Yonkers' Greyston Bakery touts a recipe for social change

Greyston Bakery employee Paul Daniels packages brownie pieces

Greyston Bakery employee Paul Daniels packages brownie pieces to be used in Ben & Jerry's ice cream. The Yonkers bakery, founded in 1982, has an open-hiring policy and states a commitment to social services and betterment. (April 4, 2013) Photo Credit: Xavier Mascarenas

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When Dion Drew got out of state prison eight years ago, he wanted to get his life back on track.

The Yonkers native had just done a 4-year stretch upstate for drug dealing, and knew he needed to stay clear of old friends and bad habits. Along those lines, one day he found himself in the lobby of Greyston Bakery, in the heart of Yonkers' aging industrial quarter.

As he signed his name on a list beneath those of dozens of other job candidates, he was not particularly hopeful.

When he was hired a few days later, he felt lucky.

At the time, he wasn't looking for anything more than a paycheck.

What he found was a new life.

"People talked about this place, but I never knew what it was all about," said Drew, now 33. "I just wanted a job."

Drew started out as an all-purpose line worker and has risen through the ranks to become a supervisor at the bakery. Now he trains new employees and makes enough money to take care of his mother and his 2-year-old daughter. More importantly, he has found his calling.

"I'm going to retire from this place," he said. "This is it. It's where I belong."

A BAKERY ON A MISSION

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Greyston Bakery is the brainchild of Bernie Glassman, a Brooklyn native who worked as an aerospace engineer for McDonnell-Douglas in Southern California in the 1960s, then became a Zen monk, popular author, and entrepreneur interested in projects linked to "socially engaged Buddhism." A Zen meditation group led by Glassman founded the bakery as a storefront operation in a hardscrabble section of the Bronx in 1982, borrowing $300,000 to get it off the ground. The goal, according to the company, was to produce quality, locally-made products that would provide a sustainable and satisfying livelihood for its workers, many of whom have been homeless when they started.

"Our philosophy has always been that you need to help end the suffering," said Greyston's president and CEO, Mike Brady.

From the Bronx, the bakery moved to a small factory in downtown Yonkers. In 2004, it built a 23,000-square-foot manufacturing facility off Alexander Street in Yonkers, transforming a polluted piece of land along the city's aging industrial riverfront. The $9.4 million facility was designed by architect Maya Lin -- who created the Vietnam Memorial in Washington -- and was financed with municipal bonds, bank loans and a $1 million grant from the Environmental Protection Agency.

Over the years, the bakery has carved out a niche in upscale bakery products -- mostly brownies -- for Vermont-based Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream, a number of popular Manhattan restaurants, and specialty-food departments at Bloomingdale's and Neiman Marcus.

The company hires mostly on instinct -- no resume needed, no previous employment, no criminal background checks or references. New hires can be convicted felons still on parole, immigrants who don't speak English, or recovered drug addicts.

William Epps joined the operation about a year ago. Like many of Greyston's employees, he comes from a broken family and got into trouble when he was a kid. He said the job has kept him off the streets and away from bad influences.

"This place gave me a chance," said the 20-year-old Yonkers man. "Nobody's ever done that."

Workers go through a rigorous training program. If they stay after 6 months, they are allowed to join the workers union. At present, about 50 workers are employed at the bakery, which churns out brownies day and night.

"We believe everyone should have an opportunity, regardless of their background," Brady said. "We provide training, structure and encouragement. But it's up to the individual to decide whether they are ready to commit."

Even in the best of times, good paying jobs are hard to come by in Westchester County's largest city. In some of the city's poorest neighborhoods, unemployment levels have hovered around 30 percent since the Great Recession began.

"There is no shortage of people who are in desperate need of jobs," Brady said.

FROM BROWNIES TO SOCIAL ISSUES

The manufacture of tarts, cheesecakes, cookies and brownies might seem to have nothing to do with social engineering, but for Greyston Bakery, work on social ills was a natural extension of the business' success. All of the profits from the bakery operations go to the Greyston Foundation, which uses the money for social programs.

"Bernie's philosophy is that giving someone a job isn't enough," Brady said. "You need child care, low-income housing and youth services. We've set up a collective set of services that a community needs to become self-sufficient."

The foundation has become one of the largest private providers of low-income housing in Yonkers, with more than $50 million in real estate projects to date, according to the company's website. It runs a day care center open to the community and operates a home with a medical clinic for impoverished people with AIDs, called Greyston Health Services.

Several years ago the company teamed up with St. John's Episcopal Church to restore the historic but run-down Philipsburg Hall to its former grandeur. They turned the upper floors of the building into low-rent apartments for local artists.

City Council President Chuck Lesnick said too many companies in the city "shy away from the Yonkers identity" because of the negative image associated with the city's tougher neighborhoods.

Greyston has taken the opposite attitude, Lesnick said.

"I was visiting Florida and stopped at a Ben & Jerry's stand in a shopping center and they had a poster on the wall telling the story of Greyston Bakery," the Democratic leader said. "That really made me proud to be from Yonkers."

Glassman, who travels the world lecturing on Zen Buddhism and corporate responsibility, visits the Yonkers factory at least once a month, sometimes leading meditation sessions with administration and bakery workers, Brady said. He teaches meditation to celebrities like Jeff Bridges. The two penned a book together -- "The Dude and the Zen Master" -- described as a "freewheeling dialogue" about life, laughter, movies and doing the right thing.

Brady says Greyston's business model may not change the world, but has certainly made a difference in Yonkers.

"We can't be so bold as to suggest that we know how to solve the issue of poverty in our community, or the world for that matter," he said. "But what we can do is try to help every individual we come into contact with. That's a start."

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