NEW YORK - In a kitchen nestled in a market in New York City's East Harlem, dozens of women busily work measuring flour, kneading dough and setting oven timers. The aroma of freshly baked bread wafts in the air.
Sure, it looks like a typical bakery - it certainly smells like delicious one. But CEO Jessamyn Waldman Rodriguez founded Hot Bread Kitchen with a larger purpose than merely putting bread on the table.
Rodriguez provides much-needed jobs for low-income, minority women. She also offers a paid nine month-to-a-year intensive training program in baking skills, and then helps her graduates find jobs in other bakeries.
So Rodriguez didn't just create a bakery - but also a feeder system to produce jobs and build the fresh bread industry around New York.
"There's often skill and talent that those women have that isn't being leveraged and there is a need in the market for a better-trained workforce," said Rodriguez, a former United Nations policy expert.
In Hot Bread Kitchen's Project Launch, low-income, foreign-born women learn skills like kitchen preparation, baking techniques and even kitchen-specific English so they can grasp key terminology. Trainees also get help developing their resumes and preparing for interviews.
Rodriguez started the nonprofit in 2008 with the goal of having it be as "diverse as New York City."
So far Hot Bread Kitchen has trained women from 19 different countries including Morocco, Mexico, Guyana, Bangladesh, Dominican Republic, Albania, Germany and Ghana.
"When I came to America we started more baking at home for my children," said Inci Mayo, a Project Launch graduate. "I was looking for an opportunity to do it also professionally and that was kind of difficult because the culinary art schools was really expensive and not affordable for me."
Mayo is Turkish and emigrated from Germany to America in 2009. She had always baked in Germany for her family, but never pursued it professionally. Mayo knew when she came to the U.S. that many established bakeries were looking for experienced workers, so she went out to get it any way she could.
The wife and mother of two young children used to commute almost four hours total some days from her home in Staten Island to work. Nothing was going to get in her way of graduating from Hot Bread Kitchen and following her dream of becoming a professional a baker.
"I feel the dough with my hand[s] and in the end I can smell it, I can eat it, I can enjoy it and I can share this with everybody," said Mayo. "This is what I like - the experience of bread."
Bakers at Hot Bread Kitchen aren't just making your standard sourdough or multigrain; of the 70 different kinds of breads the kitchen offers, many are inspired by cultural roots of the diverse group of trainees. Breads range from M'smen a "buttery, flaky Moroccan flatbread," to Nan-E barbari, a Persian flatbread.
"We're like the United Nations of breads, representing breads from around the world," said Rodriguez.
Hot Bread Kitchen supplies bread to 10 greenmarkets year-round, about 70 wholesale food clients and its own bakery, located in La Marqueta, a market located in the shadow of the Metro-North commuter railroad tracks that cut through Harlem. The sounds of the trains can be heard every few minutes in the kitchen. For Rodriguez, part of the allure in running Project Launch is not only to help immigrant women, but also support the neighborhood economy.
"East Harlem is a community where there is one of the highest unemployment rates in the city and a real need for the kind of training that we provide," said Rodriguez.
The 38-year-old lives only a few blocks away from the bakery, but hires women from all over New York City.
The program has trained 74 women ranging in age from 18 to 65, said Rodriguez. Many come to the program without any prior professional experience in baking, but the one common denominator they all come in with is the love of food and baking, Rodriguez said.
For Mayo, the experience was more than she could have imagined. "She [Rodriguez] really opens your door, which I didn't expect to get before."
Rodriguez described Mayo as a perfect fit for the program, "She [Mayo] loves food, she loves bread, and she really found us because she was seeking out ways to professionalize her skill."
Mayo graduated in February 2015 and is now a baker at Whole Foods Market. For her, bread is special.
"Every bread kind of has its own unique style, taste, flavor and goodness for you body."