Challenged Adults Prep for the 'Real World' (and the Season) with Pies at South Fork Bakery
This holiday season, as you’re giving thanks and making lists, you might think to remember Amagansett’s South Fork Bakery — as much for its crucial mission of empowering challenged adults as for its in-demand pumpkin pies and gingerbread cookies.
The non-profit bakery makes independence a reality for the easily forgotten-about adults in need of both meaningful local work opportunities and the social skills required to succeed in them.
Operating out of Scoville Hall in Amagansett, the bakery generates only about 45% of its operating revenue from the sales of its famous baked goods, while the balance is made up with the generous support of sponsors and donors.
Most of South Fork Bakery’s employees are graduates of East End high schools. They are hired to do jobs including cleaning and peeling, measuring, packaging and sealing, and, of course, pie-crust rolling.
“Our employees bake them the way grandma baked them, butter and sugar, no preservatives,” said founder Shirley Ruch, who opened the bakery in 2016.
A speech and language pathologist with a 30-year private practice in Sag Harbor, Ruch specializes in working with children challenged by autism. It was seeing the hurdles local disabled adults were faced with — like aging out of high school and struggling to access the job market — that ultimately led Ruch to found South Fork Bakery, which now employees 16 workers with disabilities ranging from autism to Down syndrome to severe ADHD.
Employees learn all-purpose baking skills, yes, but also critical social skills that help them both inside and outside of the program. Yet, as currently constituted, the non-profit can hire only a limited number of disabled employees part-time.
It’s one reason the bakery has started Launch, a new training and employment program that connects SFB employees with partners throughout Suffolk County. Ideally, Ruch said, the program will recruit, train and help place people that come through the bakery into “real world” job opportunities.
Currently, there are four former SFB workers employed with cooperating local businesses through the program.
“We realize it’s great that we have 16-20 employees here that we’re supporting in helping to get employment, but there are a lot more people out there who need it,” said Ruch. “We’re hoping this will eventually evolve into a business that people come and go through in the community looking to hire for jobs.”
Ruch and the bakery’s executive director Stephen Hamilton are in the process of implementing sustainable measures to support the non-profit company as it grows into the future. The bakery has a several annual fundraisers, as well as online auctions and related events that help support its community-centered mission.
The employees at South Fork Bakery, meanwhile, hone their baking skills with on-the-job training and a little help from a small support staff. It’s part-time work that pays them minimum wage regardless of role — $15 per hour.
Getting paid for being productive is key. “I want them all to reap the benefits of having a job, paying taxes, and being a tax-paying citizen because that helps them feel like they’re part of the community,” Ruch said.
The mission is crucial, Ruch said, as 80% of adults with disabilities are unemployed. She’s seen so many former students’ families get frustrated by the lack of post-high school opportunities.
“They’re going to graduate and there’s nothing, it’s like a cliff they just drop off of,” said Ruch. “Having something like this, parents were just gung-ho about getting this off the ground. It was very much a grass roots effort to get it started.”
One of the most enriching parts of the work experience for SFB employees is the thriving social environment they create.
“Socialization is one of the biggest benefits of this endeavor for me … as a speech therapist, I would work on social skills with kids, in groups, not real life. This is real life. It just comes naturally when you’re sitting next to someone to talk to them. There’s been a lot of friendships that have developed here and it’s absolutely wonderful.”
East Hampton High School graduate from 2017, Frankie Demarteleire, a tenured employee at the bakery, was busy weighing lumps of gingerbread batter.
“I love it, I’ve been working here since 2016, I’m an OG,” he said. “I like the work, but I also like making friends, and I get to hang out with a friend I’ve known a long time, everybody else was sort of a new face until I got to know them. “I don’t know what’s in store for me in the near future, but whatever it is I hope since it’s something as nice as this.”
In the kitchen, working pie prep, wis SFB production manager Jessica Taccone. She’s been there from the beginning and baked her way up the ladder. She and several SFB employees were recently hustling to get pie shells ready to accommodate 100 pounds of Halsey Farm apples for the fast-approaching holiday season, where demand is heavy from popular local outlets like Schiavoni’s, Goldberg’s Bagels, Balsam Farms, Hampton Coffee Co., Cromer’s and The Cheese Shoppe, among many others.
John Irwin, a Southampton High School alum, was the main man rolling out pie shells for Taccone to crimp. “He can’t leave us,” Taccone said of Irwin. “We’d be lost without him.”
Irwin, for his part, said he enjoyed his work at the bakery and was in no hurry to go anywhere. “I’m a chef,” he said, rolling out dough to precise measurements. “In the sense that I make food for myself.”
If you’d like to become a sponsor, or learn more about South Fork Bakery and its mission, visit southforkbakery.org.