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  WINDY CITY TIMES

Lesbian-owned Happy Apple Pie Shop features blended workplace
by Carrie Maxwell, Windy City Times
2017-11-18

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Three years ago, Michelle Mascaro and Corynne Romine took on the challenge of starting a local and positive business and that is how Happy Apple Pie Shop, in the Oak Park arts district, was born.

Mascaro ( from New York ) and Romine ( from Memphis ) met in 1990 when they were working as resident chaplains at Rush Presbyterian Hospital and became a couple in 1991. They soon discovered they both wanted to have children and that led to adopting three newborns—Emma ( now 19 ), David ( 17 ) and Joseph ( 16 ).

The couple was among the Illinois marriage equality plaintiffs the ACLU represented prior to it becoming law in the state. They were married in 2014.

They previously lived in Chicago; however, in 2008 they moved to west suburban Oak Park to give their children access to better education, especially their daughter Emma, who has an intellectual disability.

While Mascaro works at the shop full-time, Romine is a special-education teacher, who helps out on the weekends.

One thing that sets Happy Apple Pie Shop, a social enterprise, apart from other businesses is its blended work environment where people of all abilities work together to make and sell sweet and savory pies. Life with Emma was the catalyst for this decision.

"Emma is funny and sassy, and the world needs some of her energy," said Mascaro. "She and her peers are wonderful young people who deserve what others have—the ability to be contributing members of our community. We are grateful for the support we have gotten along the way from friends, other parents, Oak Park River Forest High School, other organizations and even strangers."

"Like many parents, we are concerned about where Emma will work and live as an adult," said Mascaro. "Only about 15 percent of people with disabilities have employment—a shameful statistic. The old sheltered workshop model ( where people work in an environment exclusively for people with disabilities away from their community ) is inadequate. When I lost my job, it was time for a different adventure. Creating a business to include all kinds of workers was an exciting idea."

During the daytime, the employees are mostly adults with different abilities, and in the evening a number of high school students help make the pies, while on the weekends everyone works together. Mascaro noted that having a happy, accepting workplace makes all the difference in someone's life.

Mascaro explained that she feeds people in her personal life, so having a food business was always in the back of her mind. One of Mascaro's friends suggested a cupcake business but that was not the right fit for her.

"The next day, the idea about pie came clearly to mind," said Mascaro. "Pie needs some exactness—the crust—and some creativity—the filling. It seemed to me that it would speak to the strengths and abilities of people who would work for us. That began a three-year process of learning and developing the business, and we keep learning every day."

"We wanted to have a business where employees are visible in the community," said Romine. "A place where everyone would feel welcome and comfortable and a pie shop fit that idea."

"Our customers can enjoy a slice of pie, perhaps with a cup of coffee, in the front of the shop," said Mascaro. "We also feature products produced by people with disabilities in other organizations."

The bright-red-and-purple logo was designed by the couple's long-time friend, Chris, of Christian Musselman, Illustration. The shop's architect Deb Moore, from Hutter Architects, Ltd., has a daughter who works at the store, and she designed the layout to maximize the space.

"We sacrificed customer space and built an unusually large kitchen so groups of people, including people who use wheelchairs, could work together," said Mascaro. "People who work and people who eat all create the energy of the shop. We also have a small table to welcome children."

While they always feature apple pie, it is in their name, other pies rotate depending on the season. Among the holiday pies they make are Canadian brown sugar pecan, honey-roasted sweet potato, cranberry sage, chocolate chess and Carnivore turkey pot pie ( Carnivore is a local butcher featuring farm-raised free-range turkey ). Favorites include their honey pie made with local honey, quiche and pot pies.

"I am a recipe reader and use them as a jumping off place for our pies," said Mascaro. "Except for one or two recipes, most of our pies are unique in some way ... a little more or less of this or that. Our employees continually contribute to the conversation about pie. They suggest things that may end up becoming a featured item."

Mascaro explained that local ingredients also influence the pies selections. Their apple peels go to the Glen Art goat farm in the Austin neighborhood. The goat milk is made into chevre featured in the quiche they sell. Local and sustainable ingredients are something they strive for. They also offer vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free pies.

"Happy Apple Pie Shop is a social enterprise," said Mascaro. "We hope that other businesses will see us and be more creative in their hiring practices. Check us out. We also love to cater events."

"Consider ways you can hire people with disabilities," said Romine. "Kindness and love in the workplace make a difference."

See happyapplepie.com/ for more information .


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