With a heart to serve people with disabilities, Carmela Toler and her business partner, Cindy Carter, opened an ice cream franchise that focuses on hiring those with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Located on North New Jersey Street, the pastel blue and pink sign that reads “Howdy Homemade Ice Cream” on the front of the building makes the shop stand out.
The bright yellow walls on the inside create a fun dine-in experience for the guests, who can choose from an assortment of homemade ice cream flavors including Egg Nog, Dr. Pepper Chocolate Chip, Cookie Nom’ster, Lemon Raspberry, Cheesecake Cherry and Birthday Cake.
In 2021 while watching the news, Toler and Carter heard about the Texas-based ice cream shop and how it survived the pandemic because workers continued to go to work despite everything that was going on. What sparked their interest even more was that the franchise hires those with disabilities.
Toler said she noticed a need in Indianapolis to connect people with disabilities to jobs.
The business partners began their journey to bring Howdy to the Midwest a year ago when they applied for the franchise and got approved, and then they traveled to the original Howdy in Dallas to meet with the founder, Tom Landis.
Finding the location in Indianapolis was the longest part of the process. Toler and Carter chose the location on North New Jersey Street because of the foot traffic. The shop opened in September, making it the only Howdy in the Midwest.
Toler and Carter met in 1991 while they worked at a church, St. Vincent New Hope, where they helped people with disabilities. The ice cream shop owners have worked with people with disabilities for 40 years.
Carter said she chose the work because she noticed people with disabilities don’t have the same opportunities and wanted “the ability to impact lives.”
Toler got her start in the 1980s in New York, helping people with disabilities get acclimated to the community. The work “clicked” for her, Toler said.
Carter and Toler currently work at LEL Home Services — Carter as chief operating officer and Toler as CEO.
Toler’s goal for employees at the ice cream shop is to have them open and close the store by themselves and operate everything inside of the store. Toler has set up different stations around the store for the workers to learn how to operate the cash register and make the ice cream and waffle cones.
“We believe that the people we serve should have a typical opportunity like you and I,” Toler said.
Katerina Austrom, 26, one of Howdy’s employees, said she was having a hard time finding a job before she started working at the ice cream shop in September 2022.
“I was trying to find other jobs but didn’t find one that suited me or that I liked that much,” Austrom said while standing behind the register.
Austrom said she likes being able to work with other people with disabilities.
Toler said the shop was awarded a $50,000 grant from the Division of Disability and Rehab Services, which will be used for the owners to help those with disabilities receive employment.
Toler and Carter plan to open another Howdy within the next six to eight months in Indiana, though they have not decided on where yet.
For more information contact Indianapolis Recorder staff writer Timoria Cunningham at 317-762-7854 or by email TimoriaC@IndyRecorder.com. Follow her on Twitter at @_timoriac.