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January 25, 2013

Immigrant Women Bake Up Hopeful Future

by Dave Grunebaum

As the oven doors open and close at the Hot Bread Kitchen bakery in East Harlem, the aroma of fresh breads fill the air: walnut raisin, grindstone rye, and sourdough.

Throughout the day, Fatiha Outabount and about a dozen other women pat, shape and bake dough to create artisanal bread for upscale markets and some of New York City’s finest restaurants.

The apprentices

The Morocco native, 27, is one of 13 trainees at the bakery. Most of them are immigrant women who used to be unemployed or had minimum wage jobs.

Outabount is four months into a year-long apprenticeship which pays $9 an hour, a little more than minimum wage.

“I love this program because we know a lot of stuff like how we bake bread, how we mix it, how we shape it, a lot of stuff I don’t know it before," Outabount says. "So I love it here. We work like a family.’"

​​​​Once Outabount completes her training, she’ll move into a full-time position at Hot Bread, just as Marie Poisson did.

“I love baking," says the Haiti native, 60, who completed her apprenticeship more than a year ago, and now earns $14 an hour at a job she loves, which makes her proud. “When I go with a bread at home, I say to my children, 'I make bread now, this is my bread, I make bread.'”

Investing in women

Before she founded Hot Bread Kitchen, Jessamyn Rodriguez worked on immigration policy for the United Nations. Living in New York City, she saw first-hand a problem that she wanted to address.

“I really had this realization that many women who immigrate to the United States have passion and skill tied up in the culinary arts but often end up in jobs with no professional trajectory," she says. "So it was really that kind realization and this idea that I could help women leverage skill and passion in the culinary arts for better job was kind of the kernel of why I got started with this. “

Rodriguez began in 2007 with two trainees in her home kitchen. Now, Hot Bread operates out of a commercial bakery with 13 trainees and five graduates.

“Immigrant minority women are the lowest paid workers in the U.S. work force, but they have one of the highest participation rates," she says. "And I’m also a firm believer that if you invest in a woman, you’re investing in a family and a community.”

United Nations of breads

The women’s international background, from Mexico, to Bangladesh to Togo, is reflected in the bakery’s offerings. More than two-dozen types of bread are for sale, including Morrocan M’smen and Caribbean fruit bread.

“The breads we bake are inspired by the countries that women come from," Rodriguez says. "We’re the only bakery in the city that’s doing a multi-ethnic line of breads. I like to say that we’re like the United Nations of breads.”

Sales of those breads account for about three-quarters of Hot Bread’s budget. The rest comes from grants and donations.

English lessons

Along with the training, jobs and health benefits, the women also take English lessons twice a week. Lessons which are often tied to cooking.

Outabount and Poisson say these lessons help them in the kitchen and in their personal lives.

“My English better now, getting better now," Poisson says.

Outabount says, “Before I don’t speak English. Nothing, just hi, bye, good night, that’s it. But when I start to have class here, little bit I’m speaking English, a little bit well."

The goal, according to Rodriguez, is for these women to develop the skills to not only make bread but to eventually run bakeries.

“A head baker in New York City can make up to $65,000 a year," she says. "And we’re hoping that, within a few years, our women will be really headed towards the head baker management track positions in the city.”