Originally written by David Pelcyger for PBS NewsHour.
The smell of fresh baked bread is unmistakable at 1590 Park Avenue in New York City, but the kitchen has a social mission cooking as well.
Jessamyn Rodriguez opened Hot Bread Kitchen in 2007 to improve the economic conditions faced by immigrant women. Today the bakery makes 25 types of bread, baked almost entirely by recent immigrant or low-income women with little professional experience.
Rodriguez has not always been a baker. Before 2007, she had jobs in the human rights and immigration fields, working with nongovernmental organizations, along with government agencies. It was after a failed job interview with one such NGO that Rodriguez was unintentionally led down a different path.
In a conversation with a friend, Rodriguez said she was not offered the job at Women’s World Banking. But her friend misheard the name as Women’s World Baking. “My mind quickly filled with images of women from all over the world baking together, sharing recipes and cultures,” said Rodriguez. “When I had that idea, I couldn’t ignore it.”
It took a little while for her to make the switch, including eight more years as a high-level policy analyst then a couple of years to gain the basic skills. “I was an experienced and talented chef, but I had to learn how to bake.” Rodriguez apprenticed and then got hired at a high-end Manhattan restaurant, where she realized she truly liked the work.
She also saw an opening in the market for authentic, fresh baked, old-world style breads. “I am a foodie before a fighter for social justice,” she said.
In 2007, Rodriguez began baking out of her house in Brooklyn and had her hands full. “I was doing all the baking, all the selling, all the deliveries. I was also a full-time consultant and running the business.” As demand grew, she began to hire and train immigrant women.
In 2010, Hot Bread Kitchen moved to its current East Harlem address, sharing the 5,000-square-foot location with other businesses.
As the business grew and spread out in its space, Rodriguez hired more staff including Nancy Mendez, who had moved to New York from Mexico without a high school diploma. She supported herself and young daughter by working seasonal catering and retail jobs. Once at Hot Bread Kitchen, Rodriguez offered Mendez and the rest of the staff English classes.
“I used to sell CDs. My life is very different now. I make more money. I can go out to a restaurant if I want,” said Mendez, who was promoted this year. “I’m proud to be a tortilla product coordinator because it’s a Mexican product. (We make it) the same way my mom made it.”
Hot Bread Kitchen now fills the entire building and has 46 employees. “We have a lot of work to do in New York, and I’d like to spread the operation to other cities,” Rodriguez said.