You never saw a workplace bathed in such good spirits. As the team of Just Bakery of Atlanta begins its work day at 8 p.m. on a steamy Friday night, no one walks in the door without a smile for the others, and the dispensing of hugs. No matter that they just were together a day or two before, they greet one another like long lost friends.
They will work until 1 a.m., baking bagels, cinnamon rolls, cookies, rye pretzels sprinkled with Gruyere, breakfast tarts and loaves of multigrain and sourdough bread, all for sale the following day.
The bakers-in-training are refugees, most fleeing to the United States because of violence in their home countries. Just Bakery of Atlanta is a nonprofit whose mission is to train them.
A baker born in Bhutan and raised in Nepal works at the floor stand mixer, preparing the dough for the multigrain loaves. Bakers from the Congo and Central African Republic set out frozen, portioned cookie dough on baking sheets. Oatmeal ginger, gluten-free lemon, white chocolate macadamia and jeera (a cumin-scented shortbread) are on the schedule for today. The cookie dough is mixed on Mondays, then portioned by scoops and frozen until needed.
A young man from the Democratic Republic of Congo, the only male baker-in-training, goes from task to task, helping everyone. His colleagues tease him as if he were their little brother as he sets up his iPod to provide music that barely can be heard in the noisy environment of ovens, fans and mixers.
Their makeshift bakery is housed at Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church in Stone Mountain. This former church school kitchen has been turned into a bakery, the hot lunch line topped with a long slab of butcher block, and the ovens put to use for hours at a time.
“Everybody pray the ovens work,” says Mike Carmody, head baker and educator. It’s clear his team has inherited his calm demeanor and organized ways. He sweats through the evening, drinking glasses of ice cold water, while the bakers-in-training seem undaunted by the heat. On the night I visit, there’s no air conditioning, just big industrial fans to move the hot air around.
Carmody came to Atlanta from New Orleans, where, among other jobs, he was head baker for Willa Jean, John Besh’s bakery. He and his wife were thinking of opening a bakery, a little place with small plates, wine and delicious bread. Then, he learned about the job with Just Bakery and decided it was the right place for the time. “It’s perfect. I get to use my knowledge to help people,” Carmody said.
Executive Director Leah Lonsbury said opening opportunities for refugees was always the goal. “Eat well, do good, change lives. We knew we wanted a program that would do all of that.” But, what would it be? She and her partners from Clarkston’s International Rescue Committee thought “meal prep,” but the logistics were discouraging.
Lonsbury had moved to the Atlanta area from Madison, Wisconsin, where a friend started a program called Just Bakery, working with those leaving the prison system. She adapted that model to work with refugees, instead.
In October 2017, Just Bakery of Atlanta hired its first two bakers-in-training, selected from a pool initially developed by the International Rescue Committee. Two months later, they had three more bakers, and now there are a total of seven. They are expanding again, interviewing for a retail sales and training manager and staff to work in their soon-to-open Tucker storefront.
What they’ve found is that, instead of training the bakers and sending them out into the workforce, the bakers want to stay with Just Bakery.
“We pay a living wage, $15 an hour to start, and we offer part-time, flexible hours and paid job training,” Lonsbury said. “At first, we were surprised. We didn’t know they would be whizzes for kitchen math, or how quickly they would pick up these skills. Our bakers are remarkable people.
“This part-time work can be a game-changer for our bakers’ families. The income they earn relieves stress, opens opportunities, and provides choices in their own lives and for their households.”
While sales generally are limited to local congregations, farmers markets, community events and special orders right now, the organization has much bigger plans.
To do that they’re opening the store in Tucker. “We’ll see where we can go,” Lonsbury said. “We’re taking this one step at a time. As we add a storefront, and more outlets for our baked goods, we will see if our current bakers want to move into full-time work. Then, we can begin training others,” she said.
Lonsbury shook her head, explaining that the area’s largest employer of resettled refugees is a chicken factory an hour and a half outside metro Atlanta. “The positions are difficult. It’s hard work. And, workers spend three hours on the road. Mike jokes that he’d like us to take that spot as the largest employer of resettled refugees.”
In addition to watching the bakers-in-training blossom in the kitchen, she said, the reception from the public has been incredible. “I think people want to act and take steps to make our community a friendlier, more welcoming place. This is one way they can take action — eat well, do good, change lives. Our customers are taking that on, because it is of benefit to all of us, and builds community.”
Where to buy
In mid-September, Just Bakery of Atlanta will open a storefront at 2344 Main St. in Tucker. In the meantime, their baked goods are available at these locations:
Tuesdays: Stone Mountain Farmers Market, 922 Main St., Stone Mountain. 4-7 p.m.
Wednesdays: Decatur Farmers Market, 308 Clairmont Avenue, Decatur. 4-7 p.m.
Alternating Thursdays: The Farmers Market at the Battery of Atlanta, 800 Battery Avenue SE, Atlanta. 4-7 p.m.
Most Saturdays, a pop-up market at Oakhurst Market, 650 East Lake Drive, Decatur. 9-11 a.m.
First Sunday of each month: Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church, 2855 Briarcliff Road NE, Atlanta, 9:45 a.m.-1:15 p.m.
Just Bakery of Atlanta also takes special orders, and its products are stocked at Oakhurst Market.
How to help: Make a tax deductible gift through the “Donate” button at justbakeryatl.org.