Wednesday, December 4, 2013
Some people might flip through Eric Hughes' nine-page business plan, shake their heads sympathetically and dismiss it as a pipe dream.
Fulfilling a lifelong dream to operate a food cart all his own, Eric Hughes has opened a pizza business operating at the corner of Marginal Way and Chestnut Street in Portland. Eric, who has a rare disease that impedes certain brain functions, has impressed supporters with his eagerness to learn and ever-present smile. “Once you talk with him, you realize it’s a serious endeavor and not just a whim,” said Peter Brown, who oversees Strive U, a program that helps young adults with developmental disabilities learn to live independently.
Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer
Eric Hughes serves a slice of pizza Tuesday, with his job coach, Logan Abbey, beside him. Each day they roll the food cart a quarter-mile from its storage building to the sales location.
A 21-year-old kid, who has spent all his life with a genetic disorder that causes developmental delays and learning disabilities, wants to own and operate his own business?
He wants to sell pizza and sandwiches from a 600-pound, state- and city-licensed food cart, complete with its own propane-fired generator?
He wants to find a place on the Portland peninsula where the competition is sparse, the people are plentiful and the potential for profit is through the roof?
"At the end of the day, you feel good that you've done a full day's work," Eric said with a broad smile this week. "Especially when you haven't worked in a while."
Welcome to Eric's Pizza Express, which opened two weeks ago at the corner of Marginal Way and Chestnut Street. It's brought to you by, well, an entire community.
First, a little background on the owner.
Eric grew up in Gray, where he attended public schools and graduated from Gray-New Gloucester High School in 2008.
He was born with Williams syndrome, a rare disease that impedes certain brain functions like abstract reasoning, spatial relations and the ability to process numbers. Left unaffected is the ability to speak clearly, socialize and, at least in Eric's case, get to know all the right people.
People like Peter Brown, who oversees Strive U, a two-year post-secondary program affiliated with the University of Southern Maine that helps young adults with developmental disabilities learn to live as independently as possible while they make the leap from adolescence to adulthood.
A while back, Brown heard that Eric, who's halfway through Strive U, has long been a fan of amusement parks and fairs -- particularly the food carts that often crowd the midways. In fact, it was Eric's lifelong dream to operate a food cart all his own.
"Once you meet Eric and once you talk with him, you realize it's a serious endeavor and not just a whim," Brown said. "This is exactly what we want -- for people to be as independent as possible. And Eric has certainly grasped that."
Brown approached Tony Barrasso, owner of Anthony's Italian Kitchen on Middle Street in Portland's Old Port. Barrasso's 18-year-old grandson, who has autism, happened to be Eric's roommate.
Brown explained to Barrasso what Eric wanted to do. Replied Barrasso, a loyal and generous supporter of Strive U: "Send the kid over for a chat."
Maybe it was Eric's ever-present smile, or his eagerness to learn everything from food ordering to the ins and outs of business insurance, or his ease with customers when Barrasso had him take a turn behind the restaurant counter.
Whatever it was, they clicked.
"The more I listened to him, the more I said, 'Hey, why not?'" recalled Barrasso. "Whatever I have to do, I'll do."
Barrasso, like so many others, has done a lot.
He agreed to become Eric's supplier, loading him up each morning with Anthony's trademark cheese and pepperoni pizzas, sandwiches, chips and cold drinks -- all at wholesale prices.
He also found Eric help to run the cart. Logan Abbey, who works for Barrasso, recently took a one-week training course through Strive U and now has a second job as Eric's job coach.
Getting hold of the food, however, was only half the battle. Eric still needed a cart from which to sell it.
Enter Phil Divinsky, who taught Eric about the fast-food business a few years ago while Eric attended Portland Arts and Technology High School. One call from Divinsky to the school's welding program and, just like that, students at PATHS fabricated a food-cart chassis to help out the alumnus-turned-entrepreneur.
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