Harlem Program Combining Bread Baking Skills With Life Skills

The UN and baking might not come to mind as a traditional partnership but Jessamyn Rodriguez is using her commitment to social justice, immigrant justice and the rights of women, along with her passion for good food, to create a social-purpose bakery, Hot Bread Kitchen, in New York City.

“I worked at the UN on immigrant-related issues, and I decided to start Hot Bread Kitchen to help women get better jobs in food management. So I learned to build the skills I needed,” she says.

In most parts of the world, women bake bread but it's the men in Europe and North America who are getting all the jobs, she notes. “I'm helping women with the passion and skills in the culinary arts to leverage those skills and get good living-wage jobs in good companies where they can grow professionally.”

Rodriguez says the bakery looks for women who have the passion, skill and interest in the culinary arts, and also, the physical stamina and work ethic to be successful in this work. She gets her students from community partners, the organizations in Manhattan working hard to get people good jobs. In addition, she gets referrals from other women in the program. “No one knows better than they do the kinds of women who do well in our unique training program,” she says.

“And finally, we're in this interesting, quirky space under the train tracks in Harlem and East Harlem, areas of high unemployment where people need jobs. We've started to establish our reputation as a place in the community where you can get training or get hired. We've had more and more walk-ins – people who heard we're doing training here for something really good.”

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Ideally, candidates make bread at home. “But not all women in the program bake, so really my thesis is that people are successful if they're interested in the work they're doing,” Rodriguez says. “These are women who think and enjoy food, not necessarily having the hard baking skills but are women who bake every day before they come to work, baking bread in a bakery all day,” says Rodriguez.

Shimme, Senior Director of Operations at Hot Bread Kitchen adds, “You just need to be passionate about food. The timing and math comes later. You can teach someone how to shape and what the dough should feel like coming out of the mixer. Those are all hard skills, which are easier to learn. But the softer side, someone who wants to be in the kitchen, who is passionate about food, and bread and interested in seeing the transformation take place from a bag of flour into a loaf of bread. That's what we're looking for.”

What makes good bread? “The whole interesting thing about bread is, it's as individual as anything. We have 70 different products, and everyone loves them each like they were their child,” says Rodriguez. “Great bread is versatile. It's a vehicle for all wonderful things but it also needs to be delicious and stand on its own. Great bread is chewy, crusty, soft, or tough. It's all these things.”

To replicate bread made in certain countries in a commercial kitchen took a lot of R&D, Shimme says. “We've done that with our chapati. One of our employees makes it for her family every day, and we tweaked it to make it work in our commercial kitchen. Most things we can get to work, other things take time to be perfected. If it's a great product, and you believe in it, you'll find a way to make it work.”

The two are particularly proud of one student who moved on from the program, who started with few English skills and no commercial food history at all who learned how to mix and bake. “And now she's at a large chain grocery store where she's able to transfer her skills into cookies and cakes and butter cream, and she just made employee of the fiscal quarter,” says Shimme. “They're even encouraging her to move up into a buyer's position, and she's only been there six months. What women in the program are learning is how to make bread but they’re all transferable skills. Our goal is to help our students go into any kitchen and be able to adapt because of the knowledge they’ve gained at Hot Bread Kitchen.”

The bakery sells its breads at 12 different green markets in three boroughs each week, and does wholesale distribution either through contract drivers or distributors. “We have 70 wholesale merchants right now,” says Rodriguez.

She says they have one main distributor, and are working with another to get into the corporate, Sodexo-run market. “We're always open to finding new modes to get products to customers. We want to expand north to Connecticut and down to Pennsylvania.”

The bakery's most popular breads are its ethnic breads, as well as more traditional artisanal ones. “One of our highest moving products is our M'smen, a buttery, flaky Moroccan flatbread, but, our handmade multigrain hand loaf is by far one of our highest-selling breads. Our product line is a really healthy mix of the unique and everyday, and that's what's attractive about the breads we're putting out there. We can offer such a wide variety, but there's also a safety net so customers know they can get a more traditional bread and some breads maybe a customer can experiment with,” says Shimme.

As for the future, Rodriguez says the bakery is getting its program in New York City to scale in the next five years, hopes to expand and replicate it in other cities. “We plan to take our unique product line and really important training program elsewhere,” she says.