Evanston residents Grayson Deeney, 21, and Verzell James, 59, have spent many (masked) days this summer together in the basement of the Family Focus building handcrafting an array of nine creative hot sauces for Verzell's start-up company Awe-Sauce.
With names like Mixtec Mexajun and Reutemeteut (a Dutch word that means "the whole shebang," a nod to James' wife's Dutch heritage), the huge jars of rust-red sauces line a shelf stewing in their juices till they reach perfection and are ready to be small-batch bottled and sold. Grayson, who came to Awe-Sauce through the Evanston Mayors Youth Summer Employment Program (MYSEP), proudly shows them off.
He's Verzell's right-hand man as Awe-Sauce expands, and Verzell depends on his assistance as he works to grow every aspect of his business--from increasing his number of organic pepper beds across the country to establishing supply lines, trade-marking the names of his sauces, and finding investors to support his vision.
"This is bigger than I am," laughs Verzell, who in addition to building this business, runs a business-communications graphics company with his wife and whose passion is drawing and writing comic books featuring Black and biracial superheroes. "I realized I needed to hire some people."
MYSEP provided the perfect answer--taking the financial burden off Verzell by paying Grayson's wages and providing meaningful work for Grayson, a young man with disabilities who came to MYSEP through Evanston Township High School's Transition House program, which facilitates independent functioning and self-determination of young adults ages 18 to 22 who have disabilities.
It provided short-term help to two men with dreams: Verzell's, to create a successful hot sauce business that hires people like Grayson and provide health insurance and even profit-sharing if it gets big enough (and, Verzell hopes, allows him to eventually draw a passive salary so he can get back to his drawing board and comic characters full-time), and Grayson's, who says he wants to get a house by himself and clean dishes.
"I love cleaning dishes," Grayson says.
But MYSEP ended last week, and in order for Verzell to keep Grayson working--and even possibly hire more young people like him--he needs to raise the funds to cover Grayson's paycheck. He's hoping he can raise enough money to keep Grayson employed through at least December.
So Verzell is reaching out to the community to pitch in and has set up a GoFundMe with a goal of $3,000 to keep Grayson making hot sauce at least for the next few months at $15 an hour for roughly 15 hours of work. The fundraiser has been up for four days and is already half way toward its goal.
For his part, Grayson says he likes the job a lot and finds it challenging.
"Mixing all these together was kind of new for me," he says, pointing to the vats of sauces. "It's kind of cool to know a new skill."
Grayson's favorite part of the job, he says, is blending. "Putting peppers in there is really fun to do. You have to put the vinegar, the water, eight cups each, and then you mix it up and grind and grind and grind."
Grayson's mother Martha King explains that there's a lack of employment opportunities for young adults with disabilities.
"Individuals like Grayson are guaranteed an education through the age of 22, and the Transition House program is fantastic," she says. But, she explains, once they age out, many of these young adults simply disappear into their homes because there's a lack of leisure and employment options for them.
"What Verzell is doing has the potential to impact families in a really powerful way."
Martha says the confidence and pride Grayson has felt in having a job is heartwarming.
"He comes home after work and tells us all about the various peppers and ingredients in the hot sauce. Verzell is not only patient with Grayson, but he takes Grayson's role at Awe-Sauce very seriously, explaining each step in the process and ensuring that Grayson understands. Verzell is training Grayson for a career."
Verzell says he's seen Grayson grow in the job and that it could be. good fit for many people who are probably not going to have an office job downtown.
"I've seen Grayson take ownership of things that he's doing. Working for a company like mine is is a good place for people like Grayson."
There's an easy camaraderie between the men. The two met when Grayson came to Family Focus to volunteer in the building and with Shannon Sudduth, who also runs her business, a gourmet catering and bean-to-bar chocolate company called Noir d'Ebene Chocolat et Patisserie, from the commercial kitchen in the building's basement. With Shannon, Grayson learned job-readiness skills, made cookies and brownies, tempered chocolate, and occasionally washed dishes.
"There were two kids in particular, and Grayson was one of them, who would come over and ask me all sorts of questions, and they were excited and wanted to know about peppers and this, that, and the other," says Verzell. "And that's when it struck me. These are the kind of guys that I could hire to work for me. And that's that's really how it all began."
Verzell hopes to hire anywhere from 30 to 50 people, he says, "If I can reach my vision like I see it."
Verzell stumbled upon hot sauce as a business idea through gardening. He says that because both his parents were born and raised in the south (they came to Harvey, Illinois during the Great Migration), there was always hot sauce in their house. His dad always had a garden, and Verzell has always been a gardener as well. He and his wife are also avid cooks.
"You know, we started off with simple peppers, jalapenos, serranos, and we'd make salsa. We cook all kinds of ethnic meal at home and when I started making hot sauce I was like, oh yeah, this is kind of cool. I can do this. And it started from there," he says.
Today he gets peppers from his brother's farm in northeast Louisiana and from his own eight beds in Harvey. He also grows them in a neighbor's garden in Evanston and at a friend's farm in Sawyer, Michigan, and soon his cousin in Arkansas plans to retire and get in on the pepper-growing.
"People would not believe the amount of work that I've done to do this, but I want to make sure that all the i's are dotted and the T's crossed," Verzell says.
One of Verzell's comic characters, whom he can't wait to return to once his start-up has, well, started up, is The Reaper, a Black 17-year-old who receives superpowers after his younger brother is killed by a gang members on the south side of Chicago.
The series follows The Reaper as he learns how to access his superpowers and in the process makes discoveries about other people. Verzell says The Reaper isn't a superhero, but rather a spiritual hero who realizes that everybody's connected.
"His energy comes from the interconnectedness of all things," Verzell explains.
That seems to be what Verzell believes as well.
As for Grayson, he hopes Verzell's company succeeds.
"The more he builds, the more people are going to come towards him and say, 'this is a good job, I want to be in this job," Grayson says.
If you can help fund Grayson's employment at Awe-Sauce for the next three months, please check out Verzell's GoFundMe.
Thanks to Kemone Hendricks for the video interviews with Verzell and Grayson.