Since opening in 2017, Happy Apple Pie Shop, 226 Harrison St. in Oak Park, has relied on a uniquely blended work environment where people with and without developmental and intellectual disabilities work side-by-side crafting pies every day. Owner Michelle Mascaro and the kitchen coaches find a role for everyone who wants to work at the Happy Apple. The business even shifts job descriptions to include the abilities of each individual employee.

Typically, Happy Apple’s kitchen bustles daily with 6 to 8 people working in a group with a coach overseeing their progress. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, forced Mascaro to reimagine operations at her inclusive shop in the Arts District.

“Many of our employees with developmental disabilities have immune disorders or older parents who are part of their care plan,” said Mascaro. “We are in a situation where no-one can get sick. The risks are too great.”

Furloughing her dedicated staff proved to be the safest option for all involved. Passion for their mission and a PPP loan kept all furloughed employees on the payroll while they were kept out of the kitchens. The continued pay helped staff members understand they still had a job despite the unusual circumstances.

Mascaro said being away from Happy Apple “represented a huge loss for employees,” but they understood the seriousness of the situation and wanted to do their part to keep themselves, their family and their community safe.

“We never closed,” said Mascaro. “Even with all the changes, we just kept moving forward.”

Happy Apple, once teaming with enthusiastic pie bakers, had suddenly become quiet and walk-in traffic was non-existent. A reduction in shop hours and closing Sunday through Tuesday, however, allowed Mascaro to regroup and figure out how to keep the business going with just four employees. Gina Ribera continued managing the front of the house, while Mascaro and the kitchen coaches turned into bakers to keep pies flowing out of the shop. 

“Pies have been flying out of here,” said Mascaro. “Many of our customers are supporting the Happy Apple in creative ways. We have a customer who buys a pie for herself and then orders a ‘surprise pie’ to be delivered to a friend every week.”

With business stable, Mascaro and her team reorganized the baking process for safety and compliance. Two longtime employees, who knew the previous system of production well, returned to work for two hours last week. The experiment was a success. 

Now, in between making popular seasonal peach pies, Mascaro is dividing her staff into teams of two based on personality and skill. Happy Apple employees have a range of abilities and it is essential everyone has a feeling of accomplishment when they come to work.

“Everybody wants to come back,” said Mascaro. “I am really happy about that. We want people who want to work.”

With staff numbers increasing Happy Apple is preparing to open on Tuesdays again. 

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