This CT peanut butter company wants to be a model for employing people with disabilities
Some entrepreneurs work for years to bring an idea to life. For others, it seemingly happens out of nowhere and then takes on a life of its own. That’s the way it happened for Stephanie Sarup and Paul Giovanniello — and the catalyst was peanut butter.
The two longtime friends from Ridgefield, Connecticut, created Giv Soft peanut butter company this past spring. It all started as a quest for a peanut butter alternative that was low in sugar and carbohydrates.
“Both Paul and I are health conscious individuals, probably for different reasons,” Sarup said. “Jordan is one of the reasons that I am so health conscious or became so health conscious.”
Jordan is Sarup’s 14-year-old son who was born with Fragile X Syndrome, a type of autism that is also one of the most common causes of inherited intellectual disability.
“The mutation on the X chromosome basically shuts off the production of a protein responsible for regulating the nervous system to kick in and calm the body if it's excited or stressed,” Sarup explained.
Fragile X impacts Jordan in many ways, she says, but the biggest effect is that it’s more difficult to be calm and relaxed. But, she found that limiting carbohydrates for Jordan helps him manage and regulate his body.
“We limit sugar, artificial colors,” she said, “ and lots of stuff like that.”
Finding the perfect recipe
Sarup’s business partner, Giovanniello, said he came to be health conscious “after meeting middle age.” He turned to a Keto diet, one low in sugar and carbohydrates, to improve his health.
“I loved peanut butter, but in this case, I was eating it and I was frustrated,” he said. “I would look at this peanut butter and the number two ingredient would be sugar or corn syrup or something like that.”
Sarup, Giovanniello and their families became friends in Ridgefield over many years being involved with youth sports, having met on the sidelines at games and practises. With both parents looking for low sugar, low carbohydrate substitutes for favorite foods, they started trading insights and tips. It was then that they both realized that neither had found a Keto-friendly, low sugar, low carbohydrate peanut butter that actually tastes good.
Giovanniello started creating his own recipe using monk fruit in place of sugar for sweetener and adding in other types of nuts. When he brought some to share with the Sarup family one day at a game, it was an instant hit.
“This tastes pretty good! You should sell this online,” Giovanniello recalled Sarup telling him that day. But Giovanniello said he didn’t have any experience, nor did he know how to build a website. Sarup replied, “I do!”
Within two days, they had a website and the company was born. Just a few months later, they got their products on shelves in local stores and on Amazon.
Another local business owner from Treats Pupperia, a specialty dog treat store in Ridgefield, inadvertently opened up a whole new line of business by asking them if they made peanut butter for dogs. They quickly set out to make a second, more dog-friendly recipe which they are now selling alongside the original version.
Expanding employment opportunities
One of the greatest benefits to have come from starting this business, Sarup says, is the joy and excitement her son Jordan gets out of working for the company as the inventory manager.
“He actually loves being involved,” Sarup said. “I didn't realize that so many things that he has high-interest in kind of come naturally with having a business … scheduling meetings and checking emails and all that administrative type of stuff is just very interesting to him.”
Sarup hopes more businesses will recognize and value the unique skill sets that workers like Jordan and other people with disabilities can contribute in the workplace.
“There is huge value if you look for it,” she said, for example, autistic people are very good at repetitive tasks and staying focused on them. “We are seeing more and more businesses that hire autistic people.”
But she says there is a long way to go. According to recent data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 82% of people with intellectual disabilities are unemployed.
“And those that are employed,” Sarup said, “almost all of them make less than minimum wage.”
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, it is only legal for an employer to pay less than the minimum wage if they receive a certificate from the Department and fulfill certain requirements.
Both Sarup and Giovannello attest to the contribution Jordan has made in the early success of their company.
“He loves to work. His skill sets might be specific, but the desire and drive is there and for what they're able to do, they're gonna do it perfectly,” said Sarup. “It's just a need for businesses to learn how to leverage these skill sets.”
They hope his success will be an example to other businesses to hire more people with disabilities. The state will host a Disability Employment Services Conference in September for businesses and job seekers hoping to do just that.
“Everybody needs to contribute,” said Sarup. “Everybody needs a purpose.”