Baking a Difference
Raise your hand if you cannot resist walking by a bakery without entering (mine’s up). All those gleaming cases of goodies waiting to follow me home! And bake sales? Ten times worse. Paper plates, doilies at the ready, heaped with brownies, cookies and chunks of cake. Adorable kids wait at the table to take my cash, which, in turn, goes to worthy causes like the 8th grade band trip or the youth group mission.
I won’t even go into Girl Scout Cookie season.
The exchange of baked goods for cash dates back to ancient times, but bake sales are a recent-ish phenomenon. Combining charity with chocolate cake has roots in other women-led philanthropy, like craft fairs and rummage sales, and came to be in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. For a lot of us, our earliest experience with active citizenship and entrepreneurship may have been through a grammar school or church bake sale.
Charity giving is in an interesting contemporary heyday. Conventional fundraising has moved beyond flat out asking for donations and transmogrified into more creative models of exchange with things like crowdfunding, all-night relay races and pajama day at school.
In Northeast Florida, some area bakeries and organizations have actually incorporated food-based philanthropy into their business models in order to impact both our neighbors and people who need assistance worldwide.
There is no question what Mayport’s Pie Heaven Cafe specializes in. The real question would be, do you want savory, sweet or one of each? Pie Heaven’s owner Anita Hyde worked in the corporate insurance world for many years before a company layoff. Turns out, the layoff literally answered prayers for her. She’d frequently donated to missionaries worldwide who pull children from abject poverty and wanted to make a bigger impact. She noticed when craving pie herself that there was a void, so she started making pies at home for herself and friends.
Many pies and busted home kitchen appliances later, Hyde’s husband encouraged her to go out on her own. She mustered a dedicated team and opened Pie Heaven 4 years ago. Folks come in for one of their many comfort foods like strawberry rhubarb or chicken pot pie. Pie Heaven also donates goods and gift certificates to neighborhood schools, teachers and local homeless organizations, but Hyde’s primary concern is, “getting money in the hands of people whose boots are on the ground, feeding children.”
Hyde said to take a look at what is in front of you, try to do what you can do, and "if everybody had that position, we’d collectively make a huge impact.”
Baking for our furry friends is a thing too, as consumer demand for all natural products has extended to pet ownership. Jacksonville’s Barkin’ Biscuits heeds the call.
Berry Good Farms, the self-sustaining urban farm run out of the North Florida School of Special Education teaches horticulture and culinary arts to young people with developmental disabilities. Barkin’ Biscuits spun off from Berry Good Farms over 3 years ago as a culinary micro-enterprise and vocational training program for the school’s transition students and postgraduates. Their all natural dog biscuits are baked with ingredients sourced from the farm,like wheatgrass, sweet potato, carrot, moringa, mint and rosemary.
Director Ellen Hiser said it’s been an awesome program so far with two goals, the first is training and teaching job skills to the folks involved. She said it is meant to be a micro business not only supporting itself, but also “making enough money where we can then offer some of our young people compensative employment.”
That second goal was met this year, and there are currently five post-graduates employed by Barkin’ Biscuits. The treats are available for retail sale through the school's website, as well as at area Pet Paradise locations. Hiser explained that while giving skills and training to these individuals, having something fun for them to do and offer employment are objectives of Barkin’ Biscuits and noted that the school is always looking for ways to help the community.
Lara Lombardo’s baking career began in a similar way to Anita Hyde’s, by blowing up her parents' kitchen and sacrificing the appliances to a successful cottage industry called Seagull Bakery. At one point, she wanted to go to pastry school and took classes here and there, but she and her family eventually realized a traditional path to a career through culinary school was out of the question. Instead, she honed her trade at the hip of successful area chefs like Creme de la Cocoa’s Nils Rowland and The Perfect Pear’s Verousce Mckibbin.
The 26-year-old Lombardo looks every bit the part of a veteran back-of-the-house player, what with the piercings and visible tattoos. If you’ve never worked in a busy commercial kitchen, ask anyone who does how grueling the environment can be. Lara has learned how to work in this high-pressure environment despite the fact that she lives with autism.
As Lara’s mom Carol Lombardo explained, “Our daughter is highly ambitious, and wanted more.”
Seagull Bakery and Perfect Pear Catering share space in a former Sonic Drive-in building on Southside Boulevard. Carol Lombardo said that they found a great fit and were able to move to the next level because of partnering with Perfect Pear’s owner Verousce Mckibbin (who also manages Seagull). The team offers gorgeous scratch-made classic desserts and cakes, as well as gluten-free and vegan selections. In nearly 5 years, they have built such a loyal following that the goal to open their own retail space in Jax Beach should be realized by 2018.
The day I visited, Lara bounced back and forth between an open marble composition book and a batch of almond macarons spinning in a mixer on the stainless-steel counter. The kitchen bustled with other activity, and Lara could be heard occasionally whispering mantras like, “Be patient.” By her own admission, tortes are her favorite thing to make.
Challenged by finding the right combination of people has taught both Lara and the folks who work at Seagull. “It’s educating the world, really,” Carol Lombardo said. She mentioned that people want to help or come work for Seagull because they have been touched by autism.
To pay it forward, Lara teaches baking classes to young adults with special needs at places like Mainspring Academy and ARC Jacksonville. Carol notes that they love to see Lara and are excited because she is “one of their own.” In addition to teaching, Seagull Bakery reaches out to the Northeast Florida community by supporting local autism events, participating in charity events outside of the autism “cause,” donating gift certificates, and even working with the aforementioned Northeast Florida School of Special Education.
Lara’s mom said among their goals are to “employ, mentor and teach, and to be a place and a part of the community where people can find a sympathetic environment that supports issues that people with autism have.”
Fueled by business acumen and driven by baked goods, Pie Heaven, Berry Good Farms Barkin’ Biscuits and Seagull Bakery are entrenched in Jacksonville. I’m more than ok with a 250-calorie gain, if it means these folks gain too. Buying from one of these places, you become a part of that community. You directly help young adults with special needs, autism and the like, as well as hungry children growing up in unfortunate circumstances worldwide.