YONKERS, NY — When Shawna Swanson first walked into the massive bakery where she works, times were tough.
“When I came here, I was at the worst,” she said. “I never in my life thought I would be faced with that decision of letting my children go because I couldn't find employment and I couldn't take care of them. So, it was hard. I was told 'no' so many times.”
Finally, though, four years ago, Greyston Bakery in Yonkers, New York, said ‘yes’ in a surprising way.
“I came in and I was expecting to sign an application and fill it out,” Swanson recalled, “and they were like, ‘there's no application.’”
It’s called open hiring, a process used at Greyston Bakery ever since their founder, Bernie Glassman, started the company 40 years ago.
“Bernie felt that the one way you could give some folks hope and opportunity was to give them a job and do that through the dignity of work,” said Joseph Kenner, the bakery’s president and CEO. “And he would literally pull people off the streets.”
Greyston Bakery’s industrial-sized facility provides baked goods to Whole Foods and brownies for Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream, among others.
“It's hard work and I don't want to downplay that,” Kenner said. “But it's an opportunity for folks, and particularly with the folks with barriers to employment.”
The for-profit bakery also runs a nonprofit foundation, the Greyston Center for Open Hiring, that works with other businesses to tailor open hiring to their needs.
They partnered with Pittsburgh-based Giant Eagle supermarkets, which has stores in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, West Virginia and Maryland, as well as The Body Shop’s distribution center in North Carolina. That success prompted the Body Shop to use open hiring at their retail stores across the country.
“Not only do we hire them, we also teach them the soft skills that allow them to know how to behave in the workplace,” said Penny Jennings, vice president of strategic programs at Greyston.
It’s more than just about hiring, though. At Greyston Bakery, a social worker from a local mental health provider is on hand at all times.
“That person sits at our bakery 24/7, seven days a week and they provide services to our employees,” Kenner said.
The turnover rate in all this? It’s about 26 percent.
“We know from that traditional approach those folks don't always work out, either,” Kenner said.
However, for the employees that stay, Greyston Bakery finds one thing not always measured in dollars and cents: loyalty.
“Employees want to stay with the company that's invested in them and given them the opportunity,” Jennings said.
For Shawna Swanson, that opportunity started by working on the line and eventually working her way up to lead operator, surrounded by a literal sweet smell of success.
“They just cared that I was willing to work and they gave me that chance that I needed,” Swanson said. “And I'm able to be with my family because they said, ‘yes.’”