By Jenna Flanagan
There’s a certain blissful joy that comes from digging into a favorite pint of ice cream, and for me, that’s anything with brownies in it.
Now, as an adult, I have to limit my ice cream intake to a scoop here or there, with several workout days in between, but as a kid I could chow down on a pint of chocolate fudge brownie and, somehow, still lose weight.
Getting lost in the whole creamy, chocolatey, chewy experience is one of my life’s simplest joys, but it turns out it’s not entirely self-serving. My love of ice-cold, fudgy, brownie mixed ice cream turns out to actually be a public service of sorts, because for one brand, those brownies are part of a larger movement to help people go from un- and underemployed, to being productive members of the workforce.
As part of our Chasing the Dream initiative on poverty and opportunity in America, I visited one bakery, whose specialty isn’t just the brownies they make, but the lives, they’re working to change.
“We don’t care what people have done in the past. We’re only concerned about what they’re going to do in the future, and we invest all our money and all our support into helping them be successful in the future.”
That’s Mike Brady, the President and CEO of Greyston Bakery in downtown Yonkers. Greyston isn’t your normal, run-in-for-a-knish-and- coffee kind of neighborhood bakery, it’s a food manufacturing facility and they specialize in one specific, confectionery delight.
“We make about a tractor trailer of Brownie’s a day — about 40,000 pounds of brownies a day.”
That’s right, Greyston produces tons of my favorite chocolate, chewy, gooey treat. And even better, a lot of us have been enjoying their brownies for years and didn’t even know it!
Greyston Bakery provides ice cream legends, Ben and Jerry’s, with the brownies for their flavors Brownie Batter, Half Baked, Chocolate Fudge Brownie Frozen Yogurt, Non-Dairy Chocolate Fudge Brownie, Non-Dairy Peanut Butter Half Baked and my personal favorite vice, Chocolate Fudge Brownie!
But for Greyston, the brownies are actually a means to an end. The bakery was founded in 1982, by entrepreneur and Buddhist pioneer of the American Zen Movement, Bernie Glassman. Born and raised in New York, Bernie began his career on the west coast, in the 1960’s as an aeronautical engineer. After being exposed to and studying Zen teachings, he returned to the east coast in 1980, to start the Zen Community of New York.
However, it was his founding of Greyston Bakery that allowed him to put his Zen teachings into action.
“He had a belief that you could create a business that both made profits and also contributed positively to the community. Over time we’ve developed that model and had some really great fortune in meeting other entrepreneurs like Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield of Ben and Jerry’s. And we’ve been making their brownies for the last 25 years and developing our model of open hiring.”
That model, Mike says, developed somewhat organically. In the 1980’s the City of Yonkers, New York, was struggling economically. Even though it is the 4th most populous city in New York, located just north of the Bronx, the city had the largest amount of homelessness per capita. While others may have seen a community in irreversible decline, Mike says Greyston founder, Bernie Glassman saw an opportunity in an untapped resource and created The Center for Open Hiring.
“We have a really simple model where anyone comes to the front door. They put their name on the list when we have a job available. We take them, no questions asked — no background checks, no reference checks, no interviews. So we break down all barriers that prevent someone that is either formerly incarcerated; has a gap in their resume because they are formerly homeless; dealt with addiction; legal refugees that come to this country who have no work history. All of those people are welcome at the bakery. Now they have to deliver. They have to be able to work and make great product for our customers. But if they’re able to do that we’re happy to give them a chance.”
Greyston’s hardly the first business to crow about hiring people who’ve been marginalized from the workforce. But according to Mike, their open hiring policy is as much about nurturing their staff as it is about baking brownies.
“Not only do we bring people in — no questions asked — but we try to help them to overcome whatever obstacles they might be facing. And not necessarily because we’re good-hearted humans, which we are of course, but I want to get brownies out the door. So if I’ve got a new team member who’s struggling with housing or dealing with issues around child care or issues around professional development, we’re glad to help them with that if they’re going to help me get brownies out the door. That’s led us to have amazing retention rates, once people enter into and get through our apprentice program.”
The business model for the Center for Open Hiring at Greyston, is not to try and do everything themselves for a struggling employee. Mike says they’re plugged into Yonkers’ network of not-for-profit, state and municipal community services to connect an employee in need with the services they deserve. He says it’s a business model they’re working to spread, and partnering with other businesses interested in incorporating the idea of open hiring.
“I am a raving fan and client of Greyston. That’s why we’ve been partnering with Clean with Greyston. It will help my company use open hiring policies in Rochester,” says Ty Hookway, owner of an upstate corporate cleaning company, aptly titled Clean Craft.
“Rochester, New York, has such a need for this service that we’ve been working on a plan to have the city serve as the second hub for open hiring in the United States.”
Unlike Greyston, it wasn’t Zen Buddism that opened Ty’s eyes to the potential resource that open hiring could bring to his business. In fact, he stumbled upon the realization, completely unintentionally in the mid 90’s, when his business, Clean Craft, was still new. A recent hire, named Sanford, had already impressed Ty as being sharp and ‘on his game,’ and then, Ty ran into him, late one night on a job.
“So one night I’m driving by the building it’s like 9:30, 10 o’clock and he’s supposed to have gone home, but I see his car parked out there. So I pull in, in the middle of the summer, just about this time of year. And it’s hot, hot, hot and he’s in there vacuuming, doing extras, you know I said, “Sanford,” you know, “what are you doing here so late?” He said, “I just wanted to do the right thing for the customer,” that type of thing; but he’s wearing shorts which we don’t really allow, you know? And down on his ankle is this ankle bracelet, you know? I was like, ‘What is that?’ And I didn’t even know what it was, you know, and I mean, I had no idea what his ankle bracelet was you know? And he goes, ’Ty, I, you know, I got through your background, I don’t know how I did it. But like, I robbed a bank. I was in prison for like five or six years, you know? And I just want a chance? You know, I’m really good at this business I just want a chance, you know?’ And I was sitting there you know caught flat-footed and had no idea you know that we did background checks. We did the same thing everyone else does and I said, ‘All right Sanford, let’s, make this thing work.’ So he’s a gifted human being. I could tell he was talented. So you move the story ahead, 20-something years. He’s my best guy. He’s one of my top amazing human beings in my company, you know? And I learned there’s potential in these people. This guy would have never made it through my interview if I caught it. And now 20 years later he’s one of my best friends and he’s one of the most valuable resources I’ve ever had in my life as far as educating me about how to talk to people, how to learn about a world that I didn’t understand. And he’s been sort of a portal for me for the last eight years to learn about people who are incarcerated or people who have been off the grid for 10 years for different reasons. So that’s how, by pure circumstance and luck, got into that world. There’s tens of thousands of Sanfords around who are ready to help and make a difference in businesses, and that’s why I think the model is the future.”
Now, not every person who’s come through the open hiring system, turns out to be a Sanford, but Ty says it changed his perception about the hiring process.
“There’s risk when you hire anybody, And I don’t think this is a panacea — this is not the answer to solve a big corporation’s problem. But the fact is it changes the world and it’s a great business decision.”
He describes open hiring, not as a hand out, but a hand up — allowing businesses to fill their staffing needs and have a positive effect on the surrounding community.
“These employees are getting a chance to kick ass, and we’re going to help them be successful. If they have a transportation issue, we support them there; if they have a housing issue, we support them there. They have food stamp issues. Our job is to help them get back in society. And they’re great employees.”
There’s also another perk the business community would love: Ty says because people brought in through open hiring are generally more driven and determined to succeed, they’re far more willing to do whatever it takes to secure their foothold in the workforce, and therefore… there’s far less attrition, or turnover.
It’s a model Ty believes could be a life-saver for smaller businesses, particularly in regions like upstate New York.
“I think even more so in little cities like this is, our model can work better because the streets of Rochester are brutal. I mean it makes Yonkers look like it’s going good. In Yonkers right now it’s busy down there. Things are good. Rochester needs just as much as anybody – like 80 little cities like us around the country, the Tier 2 and 3 cities need this type of workforce development. So I think it’s unbelievably scalable, and I think it’s got to appeal to both the left and the right. So I’m really excited to be on the ground floor of the movement in the process. I think it’s got legs. I think it’s got huge legs.”
Back at the bakery, things are humming along in the production line.
Employees of Greyston adhere to strict food preparation guidelines and everyone is decked out in company-issued navy pants, white long sleeve button-down tops, absolutely no jewelry of any kind, and white hair nets.
The aroma of chocolate permeates the entire facility.
Of the 100 people employed by Greyston, President and CEO Mike Brady says the entire production floor, roughly 75 people, were brought in through open hiring. Now, not everyone is a good fit for the job. Employees work 12-hour shifts and for numerous reasons, some are unable to ‘deliver.’ On the occasions when an employee is put on probation or asked to leave, it’s not a surprise or shouldn’t be. Mike says when new hires are brought in as apprentices, the expectations are quite clear.
“You have to show up to work on time. You have to communicate with your managers appropriately, you have to communicate with your team members appropriately and return from your breaks on time. You have to adhere to, appropriate high level of food-safety and food-defense standards. And if you’re able to do those things, we know you’re going to have a great chance of success. If you can’t do those things, we’ll explain to you what the consequences are. And eventually that’s why we need some people to leave.”
But he says for every setback at the bakery, there’s a success story. Like 27-year-old Devone Cardwell. He’s a Yonkers native and he came up through Greyston’s open hiring apprentice program at a pivotal time in his life.
“When I first started, I was dealing with a charge of aggravated DWI. And this is when I, in 2015, put my name on the list. And I was dealing with this issue for a year and a half, and then Greyston called me and they’re very supportive. Then I told him I have a case…that I’m dealing with this, I’m dealing with that. They said no problem, take care of your business. I still had a job. But if I didn’t have, if I didn’t get that call, I don’t know how I would have made it to court, I don’t know how I’d pay the court fines, you know, the fees, the probation, it’s a lot. Just for me to get out of that from 24 to now 27, to get over that hump in Greyston, they help me out a lot.”
Davone says he wasn’t sure he’d even make it into their apprentice program. When he first put his name on the list, 6 months went by before he got a call from the bakery. Since there’s a set number of employees, the company only calls people on the open hire list when an entry level position opens up. But Davone, who had been working off the books running errands since he was 14, says when he finally got the call to come in, he was not throwing away his shot.
“Me coming in, I just told them everything I wanted to learn, because I know when they tell move up. That’s the one thing they tell you, when you have orientation, is you come here, you work hard, if an opportunity is presented, you take it and you can move up in the company. And that’s basically what I did. So I started as an apprentice for six months. I finished my apprenticeship, I graduated, became permanent. After I became permanent, I was on staff and then after went to do the pallet house, which is like stacking the boxes that’s wrapped up to go to Ben and Jerry’s. Then I did that for about a year, and then I saw the lead operator position opened, and I took it. And you had to train for that about six months, and then I went through training and now I’m lead, just got promoted last year.”
And working for Greyston Bakery has changed Davone’s life. At 27, he says he definitely considers himself middle class and has a job that doesn’t just pay the bills, it’s something he takes pride in and he shares that pride with others.
“Like if I’m in with my cousin, if I’m at a supermarket and I say, Oh, I see a Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, I say Oh, we would make the brownies for that. And I was like, Oh yeah. And I tell everybody, I’ll make sure I tell everybody where I work. If I see somebody, ‘Oh, we put the brownies in the ice cream. It’s a feel-good moment, really. I’ve got to tell somebody. I work for a company that is doing great things. We make the brownies that go in that ice cream. Yeah.”
Greyston’s brownies aren’t just the chewy delight in Ben & Jerry’s ice creams. They’re also individually packaged and sold in Whole Foods Markets and on Delta Airlines flights.
Greyston’s been a good fit for Davone and he says he considers the staff a second family. He even got his kid brother into the apprenticeship program.
“But everybody here, we’re family. So you come in, we talk, we laugh, we argue, we fight just like any typical family would. I love it working here.”
Greyston’s President and CEO Mike Brady says sharing their mission isn’t about pushing other businesses to adopt open hiring the same way they have, but to challenge them to try adopting the policy, one position at a time.
“The income inequality gap is not closing. Issues around racism and bias are only getting larger. We need solutions that are really proactive but at the same time we’re seeing the unemployment rate becoming the lowest it has in decades and access to talent becoming very difficult for businesses that want to grow. This is offering a great tailwind to
Greyston, and we are trying to take advantage of that with our partners. I think what we have here Greyston is a sleeping giant.
“It is an opportunity for leaders to really embrace an incredibly progressive model.”