In just a few years, Sunflower Bakery has grown from a pilot program operating in a synagogue kitchen to a full-fledged bakery. Its 2015 Purim output included 26,000 hamantashen, and for Rosh Hashanah the bakery made 12,000 cookies and 400 apple cakes from scratch, along with a wide array of other baked goods.

A baker mixes while head pastry chef Liz Hutter supervises.

A baker mixes while head pastry chef Liz Hutter supervises.

This Purim, Sunflower expects to make 30,000 hamantashen, including nine traditional flavors, six chocolate-dipped, two gluten-free and two with chocolate dough. On a busy day at any time of year, Sunflower produces 75 pounds of cookies, in addition to bars, brownies, mandelbread, cupcakes, muffins, crumb cake and breakfast breads, rugelach and other specialty desserts.

From a production facility nestled in a Gaithersburg industrial alley, Sunflower now has an expansive reach throughout the DC area. The bakery offers free delivery for online orders to seven locations in the greater Washington area, including the Rockville and DC JCCs and the Candy Man in Kemp Mill, plus a program through organizations and businesses in which subscribers sign up for “sweets of the month” for September through June.

In 2015 Sunflower Bakery opened up Café Sunflower in the new Jewish Federation of Greater Washington building. The bakery has also prepared the desserts for the annual Jewish Foundation for Group Homes Gala at Strathmore, providing sweets for the 1,500 attendees. And recently Sodexo asked Sunflower to provide baked goods for that company’s coffee shop in its Gaithersburg headquarters.

But Sunflower is so much more than a growing business. It is also the only training program in Maryland for people with learning differences. It has graduated 46 people through its training and internship program, and an employment specialist and other staff help its graduates find employment in bakery-related fields.

Even that description doesn’t begin to explain what Sunflower Bakery is really about.

Founders Sara Milner and Laurie Wexler and head pastry chef Elizabeth (Liz) Hutter delight in the accomplishments of their graduates. While Milner and Wexler have big-picture vision and plans for Sunflower, they don’t lose sight of the individuals who are the reason for its existence.

For Hutter, “Hearing stories of people after they leave” is the most fun part of her job.

Milner says that what keeps her going is “watching how it [the little thing that clicks] reverberates through the individual… I can do this!” Constantly amazed at their students, she remarks that they “can do so much more than they or anyone else thought they could.”

Wexler loves finding out what each person is really good at and helping them get stronger. The students gain self-esteem and learn skills transferable to other jobs once they leave the Sunflower program. In addition, she loves seeing the “friendships that develop among our students.” For people whose learning differences often keep them isolated, those friendships are a huge, and often unexpected, bonus of their time at Sunflower.

The training program can even expand a student’s horizons. Steven, one of Sunflower’s earliest students, interned at Stella’s Bakery on Rockville Pike while also working in an afterschool program at the JCC. The staff at Stella’s was so impressed that they offered Steven a job when his internship ended. He continued to work there for two years, as well as at the JCC, a schedule that Wexler and Milner marvel at as they recount Steven’s development. The staff at Stella’s brought him along, teaching and encouraging Steven to think about his future. He is now enrolled at the Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Boston, training to become a pastry chef.

Watching the three women interact with students, one can see that they are not pushovers. Gentle reminders of proper procedures and corrections when necessary are frequent as they move easily around in the bakery production facility. They set standards and look for ways to help each student meet them, beaming with pride if the job is well done.

As we watch a student create Sunflower Swirl Bars, moving the pastry bag along the pan, then creating the swirl with a knife, Milner pauses and makes sure I get it—he “makes it look easy” she says, “but it’s not.”

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.

February is Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month (JDAIM). Find information about meaningful events and programs to foster a more inclusive community for all here

Top photo: A baker makes Sunflower Swirl Bars.