The Heroes of Howdy Homemade Ice Cream: An Interview with Tom Landis

Story by Mary King-Moore. Photos by Nancy McGuire.

Editors note: writer King-Moore’s son currently works at Howdy Homemade.

When Tom Landis opened the doors to Howdy Homemade in 2015, he didn’t have a business plan. He had a people plan. And by creating a space where teens and adults with disabilities can find meaningful employment, he is impacting lives throughout our community and challenging business leaders to become more inclusive in their hiring practices.

“It’s not ice cream, although it is a really great product. The business is successful because of the employees, the people,” states Tom. Walking into the quaint shop nestled between larger restaurants, there are workers ready to assist customers in selecting favorite flavors. Tom describes a typical day at the shop where two employees are engaged in a conversation about the Dallas Cowboys, both avid fans of the team. One employee recites the statistics like a professional, while the other employee counters the argument with a compassionate side of protection for this particular Cowboy in debate. As soon as a customer walks in, they sideline the conversation and engage the customer with the well-known greeting, “Howdy!” Customers peruse the ice cream case filled with top selling flavors. The ice cream flavors are custom blends, including the exclusive Dr. Pepper Chocolate Chip. 

An important part of Hero training, as the employees are referred to, is eye contact. “Eye contact is everything,” Tom states. “There is nothing, and I mean nothing that keeps someone on the spectrum from learning to make eye contact.”  The point of sale system is set to round to whole numbers for easy calculations that the employees have learned to operate. The menu is simplified which makes it manageable for all the Heroes. All employees follow the five pillars Tom established to guide the business. An easy number that one can count on a hand, in order: God, family, co-workers, customers, self. 

Employees, like Kalin and Darcy, who work full-time, are the reason Tom was inspired to create a business where people with special needs are valued as employees and where they can experience that particular pride that comes with earning a regular paycheck. In 2018, approximately 60% of adults with disabilities were unemployed according to the University of Texas Hogg Foundation. The special needs population has the attributes to strengthen the labor force if employers create the environment that sets them up for success. “The most beautiful thing to watch is people with special needs training people with special needs. They are the true pros and game changers,” declares Tom. Kalin is training new employee Jaxson, showing him everything from how to scoop the ice cream to completing a transaction on the iPad. Jaxson said after working his shift on a Sunday, “I worked with Kalin and Darcy today. We were busy and Dr. Pepper is definitely the most popular. I got my paycheck from Kalin.” 

Tom is an experienced restaurant owner having owned and operated several Texadelphia restaurants in the DFW area. He knew he wanted the Howdy Homemade concept to be different from the start. Tom said, “I am focusing on special needs first because, as much as people don’t want to hear it, the public is more compassionate about special needs than other groups,” he continues, “and that is wrong. But when Howdy is successful at changing the lives of one segment of the population we can then focus on others. Howdy’s model will be replicated in many industries.” From hiring and training to leadership and advancement, the store aims to change the way our society treats the special needs population, while at the same time helping with two of the restaurant industry’s biggest problems: employee turnover and customer service. 

The success Howdy Homemade experienced, with the support of an incredible community, ever since the doors first opened is proof Tom’s people plan is working. Like many small businesses and nonprofits, the initial economic shutdown due to the pandemic threatened to permanently close the doors of the business. Determined not to close the doors, he reached out to peers in the industry seeking advice. Jaxie Alt, who assisted in getting the Dr. Pepper Chocolate Chip ice cream produced, stated, “Tom reached out and asked to have coffee. He gave me a business update and told me Howdy was about to go under.  Although I was no longer working at Dr Pepper, I just felt really called to help. How could I not?  I set up the Go Fund Me account, made a video about Howdy, and then the community took it and created something amazing. Watching our DFW community (and many people from outside our community) rally around Howdy and not let it fail was an incredible story of the power of community and kindness. And for me, that’s ultimately why Howdy Homemade means so much to me —  because it’s a place that is truly about making the world a kinder and happier place with opportunity for all and oh how we need that.”

The Go Fund Me account attracted the attention of several national media networks. For each interview Tom encourages the Heroes to do the talking. During the Hoda and Jenna interview they were all smiles when they told Tom he was going to receive $50,000 to support his ice cream business. “We are taking faith on a joyride,” said Tom. With the grant the business purchased a delivery van and hired more people with special needs. The media attention generated inquiries about the business and questions about franchising opportunities. Tom and his team of executives have shuffled through hundreds of applications. Tom stated, “We want the business to grow, but for the right reasons.” Howdy’s second store is in Katy, TX. A partnership with Rodrick Batson and Tre Tha Truth, both of whom were inspired by Tom and his mission to give a voice to the differently abled, opened this past year. A third store is in Asheville, NC by franchisees Pete and Betsy Brewer, whose daughter Annie has autism. There are more stores set to open in 2022.

Tom realized quickly that to continue to grow the business of helping people with special needs, the product would have to be available on a larger scale. His team has worked tirelessly to get the ice cream distributed on a national level. Winning third place in the H-E-B 2021 Quest for Texas Best competition gave the company the needed boost to get the ice cream into grocery stores. Today, you can find Howdy’s Homemade as close as your nearest H-E-B and Central Market. The grocery stores stock six original ice cream flavors. Once again, putting his employees first, the packaging has pictures representing different employees that have been with the company for a while. Tom’s people plan includes eventually asking distributors to hire at least two individuals with special needs from within their own companies. 

Not without sacrifice, Tom has put everything into making this business. His wife Margaret and their two children are also all in and support Tom’s mission. Since 2015 Howdy Homemade has employed over 90 teens and adults with disabilities. They have served nearly 1 million scoops of ice cream to thousands of customers. But they are serving so much more than that. They are serving people with special needs by giving them the opportunity to develop skills like customer service, teamwork, and business management. And they are making Dallas an inclusive and more diverse city with a people-first business.

Interested in supporting the mission of Howdy’s Heros? Visit their website to make a donation and be sure to drop in during regular business hours for an afternoon. We highly recommend Dr. Pepper Chocolate Chip!