Spectrum Bakes’ mission has remained constant since its founding in 2015: to offer meaningful, genuine employment and training opportunities in a neurodiverse world.
The only place they’ve been able to call home has been 416 Main Street in Port Washington. However, after more than a half-decade of providing employment opportunities to those on the autism spectrum, this is about to change.
“It’s definitely not the usual bakery or type of kitchen that you think of in your mind,” Deana Nissen, enterprise director, said about their current set-up. “We are, however, moving into a fabulous new space with all the bells and whistles of ovens and refrigerators and freezers and all that glory, which I’m super excited about.”
Spectrum Bakes plans to expand to a location in Manorhaven at 166 Shore Road within the next four to six months. Nissen characterized the move as exciting because the nonprofit’s ability to achieve its primary goal grows in tandem with the expansion.
“We’re a very process-driven company in that we want to set everyone up for success,” she said. “There’s always room for growth here for everyone. We’re a very inclusive company.”
Spectrum Bakes is one of three nonprofits that makes up Spectrum Enterprises, alongside Spectrum Designs and Spectrum Suds. All three groups seek to demonstrate the economic and societal benefits of hiring people on the autism spectrum.
After serving just granola initially, they’ve since expanded their offerings to include chocolate-covered pretzels, Oreos, s’mores and more. They also provide bulk and personalized orders for corporate events and holidays.
Their proceeds go toward the ongoing expansion and advancement of hiring and keeping an inclusive and integrated workforce. They also collaborate with the Nicholas Center to ensure that employees have access to educational specialists who can assist them.
“Yes, it gives them an opportunity to have a job and a paycheck. But they also gain independence, their self-esteem goes through the roof and they get to make friends,” Susan Gernhart, director of marketing and development, said. “Some of those opportunities might not be available if they were at home or in some kind of a different program.”
Spectrum Bakes currently employs one autistic employee full-time and a cast of others who work part-time on various days and times.
Over 5.4 million adults in the United States — 2.2% of the population — are on the autism spectrum, according to Autism Connections. The CDC says that research shows that young people with autism have fewer opportunities than their peers without the condition, including high rates of unemployment or underemployment.
Employers cannot refuse qualified candidates because they have autism per the Americans with Disabilities Act. However, Gernhart explained that many of those who are hired are placed in stagnant positions.
“Investing in them is so worth it to us, so they’re not stagnant,” she said. “It’s not just, ‘OK, we’re gonna hire X number of people so we can say we hit our quota and then that’s it’ and they stay like that. They get pay raises, promotions and annual reviews, just like Deana and I do. Everyone is treated on equal ground no matter what their role is.”
Jobs are not assigned randomly either. If someone isn’t enjoying their work, they can find something else they might enjoy thanks to a step-by-step process of every good offered. This results in employees like Peter, who comes in every Friday with an assistant to help make granola, which he described as his favorite task.
Nissen explained the roadmap for Spectrum Bakes to continue to provide opportunities is already laid out. Spectrum Designs also began in the same building, eventually moving down the street into a larger facility and now has a second location in Westchester.
“We started out originally as like training and we grew into businesses and now we’re growing so we’re going to be expanding to different locations,” she said. “We all follow the same model that Spectrum Designs did before and for us it’s been very successful. I’ve been here for 5 1/2 years and to see Bakes take off into a new location and grow like that, it’s a really exciting time.”