07/19/2011 06:19 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Did Ex-Cons Bake Your Birthday Cake?

Attending a launch party for the third annual Tasty Awards in San Francisco last Sunday, I met some local vintners and chocolatiers and sampled napoleons, clafoutis, creampuffs, cheesepuffs and cinnamon crispies that might very well have been baked by felons.

But that's a good thing.


Those pastries were supplied by the Bread Project, a Berkeley-based nonprofit that provides job training and job placement for marginalized people. Addicts, the homeless, the jobless and the formerly incarcerated learn to bake dark rye, fruit tarts, Christmas stollen, Anzac cookies and a wide variety of other sweet and savory treats in an Emeryville commercial kitchen.

For the Bread Project's nine-week café/restaurant-training program and its twelve-week bakery-training program, students are actively recruited from more than 200 local homeless shelters, halfway houses, social-service agencies, substance-abuse recovery houses, jails, and prisons -- including San Quentin. Private and corporate donors aid the seven-year-old project, whose eventual goal is self-sufficiency.

A team of professional pastry chefs create recipes for an ever-shifting array of cakes, cookies, crostini, croutons, quiches, muffins, cinnamon rolls, scones, hot pockets, tartlets and artisanal breads made from scratch using local produce and no artificial ingredients. These professionals then teach Bread Project students how to prepare these items -- which are then sold at enticingly low prices to the public through the nonprofit's catering branch, wholesale bakery operation, and partnerships with school districts, farmers' markets, Project Open Hand, and other agencies.

"Potential students go through a very involved intake process before they are accepted into the programs," Bread Project executive director Dagmar Schroeder-Huse told me in an interview. "During the screening interviews, our program staff discusses the history of each student as well as their barriers to employment intensively to understand the various challenges each student faces.

"Students earn a certificate of completion if they attend at least 330 out of the 360 total hours of instruction and pass most of the required written and practical tests that are given throughout the training," Schroder-Huse explained. "We strictly enforce regular attendance to mimic on-the-job expectations."

The Bread Project boasts an impressive 86 percent graduation rate, 74 percent job-placement rate, and 83 percent job-retention rate. It also operates a café -- serving baked goods and full meals -- on the Berkeley Adult School campus, which will reopen when the fall term starts next month.

Photo courtesy of Kristan Lawson.