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At the “United Nations of Bread,” Profits help Bakers Prosper

Written by Amanda Maher

The smells wafting through the air outside of Hot Bread Kitchen (HBK)—a bakery, culinary training program, and shared commercial kitchen in East Harlem—were often too delectable to go unnoticed. Passerby would often peer into the windows to see what was baking inside.

It got to the point where so many people were knocking on the windows that HBK founder Jessamyn Rodriguez knew it was time to open a retail store. In 2012, Hot Bread Almacen opened its doors in the historic La Marqueta building.

In retrospect, the retail store was just what HBK needed to fulfill Rodriguez’s vision for transforming La Marqueta back into the vibrant food hub of its heyday, when thousands of shoppers visited the indoor market each day in search of products from their native countries. Today, visitors can swing by the Almacen to pick up unique goods like Bialy Al Barrio, a twist on a traditional Jewish roll stuffed with caramelized onions, poppy seeds, a fried egg, hot sauce and cheese.

The location may have seemed unlikely. La Marqueta is located just a few blocks away from the largest housing project in New York City and directly below the elevated tracks of the Metro North commuter train. And yet – there it is, with floor-to-ceiling windows that tempt bystanders with a mouth-watering display of baguettes, nan-e barbaris and sweet Mexican conchas that are sold at a “pay what you can” rate, with all leftovers donated to local food pantries at the end of every day.

“La Marqueta has always been the center of food entrepreneurial energy, so we were proud to be part of that revitalization here,” Rodriguez says.

The storefront complimented what had already been happening inside the storied marketplace. What many of Almacen’s customers may not realize is that all of the revenue generated from sales is reinvested into HBK’s “Bakers in Training” program. Inside, low-income and minority women are learning the skills they need to excel in the baking industry and food entrepreneurs are receiving critical support from “HBK Incubates” to grow their startup companies into successful enterprises. In fact, it is the immigrant women participating in the training program who provide inspiration for the storefront’s eclectic mix of breads, and it is the trainees who do the bulk of the baking!

For almost a decade, Rodriguez has been teaching minority women how to bake. As she got her own tortilla-making business off the ground in 2007, she needed to hire help – so she started training others out of her Brooklyn home. She quickly outgrew the space and moved into a commercial space in Queens, where she consulted with social service and community-based organizations to identify new bakery recruits. Referrals came through the door faster than she could keep up, with immigrant, refugee and minority women of all backgrounds interested in learning under her direction. As diverse as the talent pool was, the women all had something in common: they shared a passion for baking, but otherwise struggled to break into an industry that is competitive and typically dominated by men.

They are women like Clarisse Sango, a 25-year old who emigrated to the U.S. from West Africa five years ago. Before a friend referred her to the Bakers in Training program, Clarisse was working in a commercial bakery but her job only allowed her to shape breads. “They have someone to do the baking and someone to do the shaping,” she explains, which indeed, is the norm at many commercial bakeries. But Clarisse was eager to learn more.

So was Lutfunnessa Islam, a native of Bangladesh and the sole provider for her family. She graduated from the Bakers in Training program in 2012, where she learned kitchen math and bakery science, among other skills. “Before, my English was not good, but now I’m a little bit good,” says Lutfunnessa. “I learn bread shaping, baking, also customer service.” Today, Lutfunnessa is a production supervisor at HBK, training new bakers and overseeing the Greenmarket in Jackson Heights.

After women graduate from the six-month, paid job training program, many leave HBK to work for other companies throughout the metro area. Inci Mayo says that she came to America “looking for an opportunity to [bake] professionally,” and “that was kind of difficult because the culinary art schools were really expensive and not affordable” to attend. Today, Inci is the Head Baker and hiring manager for Google’s New York cafeteria.

Sanata and Kadiatou, sisters and immigrants from West Africa, joined the program together last October. Today, Sanata works in bakery production and customer service for the world-renowned restaurateur Claus Meyer at his Nordic Food Hall and Brasserie in Grand Central Terminal. Kadiatou recently accepted a full-time position at Zaro’s Family Bakery.

These stories aren’t unique. More than 125 women from 31 countries have graduated from the Bakers in Training program, and HBK has helped 100% of graduates who are looking for full-time employment find well-paying (at least $12.75/hour) positions with access to benefits and career growth.

For others, though, HBK provides a glimpse into life as an entrepreneur.

Upon graduating from the Bakers in Training program, Fanny Perez was hired as a supervisor at HBK. Perez spends her free time in the commercial kitchen, baking South American sweet bread and traditional Ecuadorian rolls, and is a member of HBK Incubates, where she’s working to grow her catering company, appropriately named Las Delicias de Fanny.

The rapid growth of HBK in recent years confirms what founder Jessamyn Rodriguez has known all along: “Impact is good business.”

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