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Maine woman is helping to change autism one jar of salsa at a time

Stephanie Lay and her son Bryce, who has severe autism, have spent the last four years running a salsa company out of her Windham home. Now they are in a commercial kitchen, complete with a bistro, and Stephanie has started to fulfill her dream of hiring employees who are on the spectrum.

GRAY, Maine — In 2014, Stephanie Lay posted a photo on Facebook of her son Bryce grilling vegetables. The two were getting ready to make their grilled salsa -- a family recipe.

Friends were intrigued. 

"Within two weeks, I had 109 orders, a patent attorney, a food scientist, the USDA was involved, and everything just ballooned from there," Lay said.

Maine-Tex Grilled Salsa was off and running in the kitchen of Lay's Windham home. Bryce, now 18 years old, was the inspiration.

Bryce was diagnosed with autism when he was two years old. For almost two decades, Lay, a single mother, struggled financially. She also grappled with the heartache and challenges of having a son with severe autism and a self-injurious behavior disorder.

Making salsa has helped Bryce tremendously.

"He does every aspect of this job, but the jarring and the paperwork." Lay, beaming with pride, recalled how Bryce once grilled 400 lbs of tomatoes in four hours by himself. "It's really just a beautiful thing to see him from just doing little things to now running a grill."

In 2015, Lay and her salsa company got their first big break at Hannaford in West Falmouth. Tomatoes were on sale for 99 cents a pound. Stephanie walked up to a store manager to thank him for the sale. She also started chatting with him about Maine-Tex Salsa and its mission to one day be able to employ people with autism and those who are on the spectrum.

Store manager Doug Mercier was hooked. He has a niece with autism and a love of salsa. Hannaford in West Falmouth became the first store to stock Maine-Tex Salsa.

Today, Maine-Tex Salsa is in 48 Hannaford stores and almost 90 other boutique and specialty stores.

"I love it. I love being a business woman. I love growing this unexpected company," Lay said.

Bryce does too.

"As a matter of fact, if you ask him what does your family business do, he says making salsa! It's pretty awesome," Lay said.

Lay is also celebrating another huge goal -- a commercial kitchen, storefront, and bistro in Gray. And her ability to now start hiring people with autism and those who are on the spectrum.

"Our very last batch in our house before we moved here (the commercial kitchen) was 1,876 jars. We had jars everywhere."

Now Lay, Bryce, and her three employees, David Tevanian, Jackson Boissonneault, and Gavin Lynch are a team. They're working hard and loving it.  

"You're with your friends. It's a more relaxed environment, you can have more fun when you're working," Tavanian said.

Boissonneault noted, "It's a good opportunity. I love it." 

Lynch added, "We're known as the salsa guys." 

On the menu -- coffee, muffins, breakfast burritos and quiche and grilled chili for lunch. And, of course, chips and Maine-Tex Grilled Salsa.

"It's just really changed his life so much," said Lay, tearing up. "It's a life I didn't think we were going to be able to live, and now we're living a life that's pretty awesome. Not only for us, but for other people who need to work and who need to feel a part of our society."

Lay isn't afraid to admit that she is still on welfare, but she knows in her heart it won't be for long.

"Just to start from welfare, nothing, to being where we are today -- it's pretty awesome. Things movies are about."

A portion of the proceeds from Maine-Tex salsa go to support the Special Foundation, a non-profit organization that provides education, advocacy, and support to individuals and families dealing with autism.

A grand opening celebration will take place this Saturday at the new storefront and bistro at 81 Gray Road in Gray.

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