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A season for your sweet tooth

Thu, Mar 1, 2012

February brings a vacation for many of us from our New Year’s commitments of health and fitness as we look toward the colors and tastes of the next holiday – Valentine’s Day. Stores and shops across the city are adorned in shades of red, and our minds shift to thinking about flowers, candy, and whatever sweet signs of affection we most desire.

Well, if you are one of those people who has a “sweet tooth,” look no further than Sweet Miss Giving’s Bakery, located in Chicago’s French Market at 131 N. Clinton (the Ogilvie Transportation Center). Or place an order directly by calling the bakery at 312.255.8470 or checking it out online (http://sweetmissgiving.com/).

Sweet Miss Giving’s is a social enterprise bakery and jobs program that offers almost decadent baked goods while providing a new reason for sweet indulgences. Its motto is to be “Unquestionably Kind, Unreasonably Good,” and it fulfills this mission by giving 100 percent of its profits directly to help formerly homeless residents and HIV/AIDS-affected men, women, and children of Chicago House. The bakery’s all natural, made-from-scratch, preservative-free baked goods are sold at roughly 50 locations in the city. You can find its scones at Palmer House tea, its cookies at theaters such as Victory Gardens, Steppenwolf and Harris Theater for Music and Dance. Its website provides an avenue for ordering locally and nation-wide.

In addition to simply being delicious, the tasty treats are made by interns from the Chicago House jobs training program started by its CEO, the Rev. Stan Sloan. In 2001 Sloan and U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) got funding to begin the Chicago House employment program that has benefitted over 500 men and women by helping them move from entitlement programs to self-sufficiency. However, many graduates were still lacking employment due to lack of work experience, thus the vision for Sweet Miss Giving’s was born in 2008. Its revenue and profit margins have grown every year since.

Rolling the dough in the kitchen at 1229 Branch Street on Goose Island. Photo: Candace Casey

Working in collaboration with the Kellogg School of Business, and over 100 local businesses, Sloan developed the optimal model to provide training and preparation for ongoing careers. The model combines fantastic bakery product, unparalleled customer service, and real and relevant job training through a six-month paid internship and four-week pre-internship.

All the interns have “non-apparent disabilities,” and just need a job to successfully and fully move forward in their lives. This bakery internship is the only metropolitan-wide such employment program in the nation. Students cross train in basic baking, packaging, delivery, and customer service skills with the goal of finding permanent employment upon completion of the program.

Since its beginning, roughly 140 participants have come through the Sweet Miss Giving’s program, and 61 percent of graduates have found employment in a variety of industries: food service, baking, customer service, delivery drivers, and personal assistants. The reason the interns are marketable for such a variety of jobs is because Sweet Miss Giving’s gives them a chance to not only rotate through all of the different job roles required in bakery and catering services, but they also emphasize basic work skills, responsibility, respect in a workplace, and establishing a sense of purpose, said CFO Lisa Gershenson.

One graduate, James, has been with SMG for two years – and been simultaneously clean and sober. Today, James is SMG’s Sous Chef, working alongside head chef Rachel Kelley, and constantly setting a high standard for others in the kitchen at 1229 N. Branch St. on Goose Island. He assists in running the kitchen when the head chef is gone and in teaching and helping the interns.

“James has a special sense of compassion, calm, and patience with our interns because he’s been there,” said SMG Sales and Logistics Manager Pedra O’Rourke. “He understands. He sets the bar for what we hope for our bakery internship participants.”

That bar is set high, not just for those in the program, but for the product as well!

“If we had a substandard product, people would say, ‘it’s made by formerly homeless people, it’s gross,’ so we use nothing but the highest quality ingredients” – butter, vanilla and chocolate, Sloan says. “You’ll taste that.”

The chocolate for its German chocolate brownie, for example, is imported, Sloan said. Likewise, its Matisse vanilla blend is same one found in the finest patisseries, Gershenson said.

Although about 80 percent of Sweet Miss Giving’s business is catering, its Metra station French Market outlet provides an introduction to its product line– scone and coffee anyone? Other best-selling items include: Red-Velvet cupcakes, Turtle brownies, Pecan bars, and Jumbo cookies.

Their sweets will also be offered 5 to 8:30 p.m. February 10 at Intuit Gallery, 756 N. Milwaukee Ave. for the gallery’s portion of “Heaven & Hell,” a joint exhibition with the Loyola University Museum of Art, 820 N. Michigan Ave.

SMG can provide the sweets for a catered breakfast or lunch. It has done seasonal items for every holiday and will make all sorts of specialty shapes, designs, and corporate logos for customers. For the Groupon-sponsored Chicago Ideas Week, for example, Executive Chef Kelley did hand-cut light bulbs. Skulls were the order for Day of the Dead cookies.

Kelley, who was pastry chef at Old Town Brasserie under Roland Liccioni, former chef of LeFrancais in Wheeling and Les Nomades, said she plans even more colorful treats for Easter.

The bakers have even made celebrity treats such as “The Whoopi Brownie Box” in honor of Whoopi Goldberg at last fall’s their 3rd Annual Speaker Series Luncheon. The annual inspirational and educational event addresses HIV and homelessness.

Sloan, a leader in homeless and HIV services for more than 15 years, was the founding president of the Chicago Alliance to End Homelessness. During his time in Chicago, he served as the chaplain of St. Gregory’s Episcopal School, an inner-city institution that served K-8th grade. He is a former pastor of the Caribbean American parish of S.S.George and Matthias in Chicago’s Roseland neighborhood. More recently, Sloan was inducted into the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame in 2010.

The current and longest serving CEO of Chicago House, Sloan has led it out of several areas of deficit, and also doubled its services and revenue. He also serves on the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Audience Development and Diversity Committee, on the Chicago’s Community Trust’s Advisory Board for People with Disabilities, and on the advisory committee for the American Public University System.

In treating yourself and others to the delightful goodies found at Sweet Miss Giving’s Bakery you are not only blessing yourself, you are also giving a gift to others in need at the Chicago House. You are impacting hundreds of individuals and families who benefit from the Chicago House’s housing and support services, who are not only affected by HIV but may also be impacted by poverty, homelessness, substance abuse, and mental illness. The Chicago House is the first HIV/AIDS housing provider in the Midwest, and guides more than 1,300 people to wholeness and self-sufficiency through its continuously evolving programs. They have four housing programs for both families and individuals. They also offer supportive and prevention services, medication adherence counseling, community case management, and of course their jobs programs – including both the iFOUR employment program and Sweet Miss Giving’s.

Over the course of the last five years, through the Scattered Site Housing Program, Chicago House has grown from 58 units of housing to 125 units of housing, offered in the North, West, and South sides of Chicago. This safe housing option is a step towards stabilizing the health of the clients, while the rest of the program helps them move towards more fulfilling lives.

Studies show that HIV/AIDS affects nine times more homeless people than other populations. And many times those infected are already dealing with other disadvantages economically and socially, without a supportive network to help them move forward. This is where Chicago House steps in to help. And you can help as well. Simply look into donating or volunteering with Chicago House, attending an event it hosts, or splurging on a dose of Sweet Miss Giving’s Bakery this month.

Otherwise, call them up to cater your next office party, special event, or gift someone with SMG’s special Valentine’s Treat Box (a jar of hot cocoa mix; a jar of ingredients for Cherry Almond Oatmeal Cookies; a Biscotti Trio of orange-chocolate, cranberry-pistachio and cherry hazelnut; two Cherry Chocolate brownies and four beautiful hand-decorated, Heart-shaped Cookies with messages of love). You can order online or call the bakery. It’s $150, of which $100 is a tax-deductible donation to Chicago House.

As CFO Lisa Gershenson shared, “We offer a superb product made with love. Our head chef and the interns have their signature on every piece that leaves the shop. It’s not just a treat, it’s an opportunity.”

Written by Suzanne Hanney
StreetWise Editor-In-Chief

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