019 – Diversifying Impact – A Followup Conversation with The Chocolate Spectrum

Welcome to the Autism Advantage podcast! I’m your host, Tom D’Eri. Throughout the first seven episodes of season 2, we chronicled the process of opening a second location of Rising Tide Car Wash, where we employ people with autism. If you tuned in, you heard all about how we planned this location, interviewed and trained our fantastic new employees, how the opening went, and much more.

For the final three episodes of this season, we’re changing things up a bit! We want to revisit some of the incredible entrepreneurs who we featured in season 1 to hear about how their journeys have progressed since we last heard from them. In today’s episode, we’re featuring the awesome Valerie Herskowitz, founder of The Chocolate Spectrum Cafe and Academy. If you haven’t already heard her in the fifth episode of season 1, go listen to that now and then come back here!

You may remember that Val was inspired to expand her sweet hobby into a business as her son with autism, Blake, was graduating from high school. After expanding their chocolate venture online, they opened a brick-and-mortar cafe just a couple of months before our previous conversation. All of the employees had autism or were otherwise differently abled.

Since our last conversation, there has been a huge change in the training side of things. Val explains that she has mostly just gone with the flow with the business, following the opportunities that presented themselves, instead of having a huge long-term master plan. She explains in this conversation that it occurred to her that they should see if the coffee industry could possibly be something that would work for individuals with autism. With the right equipment and support systems, they found that their employees can be very successful in this role.

The strongest revenue stream has continued to be online shopping, while retail continues to be weak and disappointing in terms of walk-in traffic. The levels haven’t reached what they expected, which Val attributes to location. In response, Val sends out flyers and came up with the idea of developing a Facebook page just for the retailers in her shopping center. Another strategy for increasing their revenue has been branching out into wholesale.

In addition to talking about all of this, Val speaks with great detail (and passion) about her new training program for teens with autism, explaining why it’s so necessary. Tune into this great episode to hear this and much more!

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In This Episode:

[01:05] – For listeners who didn’t hear our previous conversation, Val explains what The Chocolate Spectrum Cafe and Academy is and what inspired her to start the company.

[01:50] – How has the company grown over the last year since our previous conversation? In her answer, Val talks about the company branching into coffee.

[06:45] – Val discusses taking the skills that their employees were learning in their coffee training program and put them into an employment situation.

[08:30] – How many people are working at the satellites Val has been describing, and what is her vision for them?

[11:05] – Tom clarifies: Val is using her primary location as a hub and for training, with satellite operations around it to increase distribution and employ more people.

[11:27] – Val talks about how she plans on managing all of this.

[14:35] – We back up a bit to hear how “home base,” the Chocolate Spectrum retail store, is doing these days.

[18:18] – Tom has a couple of suggestions for ways that Val (and listeners, of course!) can market online. He recommends using Mogl and geofencing.

[21:36] – Val shifts into talking specifically about employee growth, and discusses certifications for training and placing people in the community.

[24:53] – The biggest thing that Val’s company provides is teaching their employees how to be employed, since they don’t typically have experience in what is involved in the process and what the expectations are.

[26:04] – Val has always wanted to work with teens, because she feels like the process of teaching the skills that she has described should be started younger. Tom then elaborates on the need for this kind of training.

[27:35] – We learn that Val was able to secure a separate grant for teen training, and will be working with the first group of teens this year.

[28:57] – The biggest challenge Val has experienced with the teens she’s worked with so far is having them learn to work together.

[31:10] – The last thing Val is developing right now to increase their revenue is a wholesale business, which she describes.

[34:12] – How can listeners support Val? In her answer, she talks about a piece of advice that Tom’s dad gave her that she didn’t really believe before.

[36:58] – Tom shares his thoughts on why people who have been touched by autism don’t automatically support businesses like The Chocolate Spectrum and Rising Tide Car Wash, instead of bigger businesses.


Links and Resources:

The Chocolate Spectrum Cafe and Academy

The Chocolate Spectrum: shop online

Valerie Herksowitz

Valerie Herksowitz on LinkedIn

Tom D’Eri

Rising Tide Car Wash

Rising Tide U

University of Miami-Nova Southeastern University Center for Autism & Related Disabilities



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