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Opportunity Served

Black Sheep Food Company cooks up employment for people with disablities.

By Mark Storer

Photo by Marie Gregorio-Oviedo

Gwenyth (center), mother Andrea Goetz (right) and Sue Murphy check out fresh peaches at the Thousand Oaks Farmers Market for use in Black Sheep’s jams and jellies.

 

oo Hoo’s Asian Comfort Food was Cindy Liu’s idea to bring Asian flavors to the fresh refrigerated section of stores. “It was a business school idea,” said Liu, a resident of Newbury Park, about her first venture. “I’ve always loved cooking and it was learning by doing.” That business evolved into a catering business and, according to Liu, it floated along nicely, though sporadically, until she got pregnant five years ago.

The pregnancy was easy and Samantha’s birth, too, went smoothly. Born with Down syndrome, however, complications set in three days later. Liu and her husband, Brad, were told that “Sammy” was having a hard time breathing and that she was being diagnosed with PPHN or persistent pulmonary hypertension of the newborn. “I went home from the hospital after three days, but without Sammy,” recalled Liu. 

Sammy was treated at UCLA, even spending over 10 days on an experimental heart-lung bypass machine, and remained in the neonatal intensive care unit for 72 days. Happily, she survived, but the experience changed everything for the Lius.

“The whole business, the whole idea of starting a food company, was on the back burner,” said Liu. “We were depressed, sort of sad. You know you’re mourning the loss of something. But the fact is, we didn’t have experience with Down syndrome.” 

Liu felt herself at a crossroads. Was it to be career or family? The answer, in fact, was a fusion of both. At the heart of it all was Liu’s two passions of food and social change. “I remember screaming down to my husband, ‘Honey, I’m going to build something for her!’ ” Liu said. She felt that she needed to create a company, not a nonprofit, but a business that would change the perception of how the world sees Sammy, and how Sammy sees the world. Loo Hoo’s Asian Comfort Food became Sammy’s Kitchen, a catering company that brought Liu’s passions together.

She began to reach out to places like the Institute for Social Business at California State University, Channel Islands, to research how to move forward, taking classes and working with Maria Ballesteros-Sola, a lecturer at the institute, and her students. “If I’m going to change perception,” said Liu, “I don’t want what I’m doing to be seen as a charity. There are certainly supports that are needed and I saw that.” But Liu also knew, after her business school education, that she had to “crack that nut” of creating a business that hired disabled people, paid an equitable wage and provided a new cultural reference for people with disabilities and a public that tends to have one perception. 

“It’s really been wonderful to follow her through this evolution,” said Ballesteros-Sola. “She’s been such an advocate to change the culture of perception of how people with disabilities are seen.” 

That may be an understatement. While deeply focused with a passionate love for food and natural ingredients, Liu read, studied, wrote and talked about the culture of perception that surrounds people with disabilities. Ballesteros-Sola connected her with TEDxCamarillo and Liu gave a talk inspired by her encounter at a local McDonald’s while Sammy and her brother, Jack, ate ice cream. A man walked up to Liu and, looking at Sammy, asked, “Is she smart?”

Outwardly, Liu simply answered, “Of course she’s smart,” but inwardly, she was infuriated. “Who does that? Who asks a question like that?” she said. It wasn’t the only time she faced the culture of perception of disabled people, but it did spur her into action.

“It’s just a truth that people feel uncomfortable being served at a wedding or at a fundraising event by someone in a wheelchair because it highlights privilege and access. . . . People need to see our kids working, doing jobs that kids do, that people do. There’s a cultural shift that needs to happen,” Liu said. She wants people with disabilities to be seen first as people, not as disabled, and be recognized as valued members of society.

In her research, she discovered a 1938 law called the Fair Labor Standards Act. Among other things, the law established a minimum wage standard and prevented forced child labor. But the law also stipulates that a company that hires people with disabilities may pay them less than minimum wage. “We’re fighting for minimum wage and an opportunity to be educated equally,” Liu said.

That idea coincided with another revelation in Liu’s working life. Sammy’s Kitchen had now changed to Black Sheep Food Company, a name she and Ballesteros-Sola debated for some time. But it was a name she was committed to. “I saw a video documentary and a farmer was saying, ‘Our food culture is damaged and it needs to change,’ ” she said. “Nature designs it that way. I remember when Fuji apples were first introduced to the U.S. and my mom would always want the scarred and bruised ones.” Liu said she remembers the apples tasting tart and crunchy and juicy and wonderful. “Now they’ve been in the market for more than a decade and they’re different. There are no scars on them, they’ve been cleaned and they’re awful.”

Liu learned that nature seeks difference. “This farmer talked about black sheep and he said that black sheep aren’t shunned in sheep society. Nature seeks out difference and it values difference.” The lightbulb turned on.

She views her daughter’s chromosomal abnormality through a similar lens: different, but not less than. “It’s exactly the way nature intended,” Liu said. 

The idea also led her to think differently about the food she was creating. She began to seek out producers at farmers markets who had surplus produce that, while perfectly good, wasn’t going to be on the grocery shelves.

Black Sheep Food Company was born out of the notion of working with the natural differences in people and in product. “I always say there is a nice poetry of perfectly good food that is blemished and gets cast aside, and perfectly good people who are blemished and get cast aside,” Liu said.

Black Sheep Food Company produces artisan jams and jellies using fresh local produce and creating unique flavors as well, like strawberry Meyer lemon marmalade and a triple marmalade using pineapple among other fruits. “We’re working on recipes and different canning techniques,” Liu said. “Eventually we’ll do pickling and other shelf-stable foods, chutneys and other things. The ultimate vision is to have a commercial kitchen where we produce our items as well as contract with smaller producers and support other businesses, with a tasting room with baked goods and coffee.” 

Working with an advisory committee made up primarily of moms of kids with various disabilities, Liu said the company’s goal is not only to produce quality items, but to provide careers for people with special needs that will allow them to make equitable wages and a comparable way of life. “In the space we have, we’ll also have a window into the working area so everyone can see us and what we’re doing.”

What everyone will see, of course, is exactly what Liu has adopted as Black Sheep Food Company’s motto: “Different. As nature intended.” 

Black Sheep Food Company
blacksheepfoodco@gmail.com
www.facebook.com/BlackSheepFoodCo/

Cindy Liu (far right) with Black Sheep advisory committee members Aimee Maharaj, Chika Johnson, Sally Serles and Cindy Idell in the company’s test kitchen.

07-01-2017

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