Starting any food business is a risky venture, with high rates of failure within the first year. Starting a kosher food business, with declining rates of kosher observance among American Jews, could be even riskier.
And starting a kosher food business where employees have to be educated not only on every level of their jobs, but on basic life skills? That’s a task for a real mensch.
But two extraordinary women (Menschen? Menschah?) in Gaithersburg, MD are doing just that, with help from an exceptional staff. The Religion News Service (RNS) reports that Sunflower Bakery was founded by Sara Portman Milner, a social worker, and Laurie Wexler; the two met at synagogue, commissioned a study to see if the area could support a kosher bakery, and then invested $500 each to get it started.
But Sunflower’s website makes clear that its primary business is training future workers for the food and restaurant business. It points out that unemployment for individuals with disabilities is 60 percent in Maryland. But Sunflower has already graduated 24 students, who have gone on to work at local businesses. These trainees learn everything from the rules of kashrut, to how to fold hamantaschen, to the skills needed to pass a National Restaurant Association food-handling test that will be an important certification for future employment. But they also get reminders to shave and wear a belt.
Sunflower is certified kosher pareve by the Va’ad Ha Rabanim of Greater Washington, and is pas yisroel. The kosher certification alone presents challenges. Executive pastry chef Liz Hutter, who had previously worked at the Watergate Hotel, tells the RNS that making dessert staples like ganache without dairy “was interesting.”