Her Son With Autism Wanted To Be A Chef, So They Created A Bakery Called 'No Label At The Table'

No Label at the Table specializes in dairy-free, gluten-free food and only employs adults with autism.

When Jacob Wittman, who has autism, turned 18, he thought about his transition into adulthood. He told his mom, Shelly Henley, he wanted to be a chef in a restaurant. 

"I giggled and told him, 'No, you like to eat at restaurants.' Then I realized, no, of course, he'd want to cook," Shelly told A Plus. "He started a gluten and casien free-diet when he was a toddler. Eighteen years ago, no one knew what gluten-free was, so I pulled him up on the kitchen island and we baked. Baking and cooking are process driven. You follow the steps and, in the end, you get a yummy reward. It's very satisfying work for him." 

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But for someone like Jacob, who is nonverbal, getting a job as a chef would be very difficult, as his mother says he'd likely be relegated to a dishwasher. Finding employment is something people with autism spectrum disorder often struggle with as nearly 70 percent of them are unemployed even though many are willing and able to work, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

But Shelly realized there was something she could do to make his dream come true. So, together they started No Label at the Table, a bakery that specializes in dairy-free, gluten-free food and only employs adults with autism. They sell their baked goods at local farmer's markets. And, while it's only been a few months, the business has been growing much more quickly than they thought. 

"My initial goal was for the team to just get baked goods on the table at one market," Shelly said. "Then soon, we were supporting three markets. We then added online ordering for special occasions and delivery to the markets. Recently, we partnered with an online farmers market that delivers our goods to people's door steps across Indiana. Our next goal is to open our own kitchen with a retail front. We will begin shipping online nationwide and take on wholesale customers." 

Courtesy of Shelly Henley

The experience has been incredibly positive for Jacob. "I've been watching my son transform into the man he was meant to be," Shelly said. "In the last three months, my son has matured in ways I never expected or imagined." 

For example, Jacob, like many other people with autism, has rigid and ritualistic behavior. For more than seven years, he's spent every morning following the exact same steps to get ready for the day. 

"There was a script. We'd say the same thing every morning," Henley explained. "If the steps were interrupted, he had to start again." 

However, six weeks into No Label for the Table and Jacob was able to get dressed without the script. This was something his parents never thought he'd be able to live without. But since that first day without it, he hasn't needed it again. Jacob now wakes up with purpose, excited to take on the day. He ready to go hours before he needs to be at the kitchen.

Courtesy of Shelly Henley

"The other thing that's happened, which chokes both my husband and I up, is that up until we started No Label at the Table, my son lived a life of almost total social isolation," Shelly said. "He spent most of his days with me. He hung out with his brother and dad on the weekends. If he wasn't with us, we were paying someone to be with him. We even thought about hiring someone to be a friend." 

But things have changed things to the bakery business. 

"A reporter asked him this week, 'What do you want people to know about No Label at the Table?' I held my breath, because I didn't know what was going to come out. He said, 'I bake everything with my friends.' Friends. He has friends." 

Courtesy of Shelly Henley

The other employees with autism have also greatly benefited from working at No Label at the Table. Patty Reed, whose daughter Jessica is employed at the bakery, has found that the opportunity has improved her life both socially and financially. 

"For Jessica, working at No Label At The Table has been life-changing," Patty told A Plus. "No Label At The Table is giving her the opportunity to learn a skill that she can use in every day life or in a future job. This job has also had a positive impact in other areas of her life. She has started a savings account and goes to the bank to deposit her own check and is planning on how to spend that check. The job has also had positive effect in her socially. Being around peers has given her the opportunity to make friends and for the first time, she independently exchanged phone numbers with a peer and made plans to go see a movie together. Everywhere we go in our community, Jessica is recognized and praised for her work at No Label At the Table. We are grateful for the opportunity and proud of all the employees for their hard work." 

Courtesy of Shelly Henley

No Label at the Table joins other family-run businesses, such as Bitty & BeauRising Tide Car Wash, and Finley's Bakery, which aim to give people with intellectual disabilities employment opportunities. These business help to raise awareness about the issues differently-abled people face in the workforce while also proving that they can and want to work. 

"I hope that No Label would be a beacon or inspiration for other entrepreneurs and business to start providing opportunities to people with autism," Shelly said. 

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