The new store has hired 10 part-time employees who have special needs ranging from autism to Down syndrome.

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Before the first piece of salt water taffy was ordered, a Meridian, Idaho, candy shop was no more than a jelly bean of an idea in the mind of Cyndy Radovich.

On Feb. 4, Radovich opened Sweet Zola’s Candy Shop on Main Street, a store that hires employees with special needs.

For the past 12 years, Radovich, who runs her own company, Autism and Developmental Consultation, in Boise, has been writing behavioral assessments that train families and therapists how to work with individuals with special needs. Through her work, Radovich has watched teen and young-adult clients with autism and other behavioral health diagnoses lose jobs as fast as they were hired.

“[The people I work with] were unsuccessful with their jobs for various reasons,” Radovich says. “Managers didn’t understand the needs they have, especially when they appear to be typical adults.”

Radovich originally intended to open a coffee shop that would hire employees with special needs. She raised $1,600 last summer and flew to Kennesaw, Georgia, to talk to Lorna Heid of Independent Grounds, a coffee shop that hires employees with special needs.

“I met with [Lorna] for a few hours, and the reality of it was she put $100,000 into it and it wasn’t succeeding the way she had hoped,” Radovich says. “I felt really discouraged, but I thought, ‘I’m still going to do it.’”

Her first priority? Find a location.

Potter’s Tea House endured financial hardship when North Main Street in front of the shop was under construction for nine months. Radovich reached out to the owners and proposed that they share the space to help one another. Potter’s agreed.

The only problem? Potter’s Tea House also sold coffee, so Radovich’s coffee shop idea no longer worked. Her business needed to be something complementary. “What would be good with tea?” Radovich thought.

That’s when it dawned on her: candy.

After settling on the product, Radovich sought a name for the shop. A friend suggested ‘Sweet Zola’s,’ after Radovich’s almost 2-year-old daughter.

“There’s nothing I love more, so why not?” Radovich says.

Lastly, she needed employees.

Radovich has hired 10 part-time employees who have special needs ranging from autism to Down syndrome. Two of the employees work 15 hours a week, and the rest work anywhere from two to six hours a week. All the employees make $8 to $9 an hour.

“I can’t tell you how many résumés I’ve gotten,” Radovich says. “I wish I could take everyone and I pretty much have, [laughs] but there are some at this point that I have to turn away. I’d like to open more employee positions in the future. I just can’t afford it right now because we wouldn’t stay open.”

Radovich says she has expectations of her workers, as any boss would of any employee.

“They are all so excited,” Radovich says. “I receive text messages thanking me for the opportunity.”

Radovich has kept her business as a behavioral consultant but has cut her time to 20 hours a week so she can spend more time with her daughter and training her employees in the candy store. Training is second nature for Radovich, and though she says she runs a tight ship, making sure none of her employees are simply standing around, she ensures that her employees’ time spent working in the store is filled with laughter and encouragement.

“You just have to focus and tell yourself, ‘I’m doing this all by myself and I’m independent,'” she tells Cody Lumley, one of her employees.

“I work with all developmental disabilities and most of my clients are dual-diagnosis, so we also have the mental health side of it,” Radovich says. “There are multiple employees I make sure I’m here with them at all times just so that I can help them with on-the-job training.”

The store hasn’t turned a profit yet. Money that comes in goes straight to buying more candy and employee paychecks, Radovich says. She isn’t yet taking any of the money herself. When the store becomes profitable, Radovich wants to start a charity to give some of the profits to.

“I want everyone to see that people with disabilities can do the same jobs that we do,” she says. “What I’m saying to the world is everyone needs to do this. Employ these individuals. I shouldn’t be the only one doing this. It changes these individuals’ lives and creates self-esteem.”