WILLOUGHBY, Ohio — Popcorn is unique — no two kernels are the same. The same is true for people.

What You Need To Know

  • Employment opportunities are often difficult to find for adults with special needs

  • For many postgraduate students on the Autism spectrum, society often doesn’t understand their unique needs and abilities 

  • Northcoast Corn Creations is a gourmet popcorn shop in Willoughby, created to benefit lifelong learners embracing autism

  • Students develop social skills and find career options for them in the future

“Each kernel has a unique design and look, but all are just as tasty,” said Fred Frisco, president of Re-Education Services, a school for people with special needs. 

Frisco has been working in the special education field for more than 15 years. His goal is to help students flourish beyond just the classroom, so he created a business: Northcoast Corn Creations. The gourmet popcorn shop is designed to help students develop social skills and promote career options for them in the future.

“We have students that may start off doing minimal types of things like labeling, and organizing and cleaning all the way up to the interaction with the retailers and taking and distributing the popcorn to the retailers,” said Frisco. “The goal is to let them learn a little bit more about the business aspect of things and maybe learn some of the hierarchy of the duties that they can perform. We talk about everything from beginning students to learn about hygiene and taking care of themselves, all the way up through following directions.” 

(Spectrum News 1/Taylor Bruck)

They offer more than 25 unique flavors, including white cheddar, dill pickle, blue raspberry and beer.

“Whatever your tastes might be, we probably have it here for you,” said Frisco. “We ship anywhere in the U.S. We offer everything from single bags up through six and a half gallon tins with multi flavors.” 

More than 40 students work at the popcorn shop each year. They help with the distribution side of things while a few full-time employees make the unique popcorn flavors. On the other side of Northcoast Corn Creations is another business venture: Treats to Treat Autism, where students learn skills to bake, package and sell homemade wheat and corn-free dog treats. 

“I make dog treats, yeah. I'm kind. I’m a good kid and helpful,” said Sebastian Parks, an employee at Northcoast Corn Creations.  

Parks, 17, said he looks forward to making the dog treats and helping out with the popcorn. He learns social skills while working, and job skills like measuring, mixing, pressing and baking. 

(Spectrum News 1/Taylor Bruck)

Currently, all profits earned at Northcoast Corn Creations go back into the school to help take students on field trips or provide them with new technology. If sales increase, Frisco said he hopes to eventually be able to pay the students based on productivity. 

“All the funding in revenue that comes in goes back into the school to provide iPads, technology, lunch programs for special treats for the kids at times. So it all flows right back into the school,” said Frisco. 

Depending on their ability, some students will take the skills they learn at Northcoast Corn Creations to another job. 

(Photo courtesy of Fred Frisco)

“Other students may need to go on with a job coach or move on in the DD world, Developmental Disabilities world, where the supports that we gave will hopefully be picked up and continued on,” said Frisco. 

Through the gourmet popcorn business and homemade dog treats, the students are given the freedom to be creative and find their passion, and most importantly, be themselves. 

"The beautiful part about this whole program and all the things that we do is, are the smiles and accomplishment on the students’ faces,” said Frisco. “The challenges that they face on a daily basis are put aside for a minute and you can see that they feel total success in the opportunities given here and just the smallest tasks and brings a smile to their face and ours.” 

Northcoast Corn Creation’s popcorn is currently sold at Sweet Berry in Willoughby, Mentor Family Foods, Perry IGA and The Nest in Chardon, as well as online. They’re continuing to look for more retailer partners to help grow their program. 

For more information, visit here.