One family from Paradise Valley is using the power of food not only to operate a biscotti business with their son, who is autistic, but also to represent hope for other families who have children with autism.
Business is so good that you'll be able to buy SMILES Biscotti at the Phoenix location of Changing Hands Bookstore, set to open this spring, says Gayle Shanks, the bookstore's co-owner.
SMILE Biscotti is run by Matt Resnik, 22, and his parents, Denise and Rob. SMILE stands for Supporting Matt's Independent Living Enterprise. Matt was diagnosed with autism when he was 2.
With what's known as "classic autism," Matt is limited in his verbal and social skills and social engagement, and he has the desire for sameness in his day-to-day schedule, says his mother, Denise, who, along with his dad, spoke to Chow Bella for this story. Matt's parents focused on their son's strengths in developing a business model for him.
"His consistency is outstanding," Denise says, noting that the biscotti Matt makes come out the same way every time and the repetitiveness of packaging the product makes for a nice consistency.
The goal of SMILE is not only to teach Matt a skill he can use to support himself once he moves out of his parents' home, Denise says, but it is also a "way to educate the public and open more doors for individuals who are affected by autism."
Matt started cooking classes last spring after he graduated from high school through the Southwest Autism Research and Resource Center. (Denise is co-founder of SARRC and a board member.)
The Resniks began selling the biscotti in October and experimented with different recipes, giving away thousands of biscotti to narrow down the top flavors, Denise says.
Since he was a child, Matt was always "my little sous chef," Denise says. He would chop vegetables, make salads, and bake cupcakes for holidays and take them to school.
Now, Matt bakes three days a week for four to five hours, under the supervision of a habilitiation worker who, as Denise puts it, "supports Matt with life and job skills." Because of sensory issues, the worker puts the biscotti in the oven for Matt. During SMILE Biscotti's busy seasons, primarily holidays, Denise and Rob get in on the baking action as well.
"Of course, we all pitch in on sampling," Denise says.
Instead of baking the common Italian biscotti, Matt patterns his biscotti after mandelbrot, a Jewish version that is softer than Italian biscotti. He makes citrus almond, double chocolate chip, and Ceylon vanilla.
Matt puts the packages together in what the family refers to as the "biscotti cave," which is a spare room in their home where everything is set up in an assembly line fashion. Matt boxes the biscotti, autographs the boxes, "stacks them the same way, and then we have a product," Rob says.
"He's one of the hardest-working people Rob and I know," Denise says. "He's so diligent and he's so happy doing it, too."
Matt has sold more than 20,000 biscotti through his website, not only in the Valley but throughout the United States and even the United Kingdom.
"People like SMILE Biscotti before they even taste them because of the story behind them," Denise says.
Rob and Denise hope that SMILE Biscotti will expand, hiring others who can complement Matt's skill set and help in areas like customer service. One day, they figure, they'll even need another biscotti baker.
Once a week, Rob and Matt take the ends of the biscotti and donate them to a local food bank "for those who don't get to enjoy treats," Denise says.
Her hope is that people will like Matt and the biscotti he makes, but also that they will become educated about autism and know that "kids with autism grow up to be adults with autism," and there is hope for them to have a job and friends and a home.
Changing Hands' Shanks says the bookstore's bar also will serve food prepared through a program affiliated with SARRC, and they'll be selling muffins from The Stuttering King Bakery, which is operated by a friend of Matt Resnik's.
"We are excited and hope the public likes the food as much as we do," Shanks says.