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Riya Anne Polcastro headshot

Prospector Popcorn Provides Meaningful Work for People with Disabilities

Prospector Popcorn provides meaningful employment and competitive wages to all of its employees, including the 75 percent who identify as having a disability.
A Prospector Popcorn employee makes one of their gourmet popcorn recipes.

Gourmet popcorn maker Prospector Popcorn is setting the bar for disability inclusion. The nonprofit's mission is not just to employ people with disabilities, but also to give them the opportunity to shine.

The popcorn brand addresses the significant barriers to employment people with disabilities face by providing meaningful work that offers a better way of life through financial independence. TriplePundit spoke with Ryan Wenke, director of operations and technology at the nonprofit that started the brand, to learn more.

Opportunities come with competitive wages

"Roughly 80 percent of Americans with disabilities do not have a job," Wenke said. "Obviously, it's not because we don't want to work. It's that we're not given enough opportunities to work. Or the opportunities that are given are things like pushing shopping carts, bagging groceries, things that we don't find to be meaningful."

A lot of employers offer tedious jobs to people with disabilities and are allowed to pay them less than minimum wage through a certification from the Department of Labor. These waivers allow employers to pay based on the employee’s perceived ability to do the job less efficiently than workers without disabilities — instead of finding accommodations that could allow them to produce comparable work. For many, that means earning less than $4 an hour.

Prospector Popcorn takes a very different approach. "Our mission is providing competitive and inclusive employment for people with disabilities," Wenke said. "The average hourly rate that we have is about $18 an hour."

But it’s not just about the competitive wage. "No job is off limits here, and there's a variety of ways we do that. There are low-tech solutions and there are also high-tech solutions."

The pandemic pivot

The beginning of Prospector Popcorn can be traced to the Prospector Theater in Ridgefield, Connecticut. There weren’t any movie theaters within 10 miles of the city, Wenke said. In 2014, the nonprofit set out to address that need while providing jobs for the local community — specifically for people who self-identify as having a disability. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the theater ceased normal operations and a new opportunity arose.

"We've sold gourmet popcorn since we opened the concession stands," he said. "And when the pandemic hit, it kind of accelerated the idea of turning our core toward popcorn, so that what we sold in person could now go to homes across the country. We've always longed to share our mission with families and businesses that aren't able to come to Connecticut to see a movie."

Prospector Popcorn comes in sweet and savory flavors like strawberry ice cream, maple walnut ice cream, buffalo cheddar, sweet and spicy and a cheddar-caramel combo.

Prospector Popcorn's superstar-crunch-flavored, gourmet popcorn. 
Prospector Popcorn's superstar-crunch-flavored gourmet popcorn, created to celebrate Autism Acceptance Month in April. 

A variety of jobs for a variety of talents

"Just like the theater, there are so many jobs that go into one bag of popcorn," Wenke said. "You have to pop the popcorn. You have a marketing team to sell it. Our production team makes the graphics and the labels."

When Wenke says no job is off-limits, he means it. The nonprofit makes accommodations to remove accessibility barriers. The elevator installed in the theater is one example: If someone who uses a wheelchair wants to work in the projection room, they can use the elevator to do so.

"When it comes to popcorn specifically, we have everything color-coded to help with organization. We have images — large images — as we do have some Prospects that have difficulty reading," he said, explaining that the brand refers to employees as Prospects. "We have graphics in the kitchen that show measuring sizes represented by Mama Bear, Baby Bear, Goldilocks and Papa Bear. We have C-Pen readers that can scan a text and read it out loud."

Out of 125 Prospects, or employees, 75 percent identify as having a disability, Wenke said. That is much higher than the average business. And unlike many other businesses that employ people with disabilities, there isn’t a classification of jobs that are solely available to them. Those who self-identify as having a disability occupy all kinds of roles within the company — from the kitchen and box office all the way to the C-suite.

"There are many times when people come into the theater and say, 'Hey, I heard you have this mission, but everything's running smoothly,'" he said. "I think there's some notion that when you come here you're going to see people screaming, shouting, running. It's totally not that because, again, matching the appropriate job with the appropriate person is what's going to occur [here]. So there’s no distinction. I'm held to the same standards as somebody who just started yesterday. And that's how it has to be."

A role model for other businesses

Prospector’s model is inclusive and competitive, Wenke said. "We're all about teaching and training and not gatekeeping jobs." That model is making a difference in people’s lives — for those who stay at Prospector long-term and for those who gain valuable skills that allow them to move on to other things.

"We've had so many Prospects that, through earning a paycheck, move out of their parents’ home and get their first apartment," Wenke said. "Finally, get that first car. Go on a nice vacation for themselves. We've also had Prospects who have gone on to work at other jobs like working at Apple, or working at a real estate company in town, or working as a bartender after getting started in our cafe."

Prospector Popcorn isn’t gatekeeping its methods either. The nonprofit is eager to share its model with other businesses and is doing some consulting. "We don't want to be the only player in town," Wenke said. 

Images courtesy of Prospector Popcorn

Riya Anne Polcastro headshot

Riya Anne Polcastro is an author, photographer and adventurer based out of Baja California Sur, México. She enjoys writing just about anything, from gritty fiction to business and environmental issues. She is especially interested in how sustainability can be harnessed to encourage economic and environmental equity between the Global South and North. One day she hopes to travel the world with nothing but a backpack and her trusty laptop.

Read more stories by Riya Anne Polcastro