For as long as Mary Stodola can remember, each Saturday her husband, Dave, and son, Joey, go grocery shopping.
“It’s always been their routine,” she said. “(Joey) is amazing at it, he always knows what to get … if you give him a mission to get green beans or hot dogs, he knows where to find them.”
Now, Joey Stodola, of Waterloo, is headed out to the grocery store more than once a week as part of his new business, Traveling Joe.
Not many 24-year-olds can say they operate their own business; even fewer people diagnosed with severe autism – like the Waterloo resident – can report the same.
According to the 2019 data from the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 19.3% of people who are disabled are employed and 8 out of 10 people with a disability were not in the labor force. The department’s report does not break down the numbers for each disability.
However, of the disabled people in the labor force, 10% are like Joey Stodola – they are self-employed. The percent of people who are not disabled who are self-employed is 5.9.
Since mid-March, the 24-year-old has been delivering groceries to area residents.
“He loves to go on errands and to put a cherry on top of it, he loves being in a pick-up truck or van,” Mary Stodola said. “The combination of the two just seemed to work out perfect for him.”
Stodola said her son was diagnosed with severe autism and is non-verbal.
“What some people don’t understand is that the nature of autism is like a social disorder,” she said.
Even though Joey doesn’t talk using his voice, he uses an iPad as a talking device and does understand a lot of what people tell him.
“Some of Joey’s customers are still getting used to the fact he may not say hi when he delivers the groceries,” she said.
“Just to even encourage him to speak and say ‘hi’ or to wave to somebody or to actually communicate with somebody outside of your needs is difficult, but I encourage him to tell people ‘hi’ or when he checks into the doctor’s office to tell them his name.
“And he has jokes on (the iPad) and he loves to do those,” Stodola said. “If you get to know him, he’s very hilarious.”
Joey grew up in Waterloo and attended the local schools. With his familiarity with Waterloo, and the fact people in the community know who he is, Stodola said it was important for him to work locally.
“We’ll even be going for walks and people who are complete strangers to me will say, ‘Hey, Joey,’ and I’ll have no idea who they are, but they know him,” she said.
The path to opening Traveling Joe started six years ago “before there was Instacart and curbside pick-up,” Stodola said. The business needed to get through some red tape before it could open. Despite the delay, she said it was worth the wait as the state provided 90% of the start-up costs and paid to hire a consultant to assist with launching the business.
“We had an amazing team and it just took longer than I wanted it to,” she said, noting there were multiple people involved with creating Traveling Joe.
Another slight roadblock was that when the idea for the business was approached, Joey was still in high school. Under Wisconsin law, people with disabilities are allowed to attend public school until the age of 21. Stodola said her son’s teacher was on-board with allowing Joey – who was classified as a junior six years ago – to leave school to operate his business.
“When she heard that idea … (Joey) would start taking orders from his teachers,” she said.
Traveling Joe’s first customers were residents of Hawthorne Senior Apartments in Waterloo, where his grandfather lives. The timing was impeccable as many of the seniors at that time were being advised against going to the store due to coronavirus.
In the past two months, word of mouth has helped the business grow. Now people can contact Joey for his services by visiting his website, www.traveling-joe.com or by calling 608-577-9377. There is a $10 flat fee for orders less than $100 and a 10% charge for orders over $100 based on the total; for example, a $120 order would have a $12 fee.
Mary Stodola said typically, once orders are placed by customers, the pair goes shopping (for now, Joey does not go shopping due to COVID-19). Joey then separates the items into bins and then bags the items for customers. On delivery day, the groceries are delivered by the business owner, who uses a big red wagon to bring the items to the customer’s door. The customer is then presented an invoice and the receipt for the groceries.
She is excited to see her son have his own business and knows it makes him feel important to contribute to the community.
“I say I’m proud of him, but I’m always proud of Joey and this gives him a nice routine” Stodola said. “And if he were to ever move out, he can take this business with him.”