Finding a Place in the Workforce

A nonprofit that provides jobs for people with autism opens a new facility in Tribeca where they make granola for Starbucks and other retailers

18 Nov 2019 | 04:25

For people with autism, finding a job is often a challenge. But one organization is doing their best to change that.

On Oct. 24, Luv Michael, a nonprofit, opened its Tribeca Kitchen & Learning Center, at 42 Walker Street, where adults with autism make organic, gluten-free and nut-free granola, which is sold to businesses.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the autism community suffers from the lowest employment rate among all disabilities, as 82.4 percent of adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are unemployed.

Luv Michael was founded in 2016 by Dr. Dimitri Kessaris and his wife, Dr. Lisa Liberatore.

"A Meaningful Culinary Vocation"

“Luv Michael Co. was never designed to be a charity or provide young autistic adults with something to do,” Liberatore said. “Instead, Luv Michael’s mission has always been to provide a meaningful culinary vocation for the autistic population, and to produce exceptional gluten-free and natural products.”

The Luv Michael story began with Liberatore simply trying to find a job for her son, Michael, 22. But it grew into much more. As Michael was nearing completion of high school, she and her husband were concerned about his transition to the workforce.

Knowing his passion for cooking, they tried to get him into culinary school, but it didn’t work out. Liberatore and her husband felt like they were at a crossroads, and they kept searching for a way to help their son. “A lot of autistic people have a complex relationship with food,” she explained.

Eventually, they found a chef named Sarah Chaminade, who began teaching Michael twice a week in their home. She showed him how to properly measure, prep and chop food and develop the other skills necessary to work in a kitchen.

Unique Employees and Big-Name Retailers

After finding other families who were interested, the couple formed Luv Michael. The group initially worked out of a small rented space in Long Island City, but eventually it was time for a bigger location.

Liberatore purchased the 3,000 square foot kitchen on Walker Street. They now have 24/7 access and can employ more people. Currently, there are 12 “granologists,” as the employees are called, who range in age from 22 to 39 and work three days a week, with the goal of becoming full-time.

“For the employees who are able to express their feelings, they tell us they are so happy,” Liberatore said. “They have a sense of camaraderie. Each of our employees really is a unique story.”

Luv Michael granola is sold to more than 60 stores in the Greater New York City area, as well as on Long Island, including retailers such as Starbucks, Fresh & Co, D’Agostino Supermarkets, Gristedes Neighborhood Grocers and Wild By Nature.

“Once we got into Starbucks, it lent credibility to other companies,” said Liberatore. “We want to be a national company.”

In 2018, Luv Michael was named the winner of a competition for nonprofit food companies, sponsored by JetBlue, and was awarded the opportunity to have its product distributed onboard domestic JetBlue flights.

“I think whatever happens to me in my life, this is one of the accomplishments that we’re most proud of,” Liberatore said. “Being able to help so many people and hopefully make life better for Michael and others was priceless. We’re very proud, but we feel we have a lot more to do.”