- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 15, 2008

At Noah’s Pretzels, information and advocacy come with your order. That’s because the pretzel company, with a small stand at Lakeforest Mall in Gaithersburg and a larger presence at Nationals Park, was

founded with co-owner Dwayne Herndon’s son, Noah, in mind.

Noah, 8, has autism. He is among the 1 in 150 children who, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are marked by the neurological disorder that impairs communication and social skills.

Visitors to the mall pretzel stand will learn this stat, and many others, through displays on the wall and a slide show on a mounted TV. There is a wall of photos of children with autism who have visited the shop and slides of special-needs classes that have toured it on a field trip. There is a bumper sticker that says “Someone I love has autism,” and a poster that lists “Ten things every child with autism wishes you knew.” Another sign points out that a portion of the shop’s proceeds are donated to local autism and special-needs groups.

Mr. Herndon says he was inspired to name the business after his son because Noah, the next-to-youngest of his six children, loved to visit an Amish friend of theirs who had a pretzel booth at the Lancaster Dutch Market in Germantown. The friend, Melvin Lapp, eventually convinced Mr. Herndon, who was then a mortgage loan and insurance officer, to open his own pretzel business.

“Both the Amish community and the autism community are so innocent,” Mr. Herndon says. “There is not so much hatred. I decided if I was going to name the business after Noah, why not add ‘autism awareness’ to it.”

After the business opened in February 2007, a call from a parent of another child on the autism spectrum took the involvement a step further. She asked Mr. Herndon, “What about the kids on the gluten-free/casein-free diet?”

Many children on the autism spectrum are on a diet that eliminates gluten, the protein that is found in wheat and other grain products, and casein, the protein found in dairy products. Some people in the autism spectrum have trouble breaking down the proteins, says Vicki Kobliner, a registered dietitian in Connecticut and a consultant to the national GFCF Support Group.

“To some children with autism, the proteins cause inflammation in the gut,” Ms. Kobliner says. “The bigger proteins get into the bloodstream. That can affect the brain in a way similar to morphine. In a small child, the reaction can act as an opiate.”

There are no official statistics on how many children follow the GFCF diet, and Noah Herndon does not follow the diet. Ms. Kobliner points out the diet is not a cure for autism, but one of many therapies that can help children with autism to learn better.

“It is one piece of the puzzle,” she says. “In most cases, it is one of multiple interventions. It allows therapy to be more productive.”

Mr. Herndon agreed that if he was going to run a business that focuses on autism awareness, he should offer an option for those on the GFCF diet. He found a nearby company that makes GFCF dough. The GFCF pretzels sell for the same price ($2.49 at the mall, $6 at Nationals Park) as the regular pretzels.

“The gluten-free pretzels are a big seller,” Mr. Herndon says. “They are popular not just with the autism community, but also there are a lot of people who have celiac disease and cannot eat wheat products.”

Noah’s Pretzels was still a new business last fall when a combination of luck, coincidence and perseverance led to a spot at the new ballpark. Mr. Herndon heard the stadium planners were looking for vendors.

He called the Lerner family, owners of the team, but it was a Jewish holiday and none of them were in. An assistant gave Mr. Herndon the essential information about the concession contracts and whom to contact. He quickly fired off an e-mail with news clips and information about Noah’s Pretzels and autism awareness.

The e-mail piqued the interest of John Spahn, Nationals manager of corporate sponsorships, who had been considering finding a local bakery to make a pretzel in the shape of the Nationals’ logo.

“He said ‘Do you think you can make a pretzel in the shape of a W?’” Mr. Herndon recalls. “I told him ‘If you get me in the ballpark, I will spell your whole name!’”

The men set an official meeting for the following week, but ended up talking sooner when they met at the Autism Speaks Walk Now for Autism on the National Mall. Mr. Spahn’s son, Christopher, has Asperger’s syndrome, a mild form of autism, and he was there supporting the cause.

“Whenever you do a big deal with someone, you try and get them involved in things like the [Washington Nationals] foundation,” says Mr. Spahn. “In this case, the connection to autism is also very personal to Dwayne’s family and to ours.”

Since opening the stand at the stadium, Mr. Herndon and business partner Jonathan Reed have already surpassed their business plan expectations and are turning a profit. They now have 30 employees. Their biggest sales day was Opening Day in April, when they sold 2,500 “W” pretzels. On a typical game day, they usually sell about 1,200, Mr. Herndon says. The pretzels are mixed and baked on site.

During Nationals homestands, Mr. Herndon can be found at the stadium, singing his “Pretzel Man,” song and selling “Ws.”

Most of the money is made at the stadium. However, Mr. Herndon says he wants to keep the Lakeforest store open because of its accessibility to the community and its efforts in raising autism awareness with the photos, slides and other displayed information.

“This is our anchor,” he says. “It is not all about the money. It is what we stand for.”

So far, Noah’s Pretzels has donated more than $2,500 to local special needs organizations, including Montgomery County’s Community Services for Autistic Adults and Children (CSAAC). Mr. Herndon says he would like to develop a program for teens and young adults with autism to work in the bakery. Also in the planning stages: deals with other sports teams and a move to get the GFCF pretzels into stores and freezers.

“I think I am in it for the long haul,” Mr. Herndon says. “I enjoy being the pretzel man as long as I can bring happiness to other people.”

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