Some people might flip through Eric Hughes’ nine-page business plan, shake their heads sympathetically and dismiss it as a pipe dream.

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?


That too.

“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.

Next came John Bryant, a metal worker from Gray, who designed and built the cart at what Bill Hughes, Eric’s father, calls a “very reasonable price.”

The list goes on.

Dan Maloney is president of Knowles Industrial Services Corp. in Gorham. He met Eric two years ago at a mutual friend’s graduation party. Like so many people, Maloney was struck by the young man’s upbeat, engaging personality.

“After that first meeting, I couldn’t stop thinking about him,” Maloney said. “I just couldn’t seem to get this kid off my mind.”

Several weeks later, Maloney was at Holy Martyrs Church in Falmouth, waiting for Sunday Mass to begin. Again, Eric entered his thoughts.


“So I closed my eyes,” Maloney recalled. “And I asked God, ‘What are you telling me? Am I supposed to help this kid?’

Opening his eyes, he suddenly spotted Eric and his father, who’d come down from Gray to go to Mass, sitting nearby. After the service, Maloney approached them, reintroduced himself and said he wanted to help Eric in any way that he could.

Maloney has mentored Eric ever since. He helped him write the Eric’s Pizza Express business plan, which includes everything from a market analysis (1,000 workers and 200 USM students within a short walk of his corner on Marginal Way) to an advertising strategy (fliers, e-mails, a Facebook page and, of course, media coverage) and an expansion timetable (after a year, Eric hopes to replace his job coach with an actual employee).

Maloney also bought Eric a shed for the food cart. It now sits in a nearby lot at Earle W. Noyes & Sons Moving Specialists — the moving company readily agreed to provide Eric with the overnight storage site for free.

Then there’s the Portland Kiwanis Club, which covered a substantial chunk of Eric’s $7,000 in startup money. (Another chunk came via a grant from the Maine Small Business Development Center.)

In return, Eric agreed to let the Kiwanis Club use the cart several times each year at various club events. And oh yes, Eric joined Kiwanis.


That connection led Eric to fellow Kiwanian Glenn Johnson, owner of Johnson & Co. CPAs in Scarborough. Johnson handles all of the books for Eric’s Pizza Express at no charge — at least for now.

“My end goal is to try to teach Eric how to do his books by himself using the accounting software on our computers,” Johnson said this week. “I think it’s doable.”

Finally, we have the competition.

For the past 27 years, Mark Gatti has operated Mark’s Hot Dogs in Tommy’s Park in the Old Port.

When he heard about Eric’s plan, Gatti invited the young upstart to come by and learn about the ins and outs of the food-cart business. He even stepped back and let Eric try his hand at selling hot dogs to long lines of hungry lunch-hour customers.

“He’s a sweet kid,” Gatti said. “With help, at least in the short term, he should be very successful.’ Not that it will be easy. Each morning and afternoon, Eric and Abbey, his coach, hook a hand-held tow bar to the pizza cart, take up their positions in the front and back and slowly roll it the quarter-mile to and from its storage unit.


“The hard part is, it’s hard to turn on corners, so you have to be real careful what you’re doing,” Eric said. “But you put (the tow bar) under the cart, lock it up and it works. It takes you anywhere!”

The bottom line can be equally daunting. A few days ago, Eric panicked after sitting down with Barrasso to see how Eric’s Pizza Express did in its opening week.

“He thought he’d only made $20,” Barrasso said with a chuckle. “But it turned out he made himself $410 for the first week. He was thrilled.”

He’s far from the only one.

“He smiles on the world,” said Gatti, the hot dog salesman. “And the world smiles back.”

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.