They took lemons and decided to make lemonade, or rather lemon meringue pie.
The Rochester School of the Holy Childhood Inc. has turned a potential hardship for its disabled workers into an entrepreneurial opportunity by building a $2.6 million Special Touch Bakery. It is planned to be a community-based integrated workplace for intellectually disabled workers served by Holy Childhood and for nondisabled workers.
The business, a newly incorporated, separate entity of the nonprofit agency, answers the pending mandate by New York’s Office for People with Developmental Disabilities that intellectually disabled workers are not segregated in so-called sheltered workshops.
The agency mandate calls for disabled workers to be transitioned to community-based integrated employment by 2020. Agencies such as Holy Childhood were required to submit a proposal for transition by Jan. 1.
“Our primary focus is workforce development for the intellectually disabled. We’re expanding the business in ways we may not have conceived of before the regulatory reform. It’s transformational for Holy Childhood,” said Donna Dedee, Holy Childhood president and CEO.
The bakery, which is to be located off-site on Mt. Read Boulevard, was named a priority project by the Finger Lakes Regional Economic Development Council and received a grant of $481,000. It also has received $250,000 from the Golisano Foundation and $75,000 from the Davenport-Hatch Foundation.
“We were named a priority project because they see we serve a segment of the population most vulnerable to poverty, and this is about workforce development,” Dedee said. “We’re pursuing other funding as well. We’ve raised $1 million so far, and I’m optimistic the community will respond.”
Holy Childhood will be leasing 20,000 square feet of space in an existing building owned by Flaum Management Co. Inc. at 1999 Mt. Read Blvd.
Holy Childhood is a nondenominational, nonprofit agency that has served children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities for 70 years. The Special Touch Bakery, currently on the site of the agency at Groton Parkway in Henrietta, is one of three programs in the adult services division that are vocational. It has provided training, employment and a paycheck for workers with special needs within an environment of job coaching and mentoring.
The bakery produces 17,000 pies year round for individual customers as well as for more than 50 retail outlets.
With the launch at the new location, there is room to expand the operation, and the organization plans to hire an additional 25 workers. Dedee hopes to add 40 new positions by the fifth year of operation, and many of the jobs will be for nondisabled workers in the community.
“We’re going to see people with a mix of intellectual disabilities and people without disabilities. They will be coworkers,” Dedee said. “We are not defining them by their disability but by their capability, the best of their ability. Side by side, a baker is a baker.”
Holy Childhood has enlisted the guidance of prominent industry leaders, including Wegmans Food Markets Inc.
“They helped us with pricing and process,” Dedee said. “They have been a valuable source of expertise to help us as we build a sustainable business model.”
A team from Wegmans toured the Special Touch Bakery and invited key members from Holy Childhood and its bakery staff to tour bakery operations at Wegmans’ stores. It was part of an internal project at Wegmans designed to encourage leadership development, facilitated by Scott Andrews, director of logistics at the grocery chain.
“This gave the Holy Childhood team a greater understanding of all of the elements necessary to scale up a food manufacturing operation with annual production targets many times greater than current capacity,” Andrews said.
In addition, Wegmans helped with recommendations on ingredient sourcing and food safety, along with human resource tips such as information on competitive wages and questions to ask in job interviews.
“It’s exciting to envision the possibilities for the Special Touch Bakery, as Holy Childhood has approached this project as a workforce development opportunity for all workers,” Andrews said.
Foodlink Inc., a nonprofit agency that provides food to food pantries across the region, is another resource as a neighbor at the new Mt. Read Boulevard site.
Foodlink has constructed its new centralized food processing and commercial kitchen adjacent to the space that will be occupied by Special Touch Bakery. Dedee sees opportunities for collaboration between the two agencies on training and hiring.
Another major partnership comes from a man who offered his help long before the idea of a new bakery was conceived. Dwight Palmer, the CEO of Palmer Food Services Inc., toured the bakery more than three years ago. He was so impressed by the operation, he recalls offering then to help the agency grow the business. There was no room on-site, nor plan at the time, for expansion.
Now with plans for the new business at a new location, Palmer has signed on to be a key distribution partner. The launch will take place in steps, beginning with Palmer assisting Special Touch Bakery in warehousing and distribution of its pies to the network of clients his company serves between Buffalo and Utica, Palmer explained.
From there, he would like to see the bakery grow its customer base by distribution through Palmer’s Syracuse company, G&C Food Distributors Inc.
“That would give them the opportunity to get in front of 900 companies in 27 states across America,” Palmer said. “My dream would be for their product to be in so demand they couldn’t keep up with production. That’s my dream.”
Palmer said he believes in the product, which is still made from scratch, and notes the apple pie is his favorite.
“Their product is so unusual,” he said. “There’s not a lot of competition in the category of high-end pies.”
He also said he feels their success would benefit others.
“They will have an impact on our local economy because they will be using local apples. They will source as many local products as they can,” he said.
Jobs are key
Joseph Perdicho, director of strategic business development at Holy Childhood, is the project manager overseeing planning for the Special Touch Bakery. He is in the process of ordering equipment, which is important for how the integrated workplace will operate.
“We don’t want to automate the whole process, because we’re trying to create jobs,” Perdicho said.
There is also a strict emphasis on maintaining the homemade quality that has earned the pies such a loyal following for decades.
Positions for hire on the pie line include blenders, bakers and packagers. The first openings, to be posted soon, Perdicho said, are for a maintenance manager, bakery manager and a quality assurance position. All require food experience.
Hiring for positions on the pie line is expected to begin in May or June. It will be a ratio of 40 percent disabled to 60 percent nondisabled workers, following one of the requirements in the state agency mandate of the integrated workplace.
The pay rate and job requirements will be the same for disabled and nondisabled workers. The number of hours could vary though, depending on each individual’s ability. There is a certain qualification hiring managers are looking for that has nothing to do with baking.
“We will approach hiring of nondisabled production workers looking more at how they fit in the environment than at their experience,” Perdicho said.
The production line will be able to produce 18 to 20 pies a minute. The bakery will continue to carry its signature line of products with several varieties of pies, including bumbleberry, raspberry peach and apple crumb.
Pricing is one of the determinations Dedee plans to finalize as she works with Palmer in early 2017 on marketing, sales and forecasting.
SWBR Architecture, Engineering & Landscape Architecture P.C. is doing the architectural engineering and Christa Construction LLC has been contracted as the construction manager.
Groundbreaking is set for mid-January, weather permitting. Demolition of existing infrastructure will come first with construction aimed for completion in late spring.
The goal of the project, Dedee said, is to create jobs, for disabled as well as nondisabled workers.
Andrews, facilitator of the project team at Wegmans, said he believes there will be success, even beyond the bakery.
“The new facility will not only create jobs within the community, but employees in this integrated production environment will learn transferrable skills that can apply to culinary environments in other employment settings in the community,” Andrews said.
“We’ve learned that this kind of skill development is valuable to people in search of meaningful work.”
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