Making Government Work

Baking Their Way to a Better Life in America

February 5, 2014
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Baking Their Way to a Better Life in America
A shift supervisor moves fresh-baked semolina loaves onto cooling racks at Hot Bread Kitchen in Harlem. Courtesy Hot Bread Kitchen
Incorporated in 2008, Hot Bread Kitchen opened its first storefront in Spanish Harlem in 2012 with funding from the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone. Courtesy Hot Bread Kitchen
A mise-en-place coordinator divides dough for ciabatta bread in Hot Bread Kitchen's production room. Courtesy Hot Bread Kitchen
Hot Bread Kitchen trains immigrant women to make great bread and gain a solid foothold in the U.S. workforce.

Nancy Mendez rises at 2:30 a.m. each day to travel from her home in Queens, N.Y., to her job as a shift manager at Hot Bread Kitchen, a very special bakery in Manhattan’s Spanish Harlem. Starting at 4 a.m., the mother of two from Puebla, Mexico, turns out a dizzying selection of ethnic breads — from a hearty German rye known as grindstone to a Persian sweet bread called nan-e qandi. Mendez’s favorite part of her job, however, is overseeing the making of tortillas, which Hot Bread creates from whole corn kernels softened with lime. “I’m proud to make tortillas the traditional way,” says Mendez, 29, whose husband works in the produce department at a grocery store. “I like my job.”

Mendez is one of a dozen immigrant women to date who have completed the nonprofit bakery’s rigorous, yearlong training program and landed a full-time management job. Founded in 2007 by Jessamyn Rodriguez, a former human rights and immigration policy worker, Hot Bread has two core missions: producing delicious ethnic bread and training immigrant women for management-track positions in professional bakeries. Incubated in Rodriguez’s home kitchen in Brooklyn, N.Y., the bakery now has a 10,000-square-foot commercial kitchen in Spanish Harlem and sells its breads across the Northeast, everywhere from upscale grocers to outdoor farmers’ markets.

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Unique breads are at the heart of Hot Bread’s success. On a recent visit, this reporter especially enjoyed m’smen, a flaky Moroccan flatbread made from wheat flour, semolina and butter. The recipe for the traditional breakfast bread was developed by Hot Bread’s most lauded trainee, named Bouchra, who later went on to become a baker at the Michelin three-star restaurant Daniel in Manhattan. Another trainee from Puebla, Mexico, introduced the recipe for Hot Bread’s staple tortillas, made from whole corn instead of the less flavorful, dried corn flour used in most store-bought tortillas.

Of the 39 trainees that Hot Bread has recruited since 2008, 17 have completed the intensive, yearlong program and 12 have landed full-time baking jobs either as shift managers at Hot Bread’s headquarters or at other bakeries. Trainees — who are recruited mainly from ESL programs at local colleges and support groups for immigrant women — work 25 hours a week and receive $8.25 per hour. In addition to learning to make more than a dozen types of breads, they polish their English, are taught how to use email and to create a resume. Hot Bread also connects trainees with public resources for child care, housing assistance, food aid and domestic violence support if needed.

“The goal is to create more equality in the job market,” says Rodriguez, by helping women learn the skills they need to earn at least $14 an hour. Of the 6,000 bakers in the New York City area, only 500 of them are minority women, she says.

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While many trainees are already adept at baking when they start the program, adjusting to a professional work environment isn’t always easy. Early morning and late-night shifts can be tough on women with young children at home. And trainees who come from cultures in which men are dominant sometimes struggle with learning to be more assertive when working among them. “Depending on their culture, they may hold back,” says the bakery’s training manager, Beatriz Mieses-Hernandez, who coaches the women on communication and conflict resolution. What’s more, they must adjust to the fast pace of a commercial kitchen that goes through 10,000 pounds of flour each week, according to Robin Burger, the business development manager.

Hot Bread once relied almost entirely on outside funding, but 70 percent of the bakery’s $3 million annual budget now comes from earned revenue. The company sells to retailers like the salad chain Chop’t (which buys the bakery’s sourdough croutons), Whole Foods (challah and tortillas), and gourmet grocer Dean & DeLuca (granola, lavash and tortillas). It also rents out kitchen space and provides business guidance to entrepreneurs who are hatching catering businesses. (Fees start at $17 an hour, but subsidies are available.)

The thriving business coupled with success stories like Mendez’s earned Hot Bread’s founder a Global Citizen Award from the Clinton Global Initiative last September. Rodriguez also has ambitious plans for the future. She plans to bring on 30 new trainees in 2014, incubate 45 culinary startups, and expand operations to five cities in the Northeast. “The goal is to be completely funded by earned revenue,” says Rodriguez. Judging by how far she’s come since she started baking out of her own kitchen just seven years ago, we think she’s got a pretty good shot.

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