New Popcorn Shop Puts People with Disabilities to Work

Jake's Gourmet Popcorn is a sister shop to Jake's Ice Cream. Between them, they employ 33 local residents with disabilities.
Jakes Popcorn

Connor, a member of the staff at Jake’s Gourmet Popcorn, which opened in August in Falls Church. (Photo courtesy of Robin Rinearson)

Jake’s Gourmet Popcorn, which opened in early August in Seven Corners, is taking popcorn to the next level with flavors like toffee, maple-bacon, crabby (sprinkled with Old Bay), buffalo and “frooty tooty.”

As the shop hits its groove, the staff is busy flavoring the flakes (popped kernels), scooping them into bags and tins for sale, slapping labels on, and then cleaning up.

That’s all pretty routine for a food business. Less expected is that 12 of the storefront’s 14 employees are disabled. It’s the same setup as sister shop Jake’s Ice Cream in Barcroft Plaza on Columbia Pike, where 21 of 27 workers have disabilities such as cerebral palsy, speech and language challenges, Down syndrome and autism. The workers range in age from 17 to mid-50s.

“They do everything that anybody else would be expected to do in a food service environment,” says Robin Rinearson, a Falls Church native who owns both shops. “My whole thrust here is trying to make people to understand that when you employ someone with a disability, you can train them to function independently more of the time than people give them credit for.”

Rinearson didn’t start out intending to open a popcorn place. She was looking for a location for a second ice cream parlor. But when she found the perfect 1,700-square-foot spot in Seven Corners Center, about 3 miles from the ice cream shop she opened two years ago, she had to devise a different concept to comply with her lease’s noncompete clause.

Jake’s Gourmet Popcorn now sells more than 20 flavors, from traditional plain and kettle corn to inventive options such as birthday cake, bacon-cheddar and maple-bourbon. The store also sells popcorn-covered strawberry shortcake and lemon pound cake.

An optometrist in Arlington for almost 45 years, Rinearson was no stranger to running a business when she opened the ice cream parlor in August 2021. She’d had her sights set on retiring but shifted her vision when the pandemic put her nephew Jake, who has cerebral palsy, out of a job.

A friend suggested she open an ice cream shop where Jake and others with disabilities could work. Today, employees there measure and prepare ingredients for 28 ice cream flavors. They work in teams to make cake pops, Rice Krispie treats and coated Oreos; scoop ice cream and make sundaes and milkshakes for customers; and handle the register.


Staff member Ellen behind the counter at Jake’s Gourmet Popcorn in Seven Corners. (Photo courtesy of Robin Rinearson)

Jake, 30, works at the ice cream parlor on Saturdays and will also start picking up shifts at his namesake popcorn shop after Labor Day weekend. “He’s very sociable,” Rinearson says. “He’ll ask people what their name is, and then he’ll say, ‘I’m Jake. I’m the Jake.’”

Although working seven days a week to run two confectionary shops wasn’t part of her original retirement plan, Rinearson says it suits her personality. “I never thought I would just vacation and hang around and do yard work and stuff like that. That’s definitely not me,” she says. “I’m always a busy person, so this is this is right up my alley for staying occupied.”

Plus, she has long been passionate about the population that makes up the majority of her workforce.

“My post-doc was in pediatrics and developmental vision, so I’ve worked with the disabilities community my entire career,” she says. “My doctoral thesis was on Down syndrome. So even before I had a nephew that had an issue, this was something that was near and dear to me.”

Anyone who’s interested in a job may apply by sending Rinearson a resume. Except for manager positions, there are no job descriptions. “Basically, are they personable? Can they listen to instruction? Can they probably follow directions? Do they get along well with others?” she says. “That’s really pretty much what I want to know when I hire somebody. Most of the skills we have here can be taught to just about anyone.”

Rinearson also works with Arlington Public Schools’ Program for Employment Preparedness. This year she plans to sync up with Alexandria City Public Schools on partnerships and internships that train students for summer or post-graduation jobs in the two shops.

“Most of the places that have job coaches or that have job training for people with disabilities do what I call the ‘one-trick pony’ method of job skills teaching,” she says. “They teach them to do one thing – empty trash cans or wash dishes or use a vacuum cleaner – and that’s it. In the real world, there aren’t practical jobs that just have one skill. A real job works at your kids being able to learn some skills and do them independently, and if it takes a while to teach it, then it takes a while.”

Her efforts are getting attention. The Arc of Northern Virginia, an advocacy organization comprised of people with disabilities and their families and allies, recently honored Rinearson with its Catalyst of Change award.

In May, she received the Eleanor Sue Finkelstein Inclusion and Disabilities Award from the Pozez Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia.

“When people see how the staff works in our shops, they’re impressed, which is nice,” Rinearson says. “But the whole idea is not to impress them. It’s to demonstrate that this is an absolutely doable, functional thing.”

Find Jake’s Gourmet Popcorn at 6328 Seven Corners Center and Jake’s Ice Cream at 6353 Columbia Pike, both in Falls Church.

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Categories: Food & Drink