Sunflower Bakery’s delicious, from-scratch cookies, cakes and pastries are among the best commercial pareve desserts you can buy in the Washington area.
At the same time, each purchase supports a non-profit bakery that trains young adults in our community with developmental or other cognitive disabilities for employment with other local food providers.
The bakery’s founders are Laurie Wexler and Sara Portman Milner, who identified two distinct local needs: a program to train young adults with special needs for employment and a source for better pareve desserts. They found a model in a bakery in Virginia Beach before starting Sunflower with $2,000 from donations. According to Sara, the project “allows this community of people to make a meaningful contribution to the world.”
In June 2009, they launched in the kitchen of Beth Sholom Congregation in Potomac, baking two afternoons a week. They had to “leave no evidence” they had been there, and they recall scrubbing the floors to leave no crumb behind. Then they found their current location in Gaithersburg on Craigslist.
A professional pastry chef created the detailed training curriculum, which Sarah and Laurie say could help other communities develop similar enterprises. The project is funded half from donations and half from sales. Students also pay a fee to participate in the training program.
This year Sunflower Bakery won the $50,000 2013 Ruderman Prize in Disability, so now they have capital to work with and hope to expand their space to train more students.
The full program consists of 10 weeks of instruction and then 10 weeks of on-site internship followed by three to six months at an off-site internship. Sunflower will train fifteen students through the program in the coming year.
During my visit to the bakery, I watched students learn how to cut margarine into cubes, sprinkle colored sugars in a pattern on the signature Sunflower cookies and cut linzer bars into perfect rectangles. Students repeat these tasks over and over until they are mastered. When they learn how to crack eggs, they crack 90 eggs each!
I learned that working with this community is not so different from training staff in other bakeries. According to head pastry chef Liz Hutter, the biggest challenges are conveying the sense of urgency in getting the work done quickly, teaching to foresee a problem and adjust to prevent it and consolidating tasks to be more efficient.
Sunflower places graduates in establishments that are looking for bakery assistants and especially for people to do repetitive tasks. So far, graduates are working at Safeway, Stella’s, Sticky Fingers and Ridgewells Catering, among other businesses.
After students are placed, the program follows their careers. Laurie sees Sunflower’s role as “a life-long relationship” because many students have no support system. Sometimes the graduates return for additional training if they need new skills for their jobs.
The bakery’s most popular desserts are the chocolate crinkle cookies and the lemon bars. Sunflower even sells French macarons and gluten-free desserts, though it is not a gluten-free facility. Sugar-free desserts are currently under discussion.
The bakery is working on expanding its relationships with Jewish institutions in the Washington area that order desserts for weekly kiddush, life cycle events and other celebrations.
As I discovered, Sunflower is a gift to our community for the training it provides and also because the desserts are really tasty. The great taste is a challenge for the small staff, according to manager Lisa Silverman, who says the hardest part about working at Sunflower is the noshing.
I can relate, as I recently ordered Sunflower desserts to cater a memorial service for my father-in-law and brought the leftovers home. I put them in the freezer to stop me from stealing bites, but the plan is not working as well as I had hoped.
Sunflower Bakery, 240-361-3698, 8507 Ziggy Lane, Gaithersburg, MD. Bakery pick-ups: Sunday, 9:30 am–2 pm; Monday, 10 am–4:30 pm; Tuesday-Thursday, 8:00 am-4:30 pm; Friday, 10 am–2 pm.