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Maine mom uses grilled salsa to advocate for autism

Stephanie Lay and son Bryce in their kitchen. He holds a jar of their Maine-Tex Grilled Salsa.
Stephanie Lay and son Bryce in their kitchen. He holds a jar of their Maine-Tex Grilled Salsa. (Erinne Magee for the Boston Globe)

Running a salsa business from your own kitchen is a labor of love, especially when each jar has the greater purpose of supporting autism.

Stephanie Lay started Maine-Tex Grilled Salsa five years ago with $100. Initially, she wanted her son Bryce, now 18, to learn necessarily life skills like cooking. When Lay posted a photo on Facebook of her son grilling salsa ingredients, she never imagined the order requests that would follow, and in a short period of time, the 100 stores, restaurants, and hotels on board with her vision and her three salsa products: Wicked Mild, Wicked Medium, and Wicked Spicy.

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“I went from dressing up each day to fight autism to being covered in tomatoes everyday,” said Lay, who said her motto is, “If it is meant to be, it is up to me.”

Lay quickly realized her goal was not to take over the salsa market with her innovative idea of grilling the ingredients first, but to establish a work program that would employ those with autism.

“We want to get kids to work,” said Lay. “It’s easy to want to baby them, but if we treat them like children they are going to remain children for the rest of their lives.”

Lay started this mentality with Bryce, who had severe self-injurious behavior. Now Bryce not only runs the grill, but goes with her on deliveries, signing the invoices for store managers.

When asked about his duties, Bryce says, “I help Mom.”

Bryce and a student of the work program, Bennett, also 18, label the jars as well. In fact, recently, Lay received a couple of e-mails from customers complaining that their salsa had a “crooked label.”

Lay’s response? “If you purchased one of those jars, consider yourself lucky. Those jars were labeled by Bryce Lay and Mr. Bennett of our work program,” she writes in a Facebook post.

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Now, customers are searching shelves of their local Hannaford grocery store (Maine-Tex’s largest client) in hopes of snagging a crooked label.

Bennett, of the Maine-Tex work program, tends the grill outside of the Lays’ home.
Bennett, of the Maine-Tex work program, tends the grill outside of the Lays’ home.(Erinne Magee for the Boston Globe)

Eric Rohrbach from the Margaret Murphy Center for Children has been working closely with the Lays since he reached out to Stephanie about collaborating on Lay’s idea of the work program, wondering if Bennett may be a good fit. Rohrbach said prior to his volunteer position with Maine-Tex, Bennett did not like to talk to people, didn’t like people saying his name, and had an aversion to textures, but the salsa setting has exceeded all expectations, providing a positive experience and a laid-back environment, allowing Bennett to thrive.

“When he’s here, he enjoys what he’s doing,” said Rohrbach. “He’s not looking at the timer to see when his next break is.”

Rohrbach explained that one day, Lay suggested they turn off Bennett’s five-minute timer to see what would happen, and he went on to label 72 jars.

“Autism is a spectrum disorder,” Lay reminded. “But we are grouping everyone with autism into one and, we cannot do that.”

After Bennett’s first day, Lay asked him:

“Working with Stephanie, like or dislike?”

“Like.”

“Making salsa, like or dislike?”

“Like.”

“Packing up poblano peppers. Like or dislike?”

“Dislike.”

Because gardening has been proven to be therapeutic, Lay hopes to eventually have the means to acquire greenhouses so the work program can expand. She also envisions a factory-like setting, where things like the repetition of pushing buttons creates a work environment where everyone on the spectrum has a job they can succeed in.

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Maine-Tex did try its hand at an expansion earlier this year by opening a bistro in Gray, but encountered setbacks that Lay could not recover from financially, so they had to stick with what they knew and continue to make the only grilled salsa on the market, from their home kitchen.

The downside to not having a commercial kitchen is the absence of an FDA approval, which would loosen some of the restraints that come with operating from home, like the ability to have direct sales from their website. Right now, Lay can afford to employ one other person, so the team can produce only so much salsa. Nicole King takes on much of the kitchen work, while the mother-son duo tackle the deliveries. King can handle more than 300 jars per day, but still, Maine-Tex has to turn away orders.

“I don’t have a child with autism,” said King, who was simply a Facebook follower of Maine-Tex before being an employee. “But Stephanie is so passionate about what she does that you can’t help but be right there with her.”

Lay has been a single mom since the beginning, with no other family to lean on. But she does not dwell on that. In fact, it fuels her fight, knowing her son needs her advocacy.

A silver bracelet on Lay’s wrist reads “I am his voice,” but her voice is affecting the entire autism community.

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“A lot of parents talk about being on their own island when their child is first diagnosed,” said Rohrbach. “It’s so huge, mentally, for parents to hear and see what Stephanie is doing.”

Rohrbach paused and turned to Lay. “I’ve worked in this field a long time and I’ve never seen anyone doing what you’re doing.”


Erinne Magee can be reached at erinnemagee@gmail.com.