Puzzles Bakery & Cafe has been everything Sara Mae Hickey hoped it would be when she opened it, and more. So she’s looking to do more.
She’s now seeking a location for a second Puzzles, and may offer franchise opportunities as well.
As she spoke to The Gazette last week, it was hard to tell what Hickey was happier about: Fulfilling the mission of Puzzles or finding a ready audience for it on State Street in her first year of operation.
She conceived Puzzles as a way to give developmentally disabled people a chance to work. She was inspired by her sister, Emily, who is two years younger and has autism.
After a lengthy planning and construction process, Puzzles had its grand opening April 2, 2015 — World Autism Day.
A little more than a year later, Hickey considers it an unqualified success. Business is good, and lunchtime is great. And more than half her employees have some form of developmental disability.
Given her experience with her sister, Hickey knew what to expect and how to interact with her workforce — their special needs haven’t presented a challenge.
“All of the surprises have been pleasant and happy surprises that have melted my heart,” she said, recalling her experiences with one young man who does not cope well with crowds. His Puzzles coworkers have helped him over the course of months and he’s now working more hours. His mother told Hickey that he’s getting ready hours before the start of his shift.
“Every day when he gets up he lays out his Puzzles uniform and takes such pride in his work,” Hickey said.
The dining public has responded positively to what Puzzles is doing and serving, she added.
“I think a lot of people come into Puzzles for the first time because they’ve heard about what we do,” Hickey said, but repeat customers come back for a clean space, friendly atmosphere and good food.
She’s had 700 applications from people who want to work for Puzzles, and heard interest from people near and far in getting a similar restaurant set up close to them.
Hickey said she’s heard from Ohio, Alabama and beyond — “I got a letter from New Zealand a few months ago,” she said.
None of which is practical for a 26-year-old Alplaus resident about to be married to her longtime boyfriend, Tyler Pratt. But Albany could work out, she said, or even Syracuse. “I’ve been doing a lot of research and I think that might be a good place for us,” she said.
Hickey has looked at Troy, but there’s already a lot of development going on in that downtown. And she’d love to be in Saratoga Springs, but the fast-casual food market is saturated there and space is expensive.
“We’re not ready for Saratoga just yet, but it’s always on my mind.”
The second Puzzles location is likely a year in the future, but the planning will resume right after the wedding. Hickey thinks franchising might be a good way to get the business model beyond her geographic reach.
“I think this is something our community really needs, and other communities need,” she said.
Hiring remains a bit tricky, despite that large pool of job applicants who want to work for Puzzles. Hickey wants to have an integrated workforce, some developmentally disabled and some not, but she’s legally barred from asking applicants if they are disabled.
“I feel like a detective sometimes,” she said, but she’ll often find the answer right on the job application.
“A lot of people self-disclose,” she explained.
There’s a wide range of disabilities and a wide range of impacts from those disabilities: Some people can live independently and drive, others need almost constant assistance — even just within the autism spectrum.
“If you know one person with autism, you know one person with autism,” Hickey said. So she looks at each worker’s likes, dislikes, abilities and disabilities, and goes from there.
“We embrace those differences and work with every single person,” she said.
Hickey’s degree is in government and international relations. She had no formal culinary training before opening Puzzles, just some experience working at Panera Bread and in Saratoga restaurants while she was attending Skidmore.
It might seem an unlikely path to the casual observer, but Hickey didn’t hesitate to follow it.
“I’m somebody that believes if you want to do something, you have the world at your fingertips,” she said.
Reach business editor John Cropley at 395-3104, [email protected] or @cropjohn on Twitter.