JustDane Just Bakery

Photo by Just Bakery

Founded as Madison-area Urban Ministry in 1971, JustDane is a Madison nonprofit championing social justice and services concerning homelessness, incarceration rates, mental health, and other oft-relegated factions of society. This year’s nonprofit series will focus on the programs and initiatives operating under the JustDane umbrella. We hope you find inspiration in their approach to making our community one where everyone has an opportunity to succeed.

Society wasn’t built on second chances. It was built on third chances, fourth chances, fifth chances, and beyond. Yet when it comes to individuals, it seems the fool-me-once mentality finds sure footing. But what if we changed from a position of vulnerability coated in skepticism to empathy holding the ladder of opportunity—from feeling like we’re being taken advantage of to helping someone take on a struggle that we can’t completely comprehend. Just Bakery provides marginalized individuals access to the tools and knowledge needed to start becoming their best selves, all while making award-winning baked goods.

The Just Bakery story starts in 2013, when JustDane applied for a grant from the city of Madison. “Our organization really tries not to go after existing funds if we get a new idea because it just makes the pie smaller for everyone,” says Carmella Glenn, program coordinator. “So we applied for $50,000, got $17,000, and bought some ServSafe books.” The first course took place at an office table in one of JustDane’s conference rooms.

Photograph provided by Just Bakery

Carmella didn’t take over until 2014, when Lakeview Lutheran Church was providing rooms for the program. “When I took over, I took the program first because that’s how you find out what needs to be done. I quickly realized that this had good bones. I have a criminal justice degree and a culinary degree, so this was literally in my sweet spot. I realized we needed to get out of the church and have our own space. We had a three- to five-year plan to do that; I had a one- to two-year plan to do that. We did it in two.”

With their new space, adjacent to Porchlight Products on Theirer Road, Just Bakery could now teach the course in one large classroom. They also had everything they needed to build their own commercial kitchen. Reaching this milestone allowed the program to really start helping its students.

As for the course, “it’s a 12-week employment training program for those with barriers to employment, and there’s a big subcategory there,” says Carmella. “The 12 weeks is really just the training. We’re one of the longest short-term trainings here in Madison. I’d like it to be six months, but people can’t work six months without being paid.” In addition to free culinary training, students can earn 12 credits at Madison College because the curriculum is from the National Restaurant Association. If students so choose, they also have automatic acceptance into the Madison College culinary program.

For someone without any roadblocks to realizing their chef dreams, this seems like a no-brainer. But many individuals in this program are struggling with more than employability. “In order to support people, I wanted to make sure all of their needs were met. So not only do they come in for 12 weeks and get this education, but they also get a certified peer specialist that works alongside them that is someone who identifies with lived experience in substance-use disorder or mental health or was formally incarcerated. We also work with Anesis Family Services—they come in and do a trauma group for them. We do intensive resource specialist work.

Photograph provided by Just Bakery

“We want to make sure that every piece of [a student’s] life is looked at. When was the last time you filed taxes? When was the last time you checked your credit report—you can’t even get a place to live in Madison without a 600 credit score. So what does that look like? Do you have a driver’s license, because if I get you a job on the west side of Madison and you live on the east side and you have to drop your child off at school at 8:30 in the morning and I get you one that starts at 9:00 in the morning, did I really set you up for success if you don’t have a driver’s license?”

All of these resources and opportunities come at the cost of Carmella’s high expectations “I am a hard ass. … Because I know what you’re going through, I’m not going to allow you to settle. I have had to let people go at times due to them not being ready, but every single one of them knows they can come back two, three, four, five more times. It’s just once we start, I can’t allow you to make somebody else’s experience worse, and I’m not going to allow you to think that’s the best you got to give.” Each consequential visit isn’t a sign of weakness, but of inner strength. It shows the desire to break through psychological barriers of self-worth many of these students have had hammered into them.

Those who stick with the program have a lot to be proud of. They’re not just taking steps to a better future for themselves, but they’re creating award-winning baked goods. Just Bakery’s turtle brownies, thrice winners of Taste of Madison, spare no expense. “They’re a pretzel and butter crust. Then it’s brownie layer, and we use a 93 percent cocoa powder. So it’s a real rich heavy dark chocolate. And then it’s topped with pecan and caramel and chocolate ganache after it’s baked. When you bite it, it’s really fun to bite because that umami thing happens because the salt hits and then the sweet hits and then you get the salt and the sweet again on the top. It’s just this delicious morsel of numminess.”

Those brownies are actually used in some Sassy Cow flavors of ice cream, and choice Just Bakery cookies feature Sassy Cow ice cream in their filling. These connections with other businesses prove key time and time again in helping graduates of the program find employment.

Photograph provided by Just Bakery

Just Bakery even hires its own students on occasion. “We have five people that we employ, and the only way we support them is by selling our product. … Most of the students that I hire non-traditionally fit in other places.” Simply put, they’d have a tough time finding a job elsewhere, but keeping them employed at Just Bakery works. Due to the unique circumstances surrounding those she employs, Carmella can take a thoughtful approach to employee workplace hardships. “I don’t fire people. I find out what’s wrong and then throw a whole bunch of resources at them so they can go get better if they’re struggling with alcohol or drugs or mental health. And thank goodness for paid time off to allow them to heal and be better and come back to work—not fire.”

When you buy an item from Just Bakery, you’re not giving a donation. It’s actually not legal. What you are doing is supporting someone’s employment. All Just Bakery employees, part-time and full-time, earn a minimum wage of $15 per hour and accumulate paid time off and vacation. This is someone who’s been given at least a second chance. We might not always be in a position to help others, but thanks to Just Bakery and programs like it, we have ample opportunity to ensure the position is always staffed.

Kyle Jacobson is a writer and copy editor for Madison Essentials.

Photograph by Barbara Wilson

Just Bakery

1708 Thierer Road
Madison, WI 53704
(608) 598-0042
justdane.org/just-bakery