Laughing Bear Bakery Has a Recipe for a Fresh Start Out of Prison

This story is part of the SoJo Exchange from the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous reporting about responses to social problems. It was originally published by The Christian Science Monitor.

Kalen McAllister, founder of Laughing Bear Bakery, packages Bear Candy made by employees with criminal records. “I don’t care [about a job applicant’s criminal record]. Because for me, it’s this day forward,” she says. (Tara Adhikari/The Christian Science Monitor)

Five years into working at Farmington Correctional Center, chaplain Kalen McAllister – “Chap” for short – began to notice a pattern. A few weeks before they were released, men would walk through the chapel to her white-walled office, take a seat in a cushioned chair, and confide in her.

The familiar refrain? “I don’t even want to get out because I won’t be able to get a job.”

Ms. McAllister would offer support but soon realized counseling from inside the prison walls was only a partial solution. Change was needed outside, too. When she retired, she saw her opening: “On my way out the door, I said, ‘I’m going to do something to solve this.’”

In 2015, Ms. McAllister opened Laughing Bear Bakery in St. Louis, a nonprofit business where a criminal record is required to land the job.

For many returning citizens, the stigma of a criminal record means the consequences of a crime are paid long after time served. With the click of a mouse, employers can run a background check, and it’s perfectly legal to factor a criminal record into a hiring decision.

A criminal record can last a lifetime, making job reentry – and beyond – an uphill journey. At Laughing Bear Bakery, release from prison is a fresh start. Where other employers look at former prisoners and see only a risk of re-offending, Ms. McAllister sees multifaceted individuals on the road to a new and productive future.

She doesn’t even ask new hires what crime they committed: “I don’t care. Because for me, it’s this day forward.”

Leaven that makes the whole bakery rise

Much like the trial and error it took to perfect its signature recipes – from Granny Bear Cake, to Big O’s Chocolate Chip Cookies, to Study Buddy Banana Nut Muffins – the bakery took time to fully develop.

The Laughing Bear Bakery employees pose for a group photo with a smile
Employees at Laughing Bear Bakery must have a criminal record to be hired. Founder Kalen McAllister (second from left) smiles alongside volunteers and employees in St. Louis. (Tara Adhikari/The Christian Science Monitor)

When it launched in 2015, Ms. McAllister had no customers, no equipment, and no supplies. But with $2,000 raised by writing a letter to friends, a permit from the health department, and two employees, she got to baking out of a rented incubator kitchen.

Within a few weeks, after she made payroll and rent, the money ran dry. “I’m sitting there going, ‘This is going to be the shortest business in history,’” Ms. McAllister says, a knowing twinkle in her eye.

Then, out of nowhere, a business CEO ordered 80 Thanksgiving pies, one for each of his employees. And so they stayed open a while longer, kept alive by an unexpected grant here, a big order there.

Now, Ms. McAllister sits at the front of Laughing Bear Bakery’s storefront, which opened in October 2021, scooping Bear Candy – corn puffs coated in brown sugar – into clear plastic bags. Sunlight streams through the windows, a stark contrast with the rented kitchen in a dark church basement they worked out of before.

Financial challenges still come up – the price of flour just doubled, rising operating costs. But the bakery is now open to the public two days per week, and it can pay employees a starting wage of $12 an hour for two to four days of work a week depending on the number of wholesale orders that come in.

Ms. McAllister is the leaven in the bakery’s growth: “Kalen just kind of inspires everybody to do their best,” says Vickie Delmas, who has volunteered at the bakery for four years. “She does without to make sure this place works.”

While Ms. McAllister takes no pay, her reward comes from seeing her employees figure out the recipe for their lives.

The stigma of a criminal record

It all starts with a hiring model that considers a crime to be just one part of a person’s past, instead of the whole of who someone is and has the potential to be.

Typically, a criminal record “is a stigma that overwhelms, that trumps, all other aspects of a person’s identity, especially when it comes to job search and employment,” explains Naomi Sugie, an associate professor of criminology, law, and society at the University of California, Irvine.

A plate with four cookies
Cookies made by Laughing Bear Bakery, a St. Louis nonprofit that offers a fresh start for people just released from prison. Where other employers look at former prisoners and see only a risk of re-offending, the bakery sees multifaceted individuals on the road to a new and productive future. (Tara Adhikari/The Christian Science Monitor)

Across the United States, 37 states and more than 150 cities, including St. Louis, have implemented “ban the box” policies that delay background checks until after preliminary hiring steps. These policies aim to let other credentials and aspects of a person’s identity shine through first.

But in the end, the criminal record is still considered. There are only a handful of companies – like The Body Shop, a global chain, and Greyston Bakery in Yonkers, New York – that do not run background checks at all in the hiring process, and even fewer that reserve jobs for those with a record.

Ms. McAllister’s hiring practices may not make sense for all employers as they consider the risks of negligent hiring and occupational requirements. But Laughing Bear Bakery spotlights the transformative power of a clean slate.

After 15 years in prison, Eric Satterfield had two options for work experience on his résumé: jobs before prison or jobs in prison. Working at the bakery for a year helped him diversify and transition into a full-time job at a manufacturing center, which he balances with freelance graphic design work.

“When you come out of prison, you think 'everybody is thinking about why I went to prison.' And that’s not really true,” says Mr. Satterfield, who recently joined the bakery’s board of directors. “I think there’s a lot of people who are willing to give second chances, and the bakery helped me see that.”  

Being able “to imagine a new self” is a key ingredient to successful reentry, explains Dr. Sugie. But it requires spaces like the bakery where returning citizens “are not always having to explain themselves in terms of their past mistakes,” she says.

In hiring, Ms. McAllister has her own key ingredient: “I’m looking for the people who are ready to change, who’ve said, ‘This isn’t working. I need to do something different.’”

Most of the time she gets it right.

Of the 37 employees the bakery has hired since 2015, Ms. McAllister only recalls asking three or four to leave, usually for drug use. She agonized for weeks before making the decision: It’s hard, she says, to let go of “that hope for that person.”

The journey doesn’t end once new hires earn their hairnet. Often, those coming out of prison haven’t had much work experience, and adjusting to professional standards isn’t easy.

For Ms. McAllister, it requires patience and dexterity. One worker may think they already know it all and have a hard time listening to instructions; another may be afraid to ask questions.

Earning trust is another hurdle, she explains: “They warm up to their peers real fast, and I’m kind of an unknown.”

She navigates it all with gentle corrections about which measuring cup is for dry ingredients and which is for liquids. Occasionally, there’s some sleuthing involved, like the time she caught an employee hiding out in the closet using their phone, which she doesn’t allow in the kitchen.

But in the end there’s “no magic,” she says, “just respecting them as human.”

Room to grow

As LaWanda Jackson cracks eggs into a mixing bowl the day before her first work anniversary, she remembers when she started: “They should have had a show, ‘America’s Worst Baker,’” she declares adamantly. “It would have been me.”

She had her fair share of baking woes. Like the time she forgot the baking powder for a Mother’s Day cake. And the other time the pie filling spilled over the entire oven.

But when she “didn’t get the boot,” she realized her employment contract with Ms. McAllister went deeper: “She will do anything to take care of us.”

It’s the type of care that can change a life trajectory. “When people truly care about you, you blossom,” says Ms. Jackson. “Your best self comes out. That is the truth. That is the absolute truth.”

Article Details

May 28, 2022 9:26 PM
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