Every morning, Mark England is at his station by 5:30 a.m. His shift starts at 6 a.m., but he likes to get here early to set up. “Stay ready,” he says—that’s his motto for work and life, what he tells his children, and what he tells me when I stop by Greyston Bakery to interview him.
By 6 a.m., he’s ready for a 12-hour day of mixing 700-pound vats of brownie batter, which will be baked into 35,000 pounds of fudgy goodness by the end of the day, then shipped off to be folded into pints of Ben & Jerry’s Half-Baked and Chocolate Fudge Brownie ice creams.
Those brownie bits are baked in Yonkers, New York, by a team of former offenders, immigrants, and the chronically unemployed, who are given a second chance in the form of a brownie. They’re there thanks to the Greyston Bakery’s unique Open Hiring policy, which essentially means that “anyone that comes to the front door of the bakery gets a job,” according to president and CEO Mike Brady, in a 2014 TED talk.
The process is simple, and it starts with a list. Prospective employees walk to the bakery’s front desk, write their name down, and wait. There is no background check; it’s a “no questions asked” affair. The bakery moves down the list, first-come, first-served, and when a position opens up, the next person gets a call. After a quick-fire orientation on food quality and safety and a 6- to 10-month apprenticeship on the floor, they graduate to full-time line staff, with opportunities for future promotion on the horizon.
“We’re only interested in what they’re capable of doing in the future,” Brady explained in his talk. The policy is based on a forward-looking philosophy that disregards a person’s past, focusing instead on future potential. Work history or previous employment barriers, be they criminal records or language difficulties, are unimportant.
Greyston does more than bake brownies—the for-profit bakery is part of a larger network of nonprofit community programs, including a workforce development program, an early learning center, supportive housing, and community gardens. Greyston was the first business in New York state to register as a benefit corporation, meaning that it is legally required to report on its environmental and social impact, in addition to financials.
Greyston Bakery, over its 35 years of operation, has given new opportunities to more than 2,000 people.
Among them is England, a father of five who currently works as a mixer. He previously worked at a grocery store in Queens, until a promotion turned out to be a curse in disguise because it came with a previously skipped-over background check.
“I was young, in the streets, doing things,” England said. The check turned up his arrest record, and “it was over after that.” From there, it was back to the streets, doing odd jobs to feed his family.
“Nowadays all you gotta do is lose a job and it’s rough,” he said, recalling people for whom unemployment had spiraled into lost houses, lost cars, and broken families. England found Greyston through a friend, was hired in three months, and has been working there ever since. Last March marked three years.
“They don’t judge you, they don’t question you, none of that,” he said. “Having a steady job, a steady paycheck every week, is a beautiful thing. It changed my life for the better, where I know at the end of the week I got a check. I know I’m able to pay that cable bill, I know I’m able to get my kids some sneakers, whatever they need.”
Unsurprisingly, Greyston employs a motley group of workers. Among its team of 80 bakers, there are former offenders and recovering addicts, immigrants and English-learners, people who’ve worked all their lives to ones who’d never held a job before Greyston. One was previously trained in a culinary program; another worked in a mortuary.
“What I love about Open Hiring is that it gives people a chance to surprise you,” said Sunitha Malieckal, an account manager at Greyston. In her four years at the bakery, she’s slowly gotten to know what she calls the workers’ “past lives.” One day, an unassuming woman brought in a photo that revealed hers: the champion of a local boxing league.
“I think Greyston has really shown me that no assumption you have is ever worth holding on to, because people always have depths and secrets to them and surprises to them that are just such a pleasure to get to know,” Malieckal said. “[Open Hiring] is giving people that opportunity to show you something you would never expect out of them. It’s so true for all of us, and Open Hiring really brings it to life.”
Products available at Greyston.com.