public transit to get to the Monroeville shop from his home in Castle Shannon.
“I look forward to coming to work every day,” the 32-year-old says. “Prior to this, the landscape was bleak. There’s not a lot of opportunities for people on the autism spectrum to finding meaningful employment. The jobs that you can find are — I don’t want to say demeaning — but they’re lower-level than what people on the spectrum are capable of.”
All of SpectroDolce’s six employees fall on the autism spectrum.
The business, which opened Oct. 4, operates as a part of Progress City’s Autism Employment Network. It sells gourmet fudge, chocolate-covered pretzels, truffles, Belgian Liege waffles, hand-dipped Perry’s Ice Cream and milkshakes. Customers get a sugar rush; staff members get a sense of pride.
Founder and CEO Bryan Kiger established Progress City in 2018 because he saw autistic adults falling through the cracks. He teamed up with Brian Kluchurosky of Youth Advocate Programs to address the problem.
Kluchurosky, who now serves as Progress City’s executive vice president, directed a film called “The Rain Man Effect.” The documentary explores how the 1988 film, “Rain Man,” which stars Dustin Hoffman as a person with autism, branded the disorder through stigmas, generalizations and stereotypes, making it hard for folks on the spectrum to find jobs.
There is an 85 percent unemployment rate among college-educated autistic adults.
“For adults with autism, they hit age 21 and services and supports dry up,” Kluchurosky says. “A lot of hope diminishes. Parents think, ‘What’s going to happen to my kid when I’m not around?’”
Progress City aims to educate employers about autism and match them with skilled individuals. Sometimes, the biggest hurdle to getting hired is the interview process, which can be disorienting for people with autism, even if they are overqualified for the position.
“It’s like you’re playing checkers within someone across the table from you and they’re playing chess,” Hackett says. “A lot of people on the spectrum live in the moment; there’s no real planning ahead. When someone asks, ‘Where do you see yourself in five years?’ it’s difficult to put into words when you have no idea what you’ll be doing five minutes from now.”
“We ran into a real challenge, which is the bottleneck around resources and people,” the company’s CEO CJ Handron says. “Through the Autism Employment Network, Diamond Kinetics hired a team of adults with autism to work on a project in the end stages of manufacturing its products. We were incredibly impressed with the attention to detail.”
SpectroDolce is a training ground where adults 21 and over can get real-life work experience. The store opened in 2017 as the retail location for Park Street Treats, a Penn Hills-based candy manufacturer. Owner Bill Dapper wanted to focus more on factory operations, so he began searching for someone to take over the shop at 3926 William Penn Highway.
Kiger, who had originally intended to start a food truck, approached Dapper with his idea in September. Progress City took the reins of the retail space in October, which is National Disability Employment Awareness Month.
SpectroDolce employees earn $10 an hour and learn everything from sales and marketing to food preparation.
“This is not a charity,” Kiger says. “We’re a for-profit business. This is a real job where they get critical feedback and respond to it.”
There is always a ServSafe-certified employee on hand at the workplace. Right now that’s Kiger or Kluchurosky, but efforts are being made to get other staff members enrolled in the online courses. Employees and their families also are connected to a benefits counselor, who will help them navigate Medicaid services and funding.
Hackett started out working one shift a week. Now he wants to be there every day.
He hopes to become manager of the Monroeville spot and, eventually, run his own SpectroDolce Confectionery. Kiger and Kluchurosky plan to hire more people and open more locations in the near future. In the meantime, they’re perfecting this prototype location by experimenting with different menu items, including cookies, pastries and gluten-free treats.
SpectroDolce is holding a grand opening celebration on Nov. 1 at 2 p.m. During the holiday season, the store will host a sensory-friendly Breakfast with Santa. Their online store launches next week and customers can soon enroll in a Fudge of the Month Club. Current hours are 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
More than anything, Kiger and Kluchurosky are aiming to create a safe and positive gathering place — not just for people with autism, but for the community as a whole.