Sunflower Bakery

Maryland / Dec. 28, 2012 / by The Team

"We're Sunflower Bakery and our tagline is 'Where caring is the main ingredient.'"

Based in Gaithersburg, Maryland, Sunflower Bakery is no ordinary bakery. Instead, it “trains adults with disabilities for competitive employment in other baking jobs in other bakeries,” explains Sara Portman Milner, Co-Founder and Co-Director. 

She adds that the organization “is really unique because we're not only a full production bakery, we are a training program for people to actually get the skills they need to be able to work in any bakery and we're a nonprofit organization at the same time.”

When Laurie Wexler, also a Co-Founder and Co-Director, came to Portman Milner with the idea of starting a bakery that would train adults with disabilities, Portman Milner jumped at the idea. 

Combining two of her passions, baking and helping those with disabilities, was a perfect way to make a difference in their community. 

Before starting the bakery, Portman Milner had long been “dedicated to giving people opportunities in the mainstream of society rather than in special schools and special programs.” 

Her dedication came from her own personal experiences of having a brother with Down Syndrome. “At that time there just weren't many opportunities for him,” she explains. “There wasn't a choice in school, there wasn't a choice in what he would learn, and there certainly wasn't a choice of what would happen after he would finish school.”  

So creating a bakery that would give people exactly that opportunity – a choice of what to do – and the skills to build a career in baking, was a perfect plan. 

“Immediately, I ... thought what a great opportunity to be able to give somebody else who doesn't have so many opportunities the chance to do something terrific like baking.”

The bakery started off small with a pilot program in June 2009 that included four adults with disabilities in the program. 

Wexler explains that, “We really started with four people putting in five hundred dollars each. So we had $2,000 and a lot of enthusiasm and a lot of grit.” The program was run in the local synagogue who they got “to graciously host us in their kitchen two afternoons a week.”

The pilot program was a great success and with that, Sunflower Bakery began “in earnest” in July 2010 and they “now train three new students every quarter.” 

Portman Milner and Wexler made the decision from the start to make the bakery kosher, which as Wexler puts it, “we thought would be a win-win.”

The bakery is open to all students who wish to participate in the program. It is “Non-sectarian in terms of who would be able to become a student but ... a business decision would be that it would be Kosher because we would be fulfilling a community need where the need is greater than the ability to get Kosher baked goods,” says Wexler.

Producing kosher baked goods also means that the bakery produces food edible by people with dairy intolerances and allergies, which helps increase their sales.

Far from being more complicated for students, the only thing they must remember is not to bring their own food into the bakery. Since there is no butter in the kitchen and everything is clearly labelled, there is no added complication for the student baking the food. 

The disabilities that affect Sunflower Bakery’s students span “from the Autism spectrum, with severe learning disabilities, all kinds of expressive language and receptive language problems, bi-polar disorder,” says Portman Milner. 

“All of them have in common that they have certain disabilities that they've had in their lives that have held them back, that have helped them see all the barriers, all the things that they were not able to do, and the things that frustrated them and caused them to be unhappy and unsuccessful.”

When an adult with disabilities wishes to be part of the program, there is a simple application form to be filled out. 

“Then we meet the person,” says Portman Milner, “and our chef does a working interview because not everybody's great at speaking in an interview so they do a working interview to see is this person going to be able to measure ingredients, is this person going to be able to stand on their feet for four hours, lift a heavy bag of flour, and be able to have the stamina, the stick-to-it-ness to be with it?”

Many of the applicants will never have experienced the busy atmosphere and fast-paced nature of a professional bakery before, but every member of the Sunflower Bakery team is ready to help the students through their difficulties. 

“If they're distractable, we'll deal with it. If they have difficulty with math, we'll deal with that. If they have a hard time reading a recipe, we will deal with that. That is not a barrier. None of those things are barriers to success. The key is giving them the opportunity to try it in our environment.” 

The environment at Sunflower Bakery truly is unique. It is a fully operating professional bakery that fulfills orders each day but it is also an extremely supportive place for these adults to learn and work. 

Sunflower Bakery’s Executive Pastry Chef, Liz Hutter says that, “We work inside the bakery as it’s running so they learn the feel of how that feels right off the bat, there’s no ‘okay, today we’re just going to make one little batch of chocolate chip cookie dough’. It’s not like that at all. Right from the very beginning, they’re producing orders, they’re helping produce items that are being sold.”

The support they need is given to the students and the environment helps them learn without becoming stressed or pressured. It allows them “to work with other people who understand them, who don't get upset when they talk to themselves or when they have to remove themselves because they're getting frustrated or when they can't do the same math of the fractions of weighing over and over.” 

The kitchen is carefully arranged and everything is labelled in order to help students find their way around but after just a matter of days and weeks, they become increasingly familiar with their environment. 

All the orders are placed online, which helps in the organization of the training program. “We need to be able to set the schedule for the day in advance of the day so people come in and they know what they're responsible to do,” explains Wexler. “They look up on the white board and they see their name and what they're going to be doing that day and that starts from day one.” 

The students will learn to make a huge variety of baked goods, far more than most people will have baked in their lifetime. 

“I don't think people understand the depth of the training that the individual students get,” says Portman Milner. “They do everything from mixing ingredients, making batters, baking cakes, muffins, cupcakes, cookies, bars, biscotti, they make decorative specialty brownie pops, French macarons, they do the decorating, the piping of the beautiful cupcakes ... they do beautiful, excellent tasting products.” 

The program at the Sunflower Bakery itself lasts six months, after which “we match them with an internship for three to six months where they develop further their skills or get new opportunities,” explains Portman Milner. 

There is a wide variety of options for the internships the students go to. They “may be placed in a small boutique bakery, they may be placed in a bakery that does whole sale and retail, that might be a local chain, it might be a national food chain,” says Wexler. 

“We do pastries so they might want to go somewhere where bread is baked and learn those skills,” adds Portman Milner.

After that internship, the students are then often employed by that company or they go on to work for another similar bakery, grocery store, or caterer. 

There are also three or four places for graduate students to work in Sunflower Bakery itself, helping Chef fulfill the large number of daily orders. 

For those who do not make it to graduation, Portman Milner and Wexler, along with the rest of their staff and volunteers, make sure that those students can find another training program or opportunity that will help them begin a career. 

There are also some applicants who are not quite ready to keep up with the pace of the program but they are always given the opportunity to try. “We will not just say, 'No you can't be here'. We even give a trial, we have a 30-day trial.” 

If they are unable to keep up with the work, then the team ensures that they tell them to re-apply at a later date and encourages them to practice any aspects that might be holding them back. 

Aside from producing very tasty products, the program really does have a great deal of impact on the students it teaches. 

Rachel Easterling is a Sunflower Bakery Graduate and a part-time baker. She says that, “I’d never done this before and I feel like I’ve moved on to the top level because I used to work at a day care center ... every time I bake, I feel happy inside because I’m doing something that I like to do.”

Assistant Baker, Alex Halliburton, says that, “I can look at other students and see them from when they first come here to when they leave and see the progress that they’ve made.”

Portman Milner emphasizes the effect it has as seen from the outside. “Every single person, every little step, every little breakthrough that they make, is huge. When we are standing there and somebody pulls a cake out of the oven that they've baked and they put it together and they've started frosting it or they're able to make cookies after struggling with getting their ingredients out the first week that they came.”

She continues, saying that, “Now we'll just go in there and they see their name on the board, they see what their tasks are and they just read them, make the recipes, knock out the cookies. It is unbelievable, it has just been unbelievable to see the positive effect on people.”

Since beginning in 2009, there have been 30 people to graduate from Sunflower Bakery and they are hoping to keep the numbers growing year after year. 

The business model upon which they have grown the bakery is a very important part of their success. 

Using the income from the products they sell to help sustain the training program is an excellent way of making sure they are able to fund themselves, and with no retail space, there is no wasted food produced, as it is all ordered and paid for online before it is made. 

Their location in a warehouse area, far from foot-traffic, might have made their job of selling much more difficult but thanks to their online ordering system and a large customer base, they are able to attract an increasing number of customers. 

“We started out so tiny but now we have a loyal following of not only individuals and families but we have organizations, institutions, boards of directors, businesses that order from us because they might have heard about us because of the cause that we serve but they come back for the quality because our stuff is really good.” 

Everyone from the staff and volunteers to the students at Sunflower Bakery feel part of a team, and they all feel the energy and positivity of working at the bakery. The changes they are making to people’s lives are huge and it all starts with telling people what they are doing well rather than what they can’t do. 

“We're dealing with people who are so used to being told what they can't do well,” says Portman Milner. “One young lady who came over to me, and she said, 'Why are you always being so nice to me?' and I said, 'What do you mean? Why wouldn't I be nice to you?' And she said, 'Because I'm so used to everybody telling me what I do wrong, nobody ever tells me what I do right.'”

Sunflower Bakery is changing the lives of adults who have struggles in their lives beyond those that most people would expect. 

“If I were to take you to the bakery right now and have you walk in and look at people working,” adds Portman Milner, “you wouldn't even ever guess some of the struggles and the challenges they've had in their lives, and to think that they're now baking beautiful products and enjoying seeing the customers, how much they're enjoying them, it's just unbelievable.” 

The only goal for the bakery is to make sure that its students are happy and grow to believe in their own abilities. Finding a job, while a very important part, is only secondary to the changes that happen within the students. 

All Portman Milner wants is “for people to walk out with the self-confidence, knowing that they are worthwhile human beings who are going to be able to be independent, take care of themselves and provide a skill that employers really want.”

All of the hard work of keeping the nonprofit running, finding the funds, and spreading the word about their training program is nothing in comparison to the effect they have on their students’ lives. 

“Everyday we work hard in the grind of making sure we get the production out,” says Portman Milner, “making sure everybody shows up, making sure that things are done as they're supposed to be and occasionally, we're able to step back and see the unbelievable changes in human beings, what they're able to do.” 

To learn more about Sunflower Bakery and to order some of their baked goods, please visit their website or Facebook Page.