What’s delicious, provides job training and employment opportunities to individuals with learning differences, offers delicious kosher products, and is founded on Jewish principles? The answer? Our latest Spotted in Jewish DC profile: Sunflower Bakery!
If you haven’t tasted the wonders of Sunflower Bakery, you’re missing out! Serving up kosher baked goods prepared by people with learning differences since 2010, you can load up on their treats by shopping online at www.sunflowerbakery.org or in person from their Café Sunflower or Sunflower Bakeshop, both in the Rockville/North Bethesda area. (GatherDC’s townhouse is also a pick-up site for their holiday menu!) We sat down with Co-Founder Laurie Wexler and newly-hired Executive Director Jody Tick to find out more about how this idea for baked goods (for good in the world) came to be.
LAURIE: Sunflower Bakery started as a casual conversation between myself and Sara Portman Milner in 2008. Sparked by a sweet tooth and passion for ensuring that people of all abilities have access to meaningful employment, we envisioned the art of pastry and baking as a pathway to job opportunities for people with learning differences. Since 2010, Sunflower Bakery has been training adults 18+ with learning differences due to diagnosed disabilities, as well as adults with learning differences that are undiagnosed due to socioeconomic impacts or inadequate and/or inconsistent educational supports.
LAURIE: Originally, kitchen space was donated at Congregation Beth Sholom in Potomac, MD for an eight-month pilot program to explore the concept. From there, Sunflower moved to an industrial strip in Gaithersburg in January 2010, where we developed recipes, training programs, and a customer base from the Metro DC (DMV) area. In 2019, Sunflower became a partner agency of The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, which meant we got a lot more support and could grow exponentially.
We dreamed of having our own larger training and production facility, as well as in-house retail space, to expand our services to more participants. In 2015, Sunflower opened Café Sunflower, our first retail location, in The Jewish Federation HQ building in North Bethesda. It’s still operating today. In January 2020, we moved into our current location in Rockville, which has a large training kitchen and production kitchen, a classroom/conference room, break room, and our second retail location, the Sunflower Bakeshop.
We are so proud to have served 475+ students and teens as of 2021 and have relationships with many Metro DC employers including national and local supermarkets, caterers, country clubs, boutique bakeries, wholesale bakeries, hospitals, and cafes.
LAURIE: The mission of Sunflower aligns perfectly with the mission of The Jewish Federation in terms of their focus on inclusion and recognizing the value, dignity, and capabilities of each and every individual. Like we mentioned, they supported the start-up of Café Sunflower in Federation’s office building. In fact, since our inception, Sunflower has worked closely with Federation leadership who were among our early builders and have become board members, supporters, and advocates for our mission and work.
JODY: Our menu is informed by the skills that we are teaching in our Pastry Arts Employment Training Program, favorites that our customers have come to love and the creativity of our culinary director and community input. And, from time to time, we will do customer surveys to gauge product favorites as well as new flavor interests and trends.
JODY: This year, we are excited to offer our delicious menu of holiday favorites and trendy new desserts. We are also proud to feature four round challot for the holiday—traditional, honey, whole wheat, almond and raisin (while supplies last). You can order and pick up at various places around the DMV, including the GatherDC downtown townhouse!
And, for the first time, we will ship our set holiday package for you to family and friends near and far in the continental US for only $50 (including shipping and handling)! It includes an apple cake, honey cake, and 1/2lb. holiday-shaped rolled sugar cookies.
The order deadline for pick-up or delivery in Metro DC is August 30 at 12pm noon. The order deadline for shipping is THIS WEDNESDAY, August 25. Packages will ship on August 31. You place orders at https://www.sunflowerbakery.org/products/rosh-hashanah/.
JODY: There are too many delicious baked goods to choose one, but the chocolate crinkle cookies are hard to say no to as are the muffins. Top sellers are lemon bars, combo mandel (chocolate, cranberry and almond) and our amazing celebration layer cakes. For Rosh Hashanah, the most popular are our rolled holiday-themed sugar cookies and apple cakes. And, for Purim, our hamentashen are a community “must-have” among Metro DC eaters.
LAURIE: Best of all is watching our students gain marketable and transferable employment skills while becoming more confident individuals, who are enhancing their self-esteem, as they transition to a productive adulthood. Being part of their evolution and growth is a huge motivator for all of us at Sunflower.
JODY: Sunflower is bright, inviting and evokes the potential for a productive and fulfilling future that skilled employment training provides. We truly feel that we are planting and sowing a field of seeds to produce a beautiful field of flowers, where caring is the main ingredient!
LAURIE: We consider ourselves to be a community-based employment training program that is founded on the Jewish principles of tikkun olam (heal the world) and b’tzelem Elokim (image of G-d), recognizing everyone’s potential while maximizing each individual’s abilities. We are committed to providing products that enhance the joy of Jewish holidays and family celebrations, as well as providing consolation during sad times. Sunflower is kosher and pareve under the supervision of the Rabbinical Council of Greater Washington. As a kosher and pareve bakery, Sunflower is fortunate to have the participation of synagogues, Jewish schools and many other organizations, Jewish and non-Jewish, throughout Metro DC. We love our Jewish community!
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The views and opinions expressed in this blog and on this website are solely those of the original authors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the organization GatherDC, the GatherDC staff, the GatherDC board, and/or any/all contributors to this site.