Northern Virginia ice cream shop employs people with disabilities

Employees of Jake’s Ice Cream in Northern Virginia pose for a photo. (Courtesy Robin Rinearson)

On a cold November day, at least five employees were working behind the counter at Jake’s Ice Cream in Northern Virginia.

November is not the high season for ice cream; two or three staff members would have been enough. But this is a different kind of shop. Owner Robin Rinearson has about 30 people on her payroll — many of whom are people with disabilities.

After several months of delay, Jake’s Ice Cream, named after Rinearson’s 29-year-old nephew who has cerebral palsy, opened in August 2021. Rinearson said Jake had been working for a company that, at some point during the coronavirus pandemic, basically “turned away the special needs adults who were working there. And that pissed me off.”

Jake eventually went back to work after a year and a half, just as the ice cream shop opened.

Rinearson, a retired optometrist who still owns a part of the practice started by her father, always intended to hire people with disabilities in her new business because of her nephew. But why an ice cream shop?

It was a former patient, who also handled her investments, who suggested an ice cream parlor would be a good retirement business. Having invested well for retirement gave Rinearson the freedom to operate the shop the way she wants to.

She checked out a place in the Shirlington area, which did not pan out, but a place in Barcroft Plaza in Falls Church off Columbia Pike and Lincolnia Road was available.

Her background working with pediatrics and developmental optometry, which includes people who have differing needs — whether they are kids, stroke patients, head-injury patients, among others — provided the workforce.

The first 11 employees with disabilities she hired were right out of her patient population. While construction was delayed, she trained workers at her house.

“I had the kids come to my house every other weekend,” Rinearson said. “And they learned how to make cake pops, and how to make hot cocoa bombs, and how to make ice cream cakes and how to decorate things.”

The new workers also got a chance to familiarize themselves in preparation for opening. They sold what they practiced making to Rinearson’s neighbors.

“My house was like a speakeasy,” she said.

Jake’s Ice Cream in Northern Virginia also makes cake pops and cocoa bombs. (Courtesy Robin Rinearson)

Independence and confidence

Rinearson’s employees have a range of diagnoses — Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, Goldenhar syndrome, fourth chromosome abnormality and autism, among others.

What’s been most rewarding for Rinearson is seeing her employees gain a sense of independence and confidence in their ability to do things.

Paul Horowitz said that it’s been extraordinarily gratifying for him and his wife to see how happy their son Jeremy is working at Jake’s.

“He takes a great deal of pride in his work in a way that’s different from the way that he felt before, and we could see it in a lot of different parts of his life,” Paul Horowitz said.

Jeremy Horwitz, 23, has Coffin-Siris syndrome, epilepsy and autism. He started at Jake’s last August, and he works two days a week; this is his first job. His favorite part is making cake pops, but he does other things, too, such as packing, serving people ice cream and working the register.

Rinearson said her employees have had the experience of seeing people walk away when they say they can’t do something, but that’s not how her shop operates.

“Well, you can’t do this, but you’re going to learn. And we’ll do whatever, and if it takes two people to do the one job … if they have to work in teams to get it done, that’s fine. But they’re going to do everything,” Rinearson said.

Now that she’s retired from practicing optometry, Rinearson is spending more time in the shop, taking on the duties of a job coach and more.

“I’m there for the morning shift; I’m there for the afternoon shift. I’m there if we’re short-handed … I’m chief cook and bottle washer,” Rinearson said.

Rinearson anticipated that the winter months would be slow, but the delayed opening didn’t help. She had hoped that opening in the warming months of March or April would have given the shop a cushion, but with supply-chain issues nationwide, she had no control over opening sooner.

“Everything comes out of my pocket. If we sell enough to cover it, great. If we don’t, I make up the difference personally,” she said.

Jake’s Ice Cream in Falls Church, Virginia, opened in Aug. 2021 at Barcroft Plaza. (Courtesy Robin Rinearson)

‘A tough nut’ for employers

Paul Horwitz said Rinearson’s shop enables the public to see that people with disabilities can make a real contribution.

“They want to do everything just the same as anybody else does,” Paul Horwitz said.

“It’s a tough nut” for employers who want to hire people with disabilities because you have to make accommodations on a regular basis, Rinearson said.

Pretty much everything in the shop is built to be accessible. Rinearson has a machine that rolls waffle cones “because I didn’t think anybody could have the dexterity to do it fast enough before” the waffle hardens.

Even with fine motor control issues, most of the workers are able to perform the tasks, except one: “Almost none of them can put a twist tie on,” Rinearson said.

Fortunately, a group of high school students in Poolesville, Maryland, has offered to help. The students are going to try to make something that can wrap a twist tie as well as take off stickers, which can also be a tricky task.

However, one of the most challenging things has been teaching the kids how to make change from the cash register.

“If somebody pays with money, actual cash, you put in, let’s say something is $4.53, and somebody is giving you a $20 bill, the cash register will then tell you how much change you need to give this person back. Problem is, (many) can’t figure out how many dollar bills, how many coins it’s going to take, to make that,” Rinearson said.

But Rinearson found a program online that helps people make change; then she practices with the staff until they get the hang of pulling money out of the register.

“We have one kid whose parents were told that he had dyscalculia — that he would never be able to do math. We’ve got him working the register, and he can make change just fine. … That’s really rewarding. It’s rewarding for him; it’s rewarding for his parents; it’s rewarding for us,” Rinearson said.

Some in the disabled community have different ways of processing the social cues that many rely on in conversations.

“You have to be willing to come up with ways to make things work when people don’t take directions the way you normally give them … you can’t expect them to read your mind,” Rinearson said.

Training may take longer and there is a steep learning curve at the beginning, but Rinearson said “once they are trained to do something, they are reliable. They are consistent. They are the best employees ever.”

Jeremy Horwitz thinks working at Jake’s Ice Cream is pretty great, too. “I’d like to work at Jake’s forever.”

Jake’s Ice Cream is in Barcroft Plaza in Falls Church, Virginia. (Courtesy Robin Rinearson)

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Abigail Constantino

Abigail Constantino started her journalism career writing for a local newspaper in Fairfax County, Virginia. She is a graduate of American University and The George Washington University.

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