Valerie Herskowitz, whose son has severe autism, created a culinary outlet for him in the kitchen of her Palm Beach Gardens home. She recently expanded the craft to a retail shop in Jupiter called The Chocolate Spectrum.
A mother’s at-home hobby of baking pastries and making chocolate has evolved into an innovative opportunity aimed at preventing young adults with autism from “falling off the cliff.” The metaphor routinely uttered by frustrated parents such as Palm Beach Gardens resident Valerie Herskowitz refers to the consequences of a 90 percent unemployment rate among the developmentally disabled.
“There is literally nothing for them to do,” says Herskowitz, who feared an unfortunate future for her severely autistic son, Blake. “Even for those who are more capable and could go into vocational rehab, there is not enough training on autism and not enough staff to help.”
With her 22-year-old poised to graduate “from high school to the couch,” the trained pastry chef and certified chocolatier created a safety net of her own. She opened The Chocolate Spectrum, a small start-up business, to teach him how to form fudge and mold truffles. Not only did it provide a meaningful and purposeful activity for him to enjoy, it also improved his well-being.
“His whole personality changed,” says Herskowitz, whose master’s degree in speech pathology presciently led her into the field of autism nearly 40 years ago. “I mean, once I got him into the kitchen baking and making chocolate, there was this dramatic shift. He went from being mostly depressed to mostly happy. Everybody around him noticed.”
The business began to boom. As many as nine students at a time would join Blake in the family kitchen to work during the week.
“I never imagined this was going to be more than a few hours here and there,” Herskowitz says. “I had to make a decision. Were we just going to do this as a project or make a go of it?”
This spring, The Chocolate Spectrum will open the doors to a new retail location featuring a full production kitchen with autism-friendly equipment, lighting and work stations.
“Everything had to be about who is going to be working there, so we built it from the ground up,” Herskowitz says of the 900-square-foot space on Indiantown Road in Jupiter.
It will include a café that serves cappuccinos, lattes, mochas and handmade confections to the public. Another component of the business includes an academy offering informal 1.5-hour classes in cake decorating and chocolate making, and formal six- to 12-month classes in chocolate, pastry, barista and restaurant skills.
“The point is to make this a business whose mission is to find vehicles to employment,” Herskowitz says.
She welcomes the non-autistic population to participate and plans to reach out to elementary, middle and high school students, as well as the home-schooled, to broaden the business’ impact—and income. Those who sponsor the academy through the National Autism Registry, a non-profit that supports community-based programs for the developmentally disabled, will get a baked good or beverage named in their honor.
“I have a cosmic philosophy in life, and my philosophy has always been to open yourself up to the universe and let the universe tell you what path to take,” Herskowitz says. “That’s how I feel about this shop. It’s a risk, but I’m hoping it pays off.”
UPDATE: June 30, 2016 — The Chocolate Spectrum opened to the public on June 28. Summer hours are Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
The café in the shop has been named in memory of Clayton Feig, who had special needs and lost his life to Epilepsy at age 18.
“Clayton was loved by everyone,” his father, Steve Feig said in a statement. “I have tried to make sense of his death by helping others in Clayton’s name, and when [my wife] told me about The Chocolate Spectrum, it seemed like a perfect fit. When Clayton was growing up, there were almost no programs in the community for adults with special needs. It’s exciting to be a part of a place that will provide training and jobs for adults with special needs.”
The Chocolate Spectrum Cafe & Academy; 6725 W. Indiantown Road, Suite #38, Jupiter