NYC nonprofit cooks up jobs for immigrant women

Some of the breads found at Hot Bread

Some of the breads found at Hot Bread Kitchen in East Harlem, a non-profit bakery known for its small business outreach program that helps low-income immigrant women start their own bakeries and pastry shops. (May 2, 2013) (Credit: Craig Ruttle)

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Immigrant women stepping out of their traditional roles bake the organic artisan breads, crusty baguettes and stuffed Moroccan flatbreads sold at city farmers markets -- all through a nonprofit group that helps teach them English and prepares them for a career.

The Hot Bread Kitchen at La Marqueta in East Spanish Harlem, the nonprofit, is breaking down the old-world gender barrier, as women from Mexico, South America and Africa train to be bakers -- jobs traditionally held by men.

"I am passionate about women's rights and I wanted to help women get those better jobs in the baking industry," said Jessamyn W. Rodriguez, 36, founder and chief executive.

Hot Bread Kitchen opened in 2007. It moved and became anchor tenant at La Marqueta in 2011. It is a nonprofit enterprise that recruits low-income immigrant women and trains them to become bakers and supports them in their endeavors to start their own businesses.

Lutfunnesa Islam, 40, of Bangladesh, has lived in the United States for 17 years and never thought baking would be her ticket to learning English, a full-time job and medical benefits.

At Hot Bread Kitchen, Islam bakes My Mom's Nutty Granola, which is sold across the city. "My life has changed. Before, I did not know how to talk to you in English, and look, I am speaking to you now," she said this week as she removed dozens of hot trays of granola from a walk-in oven at the bakery.

The training program paid for Islam's English classes. She earns $9 an hour and receives medical benefits.

"Lutfunnesa is very special. Nobody hustles like she does," Rodriguez said. "She really invests herself in her job."

Islam also packages the granola in bags that give the product its handmade touch, Rodriguez said. "She makes sure that she turns the bags three times and that she folds the tabs just right."

"See how perfect," Rodriguez said, showing off the neatly folded bag. "Better than a machine. It's a culture of excellence that cannot be duplicated. She just cares."

A training applicant must have a good work ethic and a passion to learn a new job skill, Rodriguez said. The bakery is accepting trainee applications.

Another business initiative offered by the nonprofit is HBK Incubates, which provides licensed kitchen space and business-development support to people who want to start their own food business.

Alex Sagol, 34, formerly in advertising, partnered up with Sarah Shapiro, 28, to start a catering business. They use the bakery's kitchen space to prep and bake their foods and pay on a sliding scale to use the facility.

"We have doubled our business so far this year from last year and we have up to 20 clients," said Sagol, whose Cantina NYC catering enterprise provides breakfast and lunch to film and photo crews at commercial shoots.

The nonprofit is funded with grants and private donations -- and sales. Rodriguez said so far this year 75 percent of its funding has come from sales and 25 percent from grants and donations.

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