He’s the smiling face behind the cash register when you walk inside Sweet Jordan’s in this small Tennessee town.
He freely gives out hugs and smiles inside his family’s bakery, ice cream, and coffee shop complex. You can’t help but smile when Jordan St. John flashes his smile.
Doctors gave Jordan St. John only a five percent chance of survival when his mother was four months pregnant with him. Doctors told Brad and Tommie St. John that their baby had multiple health problems, including Down syndrome, but they knew their baby would leave his imprint on the world. And he has.
The St. John family began Sweet Jordan’s in 2017 as a way to help Jordan and others with special abilities to have a job. He had always loved to bake and cook, but it wasn’t until his dad, Brad, suffered an illness and the two found themselves in their kitchen with hours to spend. Jordan joked that he was like famous chef Emeril Lagasse, complete with the chef’s signature move of throwing a towel over his shoulder and saying “kick it up a notch.” During those hours, Brad and Jordan found an old family recipe for chocolate chip cookies.
“Except that the recipe made enough for a restaurant,” said Jessica St. John, whose official title is public relations manager but her real title is Jordan’s little sister. With excess cookies, the family donated them to the Helping Hand radio auction, an annual event that raises thousands for Henry County charities. People bought them and told the family that they had to sell them. That started a home kitchen business and planted the idea for Sweet Jordan’s.
Tommie St. John drove past the shopping center that was under construction and felt a calling that the family needed to put their store there, but Brad told her that the space was too big. Tommie knew they needed the space. The developer told the family that they needed to add ice cream to the bakery, but the family didn’t know anything about ice cream, Jessica St. John recalled. They traveled to Texas to learn the ice cream business from another business that specializes in ice cream stores that employed people with special abilities like Jordan. That ice cream shop became a franchise about a week after they visited.
Sweet Jordan’s quickly exceeded the family’s expectations. They added the coffee shop next door in 2018, and they’ve recently announced expansion plans to nearby McKenzie and Dover in Tennessee. They also have a food truck that travels to events throughout the region. Earlier this summer, they set up their food truck at the Growing in Faith summer skills camp in Metropolis, Illinois. The company hopes to eventually expand into western Kentucky if the opportunity arises.
“There’s a large special abilities community in Dover, and we wouldn’t have known about it without the food truck,” Jessica St. John said. “We were able to say, ‘God’s called us to Dover to plant a location here.’ That obviously came with a lot of prayer in between.”
Many of the employees are like Jordan. Sweet Jordan’s motto is Focusing on Abilities, not Disabilities. Each employee has special talents. Jessica ticks through the list of employees: Booker, the social butterfly; Robin, the hugger; Michael, the manager; and Vicki, the customer service expert.
Jordan tells his sister that he’s on the schedule every day. In reality, he works two or three days a week and anytime that he can go out with the food truck. He also jokingly tells people that he’s the mayor, the commissioner, and the sheriff.
Jessica St. John said the unemployment rate for people like Jordan is around 80 percent. “Yet, the employees with special abilities bring joy and light to the business,” she said. “And yeah, you might need to take extra time to help them get started, but it’s so worth it to have them as employees. They’re phenomenal.”
Sweet Jordan’s requires those with special abilities to apply for jobs like regular employees and go through an interview. Sweet Jordan’s helps those who qualify for placement with a job coach. Their program has been so successful that they have a waiting list, and they’ve been able to move a few of those into jobs at the McKenzie store.
“We just treat others the way that we want to be treated,” Jessica St. John said. “The special team members here, they don’t care about how much money you have, or your social status, or our car or your home, or what color your skin is, or who you voted for. They don’t care if you got a vaccine or not. They love unconditionally. And they just want you to have a good day because they’re having a good day. And even if you’re having a bad day, they still want you to have a good day. Again, it’s that selfless love that I think is the closest thing to Jesus.”
Jessica St. John said they’ve had several success stories with employees moving on to other jobs. One of those is Michael Pope, who will begin culinary school in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, this fall. He started working at Sweet Jordan’s when he was in high school, and the skills he’s learned helped propel him into a culinary career.
“We always thought that when we hired them (special ability workers) that we were here to give them a purpose,” Jessica St. John said. “But then we realized along the way that we can’t give anyone purpose because God is the one who gives us a purpose. We can give you an avenue and an opportunity to find that purpose. What we needed to do was to give them a platform and to show them what it means to truly live like Jesus lives. And so it’s with that platform that we’ve been able to really effect change. That has been such an incredible blessing. We’re known for that platform of highlighting people with different abilities.”
On a recent blisteringly hot summer day where the heat index hovered over 100, the store stayed busy throughout the afternoon with families coming in for ice cream, cookies, or even a late lunch. Uplifting contemporary Christian music played on the sound system.
Customers eyed the ice cream and cookie cases filled with confections. Some of the ice cream flavors included traditional flavors like chocolate, vanilla, mint chocolate chip, and unusual flavors like the maple brown sugar and Elvis is in the Building (peanut butter and banana). Cookie choices range from the original chocolate chip to snickerdoodle to birthday sprinkle. Families allowed children to indulge in their sweet treats before sending the children to the play area.
Jordan popped by the sofa where Jessica sat and told her that it’s World Chocolate Day. He had his chocolate ice cream cup in hand and headed out the door to shoot a social media promo. He has started a YouTube show called “The Inside Scoop” where he travels to different businesses and finds out what’s happening.
Thanks to social media and coverage from Nashville news stations, Jordan has become a celebrity. Jessica said people have stopped the family at malls to talk to Jordan, and people have come from across the country to their bakery to see the smiling young man they’ve seen on social media.
Jessica laughs that part of her job is to keep Jordan humble. Yet with his easy smile and sparkling eyes, that might be a hard task. His personality exudes kindness, and he calls everyone at the bakery his family.
Family remains at the heart of Sweet Jordan’s. At one point, both of Jessica’s brothers worked at the bakery alongside her and Jordan. Her parents remain involved as does her sister-in-law.
Their employees are like family, too, with each one having a special role.
And if you ever walk into a Sweet Jordan’s, you’ll probably feel like a member of the family after indulging in ice cream, coffee, or confections, and seeing the love from the workers of all ability levels.