Photo: Luv MIchael
Dr. Lisa Liberatore, MD is a renowned board-certified Otolaryngology (ENT = Ears, Nose, and Throat) Specialist, a mother, and the founder of Luv Michael, a granola company born out of a mission to train, educate, and employ individuals with autism.
We sat down (remotely) to speak with Dr. Liberatore about her journey building a mission-driven company and about where the path leads from here.
NEW YORK MAKERS: How did Luv Michael begin?
DR. LISA LIBERATORE, MD: Interestingly, it really went step by step. I didn’t know anything about the food business going into it. I have my own [ENT] practice, so I knew about running a business. My family were merchants -- my father had several fish markets -- so I sort of understood that concept, but aside from that, it was new.
It just kept happening serendipitously. I just kept falling into the next person that would help us. I was talking to a patient about the idea, that I was worried about my son Michael, who has autism. I worried about what he was going to do when he graduated. I told her that he loves cooking and thought that maybe he could be a prep chef. We had volunteered at our church and he’d done such an amazing job with the food prep there.
Dr. Lisa Liberatore, MD with her son, and inspiration, Michael, at the New York Makers + Luv Michael Valentine's Pop Up Gift Shop in Tribeca
She had gone to the Culinary Institute of Education and was impressed with an educator there, Jeff Yoskowitz. She told me that she wanted to introduce me to him to see what he thought. She arranged a meeting and I showed Jeff a video of Michael cooking. He saw Michael’s ability and offered to find a chef who had graduated from CIE who might be able to do some instruction. The initial idea was to start in the home. I talked with Michael’s principal and took him out of school two days a week to work with Chef Sarah Chaminade, a pastry chef and graduate of CIE. She had compassion and her and Michael clicked right away. It was a perfect match.
She came to our house and started working with Michael. Her friend was a special education teacher and she told us that she’d been speaking with her friend and that she thought the best way forward was to treat our home kitchen like a commercial kitchen -- [so we added] a handwashing station, color coded boards for food prep, all of that. She started teaching him the basics of food handling and food prep and then I thought, why don’t we make a little home business? That way, he could make something and give it away. We do everything with Michael in a very scheduled way and I thought that a good thing for him to learn would be to make something and to give it to somebody. That concept.
NYM: How did you settle on granola?
LL: We tried different things. He’s on a gluten-free, dairy-free diet. A lot of autistic people are very sensitive to different foods, especially gluten and dairy. We tried a few different things and then Chef Sarah suggested granola. It’s a set recipe, you can make it from beginning to end in one day, there are no knives, and it lends itself to working in a group.
Photos: Luv Michael
We made a few different recipes and did some taste tests to perfect the formula and came up with the Luv Michael original recipe.
Then, I was working in my office and met a patient and asked what she did. She said that she worked at Entrepreneur Kitchen in Long Island City. I asked what that was and she told me they take peoples’ businesses out of their homes and make them into real businesses.
I was “wowed". I didn’t know that even existed. I asked for the contact information and called the owner of Entrepreneur Kitchen (the Entrepreneur Space run by Mi Kitchen es Su Kitchen, which is a not-for-profit). I spoke to the owner, Katherine Gregory, about our idea and she loved it. Unbeknownst to me, she has two grandchildren on the spectrum. She told me that we have a person in the kitchen who acts as an assistant for two hours of your eight hour time slot. She told me about an employee named Diane who is a culinary educator with experience working with autistic people, helping them to cook in their home.
I went to the Entrepreneur Kitchen and thought it was perfect. They even had a special gluten-free kitchen, which was perfect. It was small -- a little wing inside of the big kitchen. I wanted Michael to be able to cook with a friend and connected with a graduate, who also has autism, of Michael’s school. He was interested in cooking and living in a group home. We brought him to the kitchen one day a week and, soon, all of these other people started to google us and find out what we were doing.
Next to the kitchen in New York City is a Goodwill. Goodwill had three clients looking for jobs who were trying to find something that was a good fit. They brought me Steven, Ralph, and Obi. Obi and Steven are still with Luv Michael. And that was 2016. Steven had been unable to remain in a position because people kept hiring and firing him. He’s still with us and he’s one of our best employees.
I realized that I didn’t want it to just be about making granola. That would be boring. You don’t have to have a New York City food license to work in the entrepreneur kitchen, as long as one person group is licensed. And I realized that the licensing could be part of the curriculum.
Photo: Luv Michael
So I reached out to Michael’s special education teacher, Sarah Kull, who is great with Michael and also works independently of schools. I asked if she’d come join us to give one hour of curriculum to the day so that our kids could earn a New York State food handler’s license.
She came right away and fell in love with everyone. I wanted to make sure that everyone had everything -- the chef jackets, the uniform. Just putting on the uniform completely changed their demeanor. We decided that, when we officially offer someone a job, we would present them with their chef uniform as part of the hiring process. You volunteer with us for 4-6 weeks, like a working interview, and then, when we hire you, Michael or another one of the Granologists presents you with the uniform.
Photo: Luv Michael
We were growing in the entrepreneur kitchen because they were introducing us to so many other people. They have a grant and a development section so they connected us to Starbucks. We met with them and they put us in their stores. They advised us to apply for the JetBlue competition, which we did and won. We won their entrepreneur program of the year. So the kitchen was very much instrumental in getting us on our feet.
The next big change was meeting Ricardo Cordero. Ricardo owns his own company and is a consumer packaged goods consultant. We found him through research and asked him for a meeting. He met with us and decided to take us on pro bono.
From then on, we were able to consult him about any decision. He mentored us.
NYM: How did you become a not-for-profit?
LL: We made Luv Michael into a not-for-profit early on. Everything we were doing had so many expenses attached -- having a special education teacher, assistants for the employees, etc. We got that status in 2017 and that allowed us to apply for grants.
My husband and I have a commercial space in Tribeca, New York, and decided to dedicate the space to a Luv Michael initiative -- moving the operation into that space, building a commercial kitchen, classroom, teaching room, and using the front for pop up retail.
New York Makers + Luv Michael Valentine's Pop Up Gift Shop in Tribeca, February 2020
We had the ribbon-cutting in October 2019. We were up to 12 Granologists, and Ricardo joined our board.
NYM: What differences do you see in your employees with autism once they become part of the program?
LL: The biggest thing is their self esteem. It’s transformative in that area. Four of our employees have actually passed the New York City food license due to our teacher, Sarah’s, education. The test is very difficult. They’re very proud of their work. Also the feeling of acceptance. One of our Granologists announced that they were transgender. He felt safe enough and accepted enough to do that. It’s a community of admiration and appreciation.
NYM: How does COVID-19 factor into your story?
LL: Everything seems like a Cinderella story. But we still were not profitable. In fact, my husband and I were putting in money every month. We didn’t see a road to financial stability. And that’s worrying because the goal is to be able to replicate it.
All of the companies love your product, but they want it for as close to zero as possible to be able to make a profit on it. The real mission gets lost there because the whole purpose of this is not so much to have a granola business, but to give a meaningful job to Michael and others with autism.
In March, I reached out to somebody named Mark Biondi and asked him to consult. At that point, COVID-19 hit. We had to close the kitchen and find a way to explain to the Granologists what’s happening. Anxiety is a big issue. Mark suggested we create a page using a software called LiveLively. We’d have the Granologists talk about their work and ask for donations. Each donation is tied to a thank you. We tried it and it worked really well. People from all walks of life were giving donations. It bought us a little time trying to figure out how to keep giving everyone a paycheck.
And then, Mark had the idea of virtually incorporating volunteers. We decided to create a virtual community service platform with the goal of educating about autism and with the hope that the education would decrease the isolation experienced by many people who have autism.
Graphic: Luv Michael
We kept growing the virtual volunteer program and hit onto something that is unbelievable. Every day, at least 20 teenagers are connecting with us as volunteers to do their virtual community service hours. And they’re creating their own donation platform, at the same time, because each volunteer works spread awareness of autism to at least 30 people. Often, they get donations as well.
This has allowed us to really increase our margins and it brings us back to a core mission of the project. We started it out of the idea that Michael could give granola as a thank you and now, with each donation, we give granola to contributors as a thank you. They’re not buying a box of granola. It’s a thank you. And that means that our cost ratio is much more sustainable.
I’m really proud of what’s happening now. In some ways, COVID-19 allowed us to stop for a minute and see what we were doing and try to come up with a different strategy.
It’s truly becoming a Cinderella story, now. We are able to stay true to our mission, which is to train, educate, and employ. We’ve started working with our employees much more on technology skills and tools during this time. They’re also growing their communication skills -- we incorporate Zoom calls and Slack into the volunteer hours -- and it keeps that community strong.
We’ve run the numbers and through this program so far, we’ve had 5,000 conversations with teenagers about autism. So we’re building a network across the country. And this is my dream, that the world becomes a more friendly and understanding place.