Jake’s Ice Cream Shop is a Love Story

(It takes) a village called Jake’s

Robin Rinearson would say this story is not about her, it’s about the men and women who work at Jake’s. But without her, there would be no Jake’s Ice Cream parlor. Rinearson, with her silver hair pulled back and bright eyes surveying the shop, bustled around as she spoke. After 44 years as a successful optometrist, she could have just gone on cruises when she retired, but instead, decided to use her retirement nest egg to open an ice cream store. She wanted to employ kids and young adults who couldn’t necessarily get work experience elsewhere because they were “differently abled,” like her nephew, Jake, who has cerebral palsy. “It was all about Jake,” she says. “He lost his job at ETron during the pandemic and couldn’t find another. He missed working.” So, knowing nothing about running an ice cream business, she invested about $250,000 in equipment and start-up costs. Jake was there to start work the first day. Now that is love. 

Even before she had a nephew with cerebral palsy, Rinearson was the kind of person who loved to take care of patients who needed special attention. Her postdoctoral study was in pediatrics and developmental optometry. Several of the young patients she took care of in her former practice came to work in the ice cream shop when she opened it. 

You get great ice cream at Jake’s, made on the premises, served with big smiles. The flavors and ingredients are real, not imitation. But there is something else going on there. Not only does Rinearson make it possible for her young employees to work and earn a wage, they also have something they don’t have if they sit at home — a social life. They have something they might not have enjoyed in school — a sense of adding value and of doing something well. 

The shop has gotten plenty of recognition. One Voice of America video features Adam, whose spastic quadriplegic cerebral palsy makes it very hard for him to do anything on his own. He is in a wheelchair. Rinearson hired him to be her greeter and social media manager. Greeting is an easy task — he loves people — but doing the computer work requires the use of voice commands exclusively since he can’t use his hands. It takes him many voice commands to move the mouse along a grid to the right place. It’s painstaking, but he loves it. It’s time when he doesn't depend on others and he’s good at it.

There are days when Rinearson can’t quite believe how things have come together. When her employees were having trouble with some of the basic tasks of retail work, like making the correct change quickly, Poolesville High School offered a solution. The school’s engineering classes wanted to design technology that can help differently abled people. They found Rinearson and asked her to make a list of what she needed. In addition to making change, she needed a way for employees to wrap and label cake pops: they now use a special device to remove the stickers from the backing to get the job done and a cash register app that helps them make change easily by showing the number of bills and coins in their proper denomination.

Arlington County Public Schools sends a bus with kids from its PEP (Program for Employment Preparedness) to Jake’s to work from 9:45 to noon two days a week. They like giving their students work experience in the real world. They send a job coach from the Arlington Career Center named Joe Rubenstein who works with the three students during their time at Jake’s. He teaches life skills, work skills, and perhaps most important, soft skills, like advocating for oneself, communication, imitating. Rubinstein worked for 21 years in APS as a teacher and four in his current job at the career center. He said hands down this is the best job he’s had.

Rinearson hired a chef named Paul Badey who runs the kitchen and trains his employees on how to make ice cream, ice cream cakes, decorated cookies, pretzels and cake pops, ice cream cupcakes, and cocoa bombs. Badey said he loves working with his staff and considers them “easy” to manage compared to some of his previous jobs. For one thing, they don’t drink alcohol, or do drugs; they don’t come in comparing notes about who went out with whom, they have a lot of self-discipline, and they are loyal workers. His biggest challenge is to refocus his staff from the occasional distraction, but that is what keeps it fun. 

One of his workers is Meghan, a cheery young woman who is excited to talk about her job. She went to McLean High School and is in a Fairfax County program for adults with disabilities. She has Down Syndrome. Meaghan relates easily to people and loves having a job. She greets a mother who has brought her daughter with Down Syndrome into Jake’s for ice cream. One of the benefits of Jake’s is how parents with children with disabilities can come in for ice cream and “no one looks at them funny.” They are able to relate to the servers and feel good about their community of like-minded people. Students in programs like PEP are able to see a future for themselves. 

The hardest thing for young people like Meghan and her colleagues is finding paying jobs. The only other business that employs and pays differently-abled people coming out of the Arlington PEP is Nando’s Peri Peri in Rosslyn. Some companies train students on unpaid internships, but once they have the skills, the newly trained young people are not offered jobs. 

The second hardest thing is that you can only make so much money before the benefits available to people who are on SSDI (Social Security Disability Insurance) or Medicaid waivers are discontinued. Adam cannot live on his own, and his parents get some assistance with physical therapy and equipment needed to enable him to stay healthy. But the Substantial Gainful Activity (SGA) limit on wages limits his working hours. In 2021, workers who were disabled could earn up to $1,310 per month and still qualify under the SGA limit. Because of discontinuing this sub minimum wage requirement, people who are disabled have to cut their hours or face losing their benefits. This may result in someone only being able to work 8 hours a week. Companies that might hire them for a part-time job and pay them more than that will find another employee who has no wage limitations that would decrease their available hours for work. If there is one message Rinearson would like to get out to the community it is: Change the law on this so more kids can be hired full time and do the excellent work they are capable of doing without losing the benefits they need.

Rinearson says she has had some support from Arlington County in more ways than the career center program. Board member Libby Garvey made introductions to JBG realty to help find a place in Arlington where she could open her second ice cream business, and now, she is about to open a completely different business, Jake’s Gourmet Popcorn, which will open next to Michael’s in the shopping center at Seven Corners later this spring. She has also gotten help from the parents of the people who work at Jake’s, like Lucia Claster, whose son, Harris, works at Jake’s. 

“Arlington PTAs have been awesome in supporting this place,” said Rinearson. Although business has just barely broken even post-pandemic (masks are still worn inside) the shop suffers financially during the winter months. Rinearson offers ice cream cakes, seasonal cakes, catered events, and fun activities like “make your own flavor for your birthday,” to try to attract customers when the weather turns cold. 

Valentine’s Day cakes, sweets, and cake pops are on offer now, and you can be sure Meghan will be handing them over with a huge smile.

To learn more about Jake’s, see https://www.sweetjakesicecream.com

and to learn about the Arlington Career Center and PEP, see: https://careercenter.apsva.us/programs/pep/

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