My first visit to Blue Sky Bakery is on a pre-spring day so cold that my glasses fog up as I walk through the door and into a space that is both cozy and charming. The wooden tables are topped with daisy-filled vases, the walls festooned with photographs of forest animals and an old bicycle. Sugar, straws, and coffee stirrers sit atop an antique stove. Behind the glass counter, fudge brownies, apple cheesecake bars, an array of cupcakes, and Blue Sky’s most popular offering—white cheddar chive scones—beg to be purchased and devoured.
(Confession: I bought a white cheddar chive scone and consumed it during the one-block walk from the bakery to my car).
But Blue Sky offers far more than coziness and cupcakes. For the many homeless and at-risk youth who find employment here, Blue Sky Bakery also provides a second chance, thanks to its founder, and, as it reads on her business card, “bakery boss lady,” Lisa Thompson.
Thompson never went to culinary school. But when she decided she wanted to start a nonprofit with the aim of helping youth who were leaving the foster care system and were at risk of becoming homeless, she knew, based on her prior experience in nonprofit fundraising and program development, that potential funders would expect her nonprofit to earn money and “become self-sufficient as an organization.” The solution: start a business.
“Baking was something that I knew how to do, and that I thought I could teach teenagers how to do and I thought there was a market for that,” Thompson says. Moreover, the restaurant industry is forgiving of mistakes employees may have made in the past: “They just want to know if you can do the job.”
Then came the laborious process of starting one’s own bakery from scratch: scouting out locations (a one-way street in Albany Park, Thompson found, is not as successful a location as a Lincoln Avenue address with free parking and a Trader Joe’s nearby), purchasing used equipment, testing recipes (beginning with scones, Thompson’s personal favorite), and building a constituency of loyal customers. And then there was that small matter of finding, and hiring, at-risk youth.
Fast forward to 2013. Blue Sky Bakery is now six years old and employs 20 youth per year. Thompson has built a network of agencies that refer employees to the bakery, including community centers, homeless shelters, GED programs, probation officers and alternative schools. At Blue Sky, youth learn sufficient culinary skills to be recommended for later employment in a restaurant environment. They also participate in a weekly group that teaches them “soft skills” for job readiness. After 12 weeks, employees graduate the program and can begin interviewing for full-time positions in the restaurant business.
“Deciding that I was going to have a bunch of homeless teenager gangbangers make scones and sell them at the farmer’s market was kind of a nutty idea that a lot of people thought was anywhere from just stupid to dangerous to totally unsustainable.”
The 75 percent graduation rate from Blue Sky’s program is “pretty good,” Thompson says, considering that her employees are in “very unstable situations.” “Pretty good,” is an understatement.
When I prompt her to describe one of Blue Sky’s success stories, she tells me about a recent graduate who “spent most of his life living from shelter to shelter and doesn’t have much family support” and whose parents were incarcerated off and on his whole life. He now has a full-time job at Stephanie Izard’s restaurant The Little Goat and recently signed a lease on an apartment.
Moreover, employees’ satisfaction with Thompson’s program is palpable. Twenty-three-year-old Tia tells me that she thought of her job at the bakery as “a side thing” but that it has also, unexpectedly, “become more than that.” She feels that her tenure at Blue Sky has improved her job readiness skills, and she now believes herself more prepared for future interviews. I ask her if she likes working at Blue Sky.
Founding Blue Sky is, Thompson says, the most rebellious thing she’s ever done. “Deciding that I was going to have a bunch of homeless teenager gangbangers make scones and sell them at the farmer’s market was kind of a nutty idea that a lot of people thought was anywhere from just stupid to dangerous to totally unsustainable,” Thompson said. “Six years later, it’s still working. I think just the sheer will to do it is what’s made it work.”
Thompson has taken a “tough love” approach to running her nonprofit. She doesn’t discriminate against her employees because of their unstable situations, nor has she ever felt endangered by them.
She explains that Blue Sky’s youth join gangs out of safety rather than malice. She says those who show up to work are “just here to find something productive to do, just want some structure to their day; they want to get right, they don’t want to go back to jail.” She’s visited their houses, driven them home.
And because she rebelled against those detractors who labeled her dream a “nutty idea,” she’s given them a future.
(Photo of Thompson making lamb cakes for Easter, scone: Sara Kupper)