In the heart of New York City's Spanish Harlem, women from Morocco to Mexico arrive before dawn to crank up the ovens at Hot Bread Kitchen.
Despite their different cultures and languages, this non-profit training bakery says most of its participants have one thing in common: they all grew up learning how to bake traditional breads.
To work at HBK, women and men have to be foreign-born and low-income. And they have to want to become financially independent through a baking career. At the kitchen, they have the chance to take what they know and blend it with language lessons and commercial baking and management to shape their futures.
HBK is one of a growing number of non-profit kitchens which double as training centers and commercial businesses — like La Cocina in San Francisco and Hope & Main in Rhode Island. The trend has been spurred by a growing awareness of business opportunities for local food entrepreneurs and donors' willingness to give the less-advantaged a better shot at tapping those opportunities.
During a recent visit to HBK, Nancy Mendez was grinding corn for Mexican tortillas, one of the kitchen's most popular items that's based on her grandmother's recipe. Mendez says she tried to pursue a culinary career years ago, but had to drop out of a professional cooking school in Mexico because of the cost.
"When I was 10 years old, I started to make tortillas by hand," says Mendez, who came to the U.S. almost 14 years ago. "I wanted to be a chef, because I like to cook, but cooking schools in Mexico are expensive."
Now, Mendez runs the entire tortilla production line at HBK, from the packaging to the machinery. The tortillas are sold at weekly farmer's markets in New York, and at small shops and wholesale.
At HBK, women are paid wages for their time and skills – money that comes from revenue generated from their products, as well as private and corporate donations. After one year, they're given assistance finding professional baking jobs.
Founder Jessasmyn Rodriguez developed her idea for HBK after assignments for the United Nations Development Program in Central America and Mexico piqued her interest in baking.
"Early in my career, I spent time with a family in Guatemala," says Rodriguez. "Every morning I would go with the mother to the local mill. I was interested in the local breads, and how they would mill the corn to make the tortillas."
That experience in Guatemala and other places around the world made Rodriguez realize that baking bread is a common link among women. "So many people have an aunt, a mother, grandmother, some woman in their life with a special bread recipe," she says.
Encouraged by friends, Rodriguez decided to develop a plan for HBK. She began by leaving her development job to learn how to bake professionally. "I went to culinary school to be taken seriously ... I just wanted to get what I needed to know to operate the bakery."
But Rodriguez went far beyond the baking essentials. Through her apprenticeships, Rodriguez became the first woman to work in the bakery of renowned chef Daniel Boulud's eponymous restaurant.
"Aside from all the academic credentials and the things I achieved professionally, establishing myself as the first woman in the bakery at Restaurant Daniel was a huge, huge achievement for me," says Rodriguez.
Her connection with the famed chef paid off in even greater returns. After Rodriguez quit her job at the restaurant to establish HBK as a social enterprise, Boulud became one of HBK's best customers.
Boulud was so impressed with HBK's flatbreads, he hired one of their Moroccan bakers to make them in-house. For HBK, losing the big Boulud account was a price worth paying: An HBK graduate working in Boulud's bakery marked a huge win for the program, says training director Beatriz Mieses-Hernandez.
Bakeries like Boulud's aren't the only well-known eateries who've bought HBK's breads. The Waldorf-Astoria buys 20 dozen Parker House rolls and Middle Eastern lavash bread every day. And HBK developed a special German Christmas stollen for Whole Foods.
They're also available at local, weekly farmer's markets in New York where customers line up to choose from four different kinds of challahs and bialys.
To help the bakers get professional baking jobs or start their own businesses, HBK has taken inspiration from San Francisco's La Cocina, an incubator kitchen featured on The Salt. At HBK, like La Cocina, food entrepreneurs can rent industrial kitchen space by the hour, avoiding the high risk of monthly rent somewhere else.
Rodriguez and her kitchen have been hailed by the Clinton Foundation and the UNDP for creating what they believe is a scalable model for training programs worldwide. Already, officials from other citieshave contacted Rodriguez to set up new branches of HBK — something Rodriguez hopes is only a couple of years away.
In the meantime, Nancy Mendez is making her own plans.
"I would like to be involved in the HBK expansion, training women in other cities and maybe, eventually, my own business," she says. "My grandmother would be so happy and proud that I'm carrying on her recipe and the Mexican tradition."
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