A new business is poised to help breathe new life into the Oak Park Arts District, but the startup Happy Apple Pie Shop is more than a business focused on sweet treats – the mom-and-pop operation is on a mission to help those with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Owner Michelle Mascaro said she hopes to open the shop in one of five storefronts being carved out of the shuttered La Majada Mexican food restaurant, 226 Harrison St., later this fall.
Mascaro said she began thinking of starting the business – she co-owns Happy Apple with her spouse Corynne Romine – about two years ago, primarily because of her teenage daughter Emma, who has an intellectual disability.
“We’ve always been concerned about where she will work,” she said, noting that Emma is a junior at Oak Park and River Forest High School.
The idea originally started as a cupcake shop, suggested by a parent and friend who also has a child with an intellectual disability, but the cupcake craze seemed too trendy for Mascaro.
“I’m a cook,” she said. “I cook to relax and I love to make pies.”
She said pie making is perfect for her future mixed workforce, which will include those with intellectual disabilities and those without. “The goal was to make a blended work environment for people with and without intellectual and developmental disabilities to work together,” she said.
“This model is really about making all people part of the community,” she said.
Mascaro said she launched her business in September 2015 and began working with intellectually and developmentally disabled students at River Forest Kitchen, a relatively new business that provides certified kitchen space for food startup businesses.
She enrolled local students with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their parents to participate in what she calls “big bakes” in time for Thanksgiving and made 100 pies for their first batch.
“People did what they can do best from folding boxes to measuring ingredients to assembling pie crusts to rolling pie crusts,” she said.
She said the new 890-square-foot space on Harrison Street will have a small dining area that allows customers to see directly into the kitchen “so nobody is hidden away.” Happy Apple will offer pie by the slice, coffee and whole pies to take home.
She already is planning to work with Aspire and Opportunity Knocks, both organizations that provide opportunities for those with developmental disabilities.
“I think people will come in first for the story [about Happy Apple’s mission], and they will come back for the product. We have a wonderful story and a fabulous product,” she said, adding, “Our pies are delicious.”
Mascaro said she hopes the business will inspire other companies to employee workers like her daughter and prompted her to “look down the road at supporting a creative network of businesses in our community willing to hire people with developmental and intellectual disabilities who are willing to do work.”
“They don’t need to be hidden away, and they don’t need to have pity; they need meaningful work, and I think we can accomplish that,” she said. “One of the things I have on my flier is we are creating community one pie at a time.”
Adam Friedberg, of Brand and Company, co-owner of River Forest Kitchen and the La Majada building, said the new business is a boon for the community and the Harrison Street commercial corridor.
He said Happy Apple will be an anchor tenant in the building and that Brand and Company is close to securing a second tenant.
“They have a great mission and I think they are going to do very, very well,” he said.