New Aurora ice cream shop serves up opportunity for people with disabilities

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Howdy Hero Ben Kim scoops vanilla ice cream for a classic milkshake, Nov. 2, 2022 at Howdy Homemade Ice Cream. Milkshakes are Kim’s favorite menu item to make for customers.
Photo by PHILIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado

In January, Troy Knuckles was at a crossroads.

A longtime member of the telecommunications industry, Knuckles was burned out on corporate America and looking to do something different with his life. His youngest son had just graduated from college, and he felt like he had fulfilled the most important professional and personal obligations of his life.

“I felt it was time to do what God wanted me to do with the rest of my life,” he told The Sentinel.

But he wasn’t quite sure what that was yet. One night he sat down in front of the TV and an ABC News story was airing about Howdy Homemade Ice Cream, an ice cream store franchise that hires people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

“And I said, ‘that’s it!’” Knuckles recalled. He applied for and received the franchise rights for Colorado, beating out many other applicants who had also applied after seeing the program.

About seven months later, the store held its grand opening and has been serving customers for the past three weeks out of a store at 6340 S. Parker Road.

From left, Kayle Kuckles, Ben Kim and Troy Knuckles, stand for a portrait, Nov. 2, 2022, at Howdy Homemade Ice Cream. Kayle is the GM, Ben is one of the Heroes at Howdy and Troy is the owner.
Portrait by PHILIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado

The Dallas-based company has seven other locations, primarily in Texas. This is the first Colorado store but Knuckles, who owns the franchise for the greater Denver and Colorado Springs metro areas, says he hopes to open more soon and is exploring launching a location in Colorado Springs sometime next year. He’s also received a contract with the U.S. Air Force Academy to sell ice cream during sporting events.

Howdy sells ice cream, milkshakes and candy along with merch like T-shirts. The store orders a base from a dairy and the ice cream is made on site, along with waffle cones. The store has 16 flavors of ice cream; eight are permanent and standard at all Howdy locations, the others are decided locally and served on a rotating basis. Currently the Aurora location is offering up a pumpkin spice latte flavor for those wanting to get in the fall spirit.

Though Knuckles touted the quality of Howdy’s ice cream, he said the main goal of the business is to provide jobs to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDDs).

Knuckles’ son, Kayle Knuckles, is the store’s general manager and works day to day with the store’s employees, who are primarily people with Down’s Syndrome or who are on the autism spectrum.

“They’re amazing,” he said of the store’s employees, who are referred to as “heroes” in the company’s nomenclature. “They love to work, love their job and they brighten my day every day.”

Ben Kim applied to work at Howdy after his mom saw something about the store online. After coming in for an interview he was hired on the spot and started working on opening day.

“I’m loving it so far,” he said of working at Howdy. He told The Sentinel his favorite parts of the job are making milkshakes and interacting with customers and recommended “cookie nomster” and “birthday cake” as the store’s best ice cream flavors.

Howdy Hero Ben Kim adds the quintessential ice cream topping of sprinkles to a cone for a customer, Nov. 2, 2022 at Howdy Handmade Ice Cream.
Photo by PHILIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado

Ice cream scoopers at Howdy make the Colorado minimum wage, which is currently $12.56, and shift managers earn slightly more. The store has 11 employees, and there is currently a waiting list of people interested in working there, Kayle said. He said the company was “flooded” with job applications and the amount of interest they received shows the need for more opportunities for people with IDDs.

People with IDDs are unemployed at significantly greater rates than the general population. According to a report commissioned by the Special Olympics, fewer than half of working-age people with intellectual disabilities were employed, a rate over twice as high as the national average.

Signage of the mission statement for Howdy Homemade Ice Cream is displayed on the wall of the newly opened ice cream shop.
Photo by PHILIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado

The American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities said that this is driven by a lack of support and employer interest, and not the ability or interest of people with IDDs in having meaningful employment.

“Historically, the majority of people with IDD have been either unemployed or underemployed despite their ability, desire, and willingness to work in the community,” the Association said in a statement on its website. 

Part of Howdy’s mission is to show that people with disabilities can excel in a for-profit business environment, Kayle said.

“They’re capable of a lot, for sure,” he said.

Troy Knuckles said that many of the employees are dropped off to work by their families, who are reassured by knowing that they are working in a supportive environment where people are looking out for them. He said business has been good so far in the several weeks the store has been open, and he hopes that the word will spread about Howdy so that they can expand and hire more people.

“We make amazing ice cream but that’s what this is really about,” he said.

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Jeff Brown
Jeff Brown
1 month ago

As a disabled stroke survivor, I can personally attest to the very poor attitude most employers show towards the disabled— and the older worker.

The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) consistently fails in its mission and only succeeds at creating a profitable niche for HR consultants and the employers’ attorneys. Actual justice for the disabled victims? Sorry, no.

i hope Howdys quickly dominates the market and changes a few minds. I’m stopping there tonight!

gk puester
gk puester
1 month ago

Great concept. I am sure many of us will support the business.

Doug King
Doug King
1 month ago

why is there no address?????

JMH
JMH
29 days ago
Reply to  Doug King

6340 S. Parker Road, near Amy’s Hallmark 🙂

THE SENTINEL
Admin
THE SENTINEL
29 days ago

The store is at 6340 S. Parker Road in Aurora