WOW! 62,500 reasons to stay focused? Maybe that seems like overkill, or maybe even contrary to the definition of “focused." Or maybe with the additional time nowadays we can sit back and start counting 62,500 reasons.
Before telling you the significance of the number 62,500, let me start with just three reasons—the major reasons—we're staying focused at Rockin' Baker. Even in the face of a global pandemic.
1. Staying true to our Why
Our resolve is stronger than ever. We will continue "baking a difference" in the lives of individuals with intellectual and developmental challenges.
Startup challenges, and Rockin' Baker had her fair share, now seem minor compared to what a pandemic throws at you. Yet, not even COVID-19 has derailed Rockin’ Baker from developing the skills of neurodiverse individuals, an overlooked segment of our population that is afforded fewer opportunities to demonstrate their talents. In this brave, new world of COVID-19, our mission is more important than ever.
So, we're staying focused.
2. Staying true to our values
Market pressures force difficult business decisions, and can even cause a business to cut corners. Despite the challenges we're facing, there's at least one thing I will never compromise: adding preservatives to our products.
This position may limit our growth, but I’m willing to live with that. As we donate more of our bread to the community, we could simply make a cheaper version for distribution. However, this would also mean not walking the talk.
We watch costs like any business, pinching pennies where we can. But we'll never sacrifice quality to improve our expense reports.
3. Staying true to our Community
The effects of COVID-19 on the most vulnerable segment of our community are unmeasurable, devastating and heartbreaking. We wouldn’t be staying true to our values if we didn’t do our part to help.
As part of our Rise Up Together campaign, this little bakery has churned out thousands of artisan buns every week to nourish families in our community struggling to put food on their tables.
62,500 servings of bread to be exact. Now you see why we have 62,500 reasons to stay focused.
And we’re not stopping because the need is greater than anything we’ve seen in our lifetimes. We understand the effects of this pandemic will linger for years. We also understand the struggles will continue for our industry if consumer spending slows to even lower levels.
Living in unchartered times has become our new normal, and learning, adapting and exercising our courage muscle is part of it.
Dusting off my old cookbooks recently, I encountered two little notebooks with all the recipes I have collected through the years, some written, some glued, some barely hanging on by a strip of now-yellowish tape. Flipping through the pages, memories popped like kernels of popcorn hitting hot oil.
Some memories, like the recipes themselves, have faded over time, while others remain crystal clear. Funny how certain moments in our lives are written indelibly on our minds while others become lost to time.
I started my first “cookbook” when I was maybe 10 years old. As artsy as I am, these notebooks couldn’t be just "plain subject, wide-ruled" notebooks. No way! I spent so much time decorating them.
My oldest cookbook was covered in black felt, adorned with a cherry-topped cup of ice cream. I probably spent more time decorating and writing recipes than actually making them. Those notebooks contained more recipes than I could ever hope to make.
But it's who I made those recipes with that lingers pleasantly in my mind. My dear grandmother. We spent many delicious moments together over those recipes. I fondly recall snacking on her cookie dough and sampling whatever she was cooking at the time.
These memories are priceless to me.
All this reminiscing inspired me to ask some good friends to share their memories of our friendship and what “breaking bread" means to them. Below is the first part in a series of articles about bread and its influence on building family, community, and memories.
First up, my dear friend Marie Demeroukas, a photo archivist and research librarian at the Shiloh Museum of Ozark History in Springdale. And, as you'll see, a gifted writer.
Here's Marie, writing about "Growing Up Greek & the Bread of Life"...
The first word I learned to say in Greek was yiayia—grandmother. But language was always a barrier between us. Despite having lived in Chicago for nearly 50 years, she never learned to speak English. So she communicated her love through gestures and food. When we’d arrive at her house on Sunday, there was a perfect round of fresh bread on the kitchen table, ready for the evening meal. Seeing the question in my eyes, she’d slip a slice to me. The warmth of the bread, the scent of the yeast, that was yiayia’s house.
We attended services occasionally at the Greek Orthodox church. St. Basil’s was a mystical realm, spiced with resinous incense and alive with the glow of dozens of flickering candles set in red glass votive holders. After the service came the ritual of communion and the awkwardness of having to kiss the priest’s ring. My eyes always went to the cloth-lined basket filled with cubes of simple, honest bread. So much nicer to eat than the bland, pasty wafers I had at the Lutheran Church, where I went to school.
As a teenager, I learned to cook a few Greek dishes from my old man, who worked hard to perfect his recipes. At Easter and on New Year’s Day he’d make a monstrously huge sweet bread made with sugar and eggs and flavored delicately with pickling spice—bay, ginger, cloves, cinnamon, allspice, mustard, and cardamom. My brother and I took turns at kneading the massive ball of dough, popping pinches of sweet, yeasty goodness into our mouths when we thought no one was looking. For New Year’s, a silver dollar was pushed into the dough during the final rise, to bring good fortune to the lucky recipient. At Easter, long ropes of dough were rolled out and coiled atop the bread to hold red-dyed eggs, symbols of the blood of Christ. The bread was rich, moist, and just the right kind of dense. We cut our slices thick and slathered them in sweet butter.
After a move to Arkansas, one spring I found myself yearning for the taste of Easter. I had always helped with the meal, but had never made it on my own. So I spent a few days cooking my way into my childhood and—amazingly—everything turned out, even the bread. I’ve recreated that feast more than a dozen times over the years, adding new dishes to the menu and new friends to the table.
One of those friends is Daymara, who offered to bake the family recipe for the last Easter gathering. She put her own spin on it, keeping the flavor I loved but altering the texture a bit to suit her own breadmaking style. That’s the thing with recipes.
They may change, but not the baked-in memories.
The negative impact of Covid-19 is all around us. We read it. We see it. We feel it.
Every time we open our newsfeed, we read the alarming statistics: infections, deaths, layoffs, bankruptcies, and families desperate to put food on the table.
Sometimes it’s overwhelming. Sometimes it feels like there is only bad news.
But like any challenging situation, there are always silver linings. Maybe more than one.
You just have to notice; you just have to be purposeful in your search.
In fact, as I look around these days, I’m sure I spy a gold lining or two.
The Gold Linings
We at Rockin’ Baker are beyond thankful to healthcare workers, delivery personnel, and all those working in essential businesses such as grocery retail.
Consider this a heartfelt thank you from the Rockin’ Baker team.
We’re witnessing our neighbors right here in Northwest Arkansas—local heroes right next door—go beyond the call of duty to care for the most vulnerable members of our community.
Just open your social feed and you know what you’ll see? Campaign after campaign, initiative after initiative to serve the downtrodden during this unprecedented crisis. You’ll see local non-profits and businesses being highly creative as they find ways to continue pursuing their missions and providing their valuable services.
Across our community, individuals and organizations alike are opening their checkbooks to donate, with some even selflessly donating their stimulus checks to help others.
The Gold Side
It’s common to hear people talk about silver linings.
But, when you witness all this generosity pouring in every single day, I prefer the term gold linings…made possible, naturally, by people with hearts of gold.
Gold linings from gold hearts.
The dark side, well, it’s out there. For sure, it’s out there.
But we can’t afford to dwell completely on the dark side, to the neglect of the “gold side.”
Even as we mobilize our resources and talents to respond to the pain and suffering around us, we should take time to appreciate how this crisis is bringing out the best in us.
There is a long road before us; the need is unimaginable.
But the gold side can strengthen and sustain us for the challenge.
I specifically want to thank supporters of Rockin’ Baker for joining us on this journey.
This journey to the gold side.
When asked how I came up with the idea for Rockin’ Baker, I always share my story.
I was reading the book Earning Serendipity by Glenn Llopis on the last leg of a flight to visit my family. And it was then, just before the captain announced in typical fashion, “We’re beginning our decent,” that the entire concept for Rockin’ Baker popped into my head.
Like an inflight movie, I saw—there on the “screen” of my mind—a way to combine my business experience with my heart for serving others, a way to combine a business with a non-profit.
Some call this mid-air epiphany “my calling.”
My mother says the calling was just waiting to be revealed; she saw some hints of it when I was younger. For instance, as a teenager, I painted a still life featuring a loaf of crusty bread with a brioche bun next to it. When I told my mother about my idea for Rockin’ Baker, she stripped the painting from its frame and shipped it to me.
Today that painting is displayed at the bakery as a reminder of how someone’s life can take a radically unexpected turn.
Life at Rockin’ Baker has also taken unexpected turns
The original concept for Rockin’ Baker started as an on-the-job training program for individuals with troubled backgrounds. I believe all people are of value, and that good, clean, honest work can empower individuals to reach their full potential.
But I made a slight adjustment to the direction of Rockin’ Baker when my path crossed with Amie, the mother of a young lady living with autism. Through that experience I learned how challenging it was for neuro-diverse folks to join the workforce.
That was over two years ago. Today, Rockin’ Baker continues to train individuals with developmental and intellectual disabilities.
The duality of Covid-19: expected and unexpected turns
After witnessing the adverse impact of Covid-19 on some of my friends living overseas, and already sensing the danger this pandemic presented to our community in Northwest Arkansas, I made the decision to close the bakery before it was even mandatory.
That was kind of expected.
Unexpected, though, was seeing how our nonprofit bakery could become a source of nourishment for so many souls negatively affected by the outbreak.
Because we are in this together
Through the support of individuals near and far, Rise Up Together came to life. The campaign was a way for the bakery to keep its ovens hot, even as it produced freshly baked bread for food banks, schools, and low-income communities.
As Covid-19 forced our primary clientele, local restaurants, to temporarily close their doors, we shifted our focus to helping local households impacted by job losses, income reductions, school closures, and interruptions to school lunch programs.
By the end of April, this little bakery, nestled inside a small strip mall in Fayetteville, Arkansas, will have donated over 20,000 servings.
Covid-19 is and will remain one of the biggest challenges some of us ever face. But we’re extremely grateful to be able to count on so many kind hearts—supporters who believe in our mission of helping others overcome their personal challenges.
Yet the effects of this pandemic will stay with us for the foreseeable future. So please consider donating to our Rise Up Together campaign, so we may continue these efforts.
And, back to the “calling,” I simply attribute it to marrying someone with the last name Baker.
Destiny? Maybe. Serendipity? Absolutely.
Good news! And just in time. We could all use a little good news right now.
Rockin’ Baker has teamed up with another local nonprofit, Seeds That Feed, to kick-off the “Rise Up Together” matching-gift fundraiser in response to the coronavirus outbreak.
This initiative provides a way for the bakery to continue serving Northwest Arkansans on the Autism spectrum while also distributing handmade bread to households negatively impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.
The situation we, and many other businesses, are facing is entirely new territory and will require the community to come together for the collective good. With COVID-19 spreading every day, we are so grateful to our healthcare workers and hospitality businesses for working tirelessly to help our community during this challenging period.
Instead of ceasing bread production during the coronavirus outbreak, Rise Up Together will allow Rockin’ Baker to continue operations with limited staff and, following the outbreak, return to serving individuals through its job-training program.
Thanks to early donations from generous individuals and organizations, the Rise Up Together campaign will match all gifts on the first $4,500 raised. Individuals who wish to contribute to the fundraiser are invited to make a tax-deductible donation on the Rockin’ Baker website.
Donations will immediately help the bakery start preparing fresh, handmade bread specifically for distribution to food banks, schools, and low-income communities where it can be served to individuals and families impacted by the coronavirus.
We will also be looking for volunteers to help us deliver this bread in the upcoming days. Please look for details on this shortly as we are in the early stages of implementing this program.
The community can also support the Rise Up Together campaign by purchasing a specialty sourdough loaf developed exclusively for this fundraising. To place orders and learn pickup time availabilities, please visit our online store.
Finally, we wanted to share some resources that we found helpful regarding the relationship between de-stressing, connecting, and baking. As social distancing has become an essential step in suppressing the spread of COVID-19, we consider it our responsibility to help lessen the negative effects of isolation as much as possible.
Here at Rockin’ Baker, we’re committed to continue “baking a difference.” And with your help, we’ll Rise Up Together.
Thank you for being valued Rockin’ Baker customers.
Because your well-being, and that of our team members, is our top priority, I wanted to reach out to you regarding the coronavirus pandemic. I appreciate the chance to update you on what we're doing right now at Rockin’ Baker to help protect you and your family.
First, I want to assure you we are committed to your safety and the safety of our employees and cadets. At Rockin’ Baker we take food safety very seriously.
During the bread-making process, our industrial-grade ovens bake our breads at temperatures higher than 420-degrees Fahrenheit. Viruses are sensitive to heat, and, to date, no evidence suggests that viruses can survive prolonged heating over a period of minutes.
Also, when we handle baked, consumption-ready bread, we exceed standard food safety requirements and CDC guidelines.
Here are some additional measures we've taken in recent days:
Thank you for your trust in us, and for being such an important part of Rockin’ Baker.
CEO Rockin’ Baker
Sometimes we feel we’re swimming against the current. All alone.
When we finally stop to take a breath, we realize there are many around us facing similar fears, challenges, or difficulties. We have company. Sometimes, lots of company.
Often neuro-diverse individuals think their fears, challenges, or difficulties are unique to them because of their disabilities. But…
Challenges and difficulties are common to us all.
A couple of Saturdays ago we participated in a local event, Self-Care Saturday, at Record in Downtown Bentonville. The event gave our cadets the opportunity to interact with customers and to share their experiences with a larger audience.
From a pure financial viewpoint, the event didn’t pay back. However, the confidence and determination Cadet Andrea (pictured with the tray in her hands) gained was priceless.
Andrea was quite shy approaching patrons to ask them to try our delicious breads. I was observing her from afar, and I could see her hesitation. One part of her wanted to open up; the other was holding her back.
I asked her how she was doing. She didn’t say anything about her struggles. Very casually I asked her to go with me to check out our neighboring booth, Kendra Scott (Jewelry).
I shared with the local store manager, Caitlin, our mission and how community events like Self-Care Saturday were a great venue for cadets to practice their customer service skills. Andrea mentioned how awkward she felt approaching people.
The AHA Moment
It was special listening to Caitlin sharing about her first attempts selling to customers: feeling awkward and not knowing what to say.
With practice, however, she started gaining confidence. Until it became natural.
I could see Andrea’s eyes widening with the self-realization that she wasn’t alone. Understanding that feeling awkward wasn’t unique to her, or to those folks who also live with an intellectual disability, was a huge step for her.
No need to keep beating yourself up, when the boat is full of people dealing with similar fears and challenges. And sometimes that boat is overloaded!
Now with her courage-meter high, she grabbed the tray with the various samples and ventured to the floor...walking with her head up, confident she could do it.
And she did! I witnessed how she told others about our mission in her own words. Pride was shining through her eyes.
Later that day her mom told me how Andrea was so happy that she attended the event because she met other cadets just like her.
She left the event changed. And so did I.
When you buy bread from us or eat at one of our local partners, you’re helping us create more opportunities for our cadets. That’s why we say Bread with Benefits!
The first annual Valentine's Challenge is in the books. Last week I explained that cadets would be using the Valentine's holiday as an occasion to plan, create, and even name their own loaves of bread.
Well, let me tell you, the cadets rose to the occasion! Every one of them.
Whoever thought I could find so many words beginning with "ex" to describe how the cadets performed? Normally we think of exes as a bad thing, but that's another blog post entirely.
And since one challenge deserves another: See just how many "ex" words you can spot below, and then, just for fun, comment with the number you found.
Expressing Their Inner Talents
Talent can be like a raw, unpolished gem: hidden deep inside by various circumstances and for various reasons. Sometimes it takes pushing the cadets a little past their comfort zones, to help them realize their true inner talents.
For some this experience can be exhilarating. For others it can be a little scary, especially at first, because they tend to doubt themselves. We just have to remind them that self-doubting can happen to anyone, extroverts and introverts, neurotypical as well as to those on the spectrum.
My role at Rockin' Baker is to facilitate the right place and time for cadets to explore the talents they naturally have, and to encourage them to exercise their courage muscle.
Overall, every cadet executed the Valentine's challenge beautifully. They exhibited a higher level of confidence and, for sure, expressed their creativity in delicious, sometimes exotic ways.
I'm so proud of each and every cadet. So. very. proud.
And the winner is . . .
Joaquin (pictured below) won 1st place with his Strawberry Dream loaf, Leah 2nd with her Love Potion #9, and Camryn 3rd with her Sharp Dressed Man.
The Valentine’s Challenge illustrates yet again: When people are pushed just a little outside their comfort zones, they can truly expand their horizons.
Thanks to all of you who came to pick your favorite loaf, or in some cases, more than one! I hope all of you enjoyed this challenge.
By the way...
I invite you to suggest topics for future blog posts. There's so much I could write about, but I'd love to know what truly interests you.
Your feedback is always appreciated.
Do you cringe when you hear the word challenge?
It seems to me that very often the simple word challenge can take our minds to that negative side. We tend to think of being questioned, feeling threatened, you know, being challenged.
But a challenge can also take us in a very positive direction. And a delicious one!
As you'll see, I recently used Valentine's as an opportunity to challenge the cadets with a fun, creative undertaking. And they really made the most of it!
Always Up for a Good Challenge
My friends know how much I love to challenge our Foodie group with crazy themes. Why? Because the outcomes can be quite surprising. I just need an excuse to come up with a theme, a new challenge.
For some reason we, the ladies of our Foodie group, tend to do most of the cooking, while the men (their bellies, more specifically) get benefit from all our work.
Well, I decided to change that at least once per year. I throw an Annual Manly Grilling challenge to the boys with 10 silly, funny rules such as:
Reception was mixed at the beginning. Expectations were so low.
One of my friends told me to basically forget about her husband actively participating because he could only flip burger patties. Barely!
But not only did he make a delicious lemon pie, he also whipped that fresh cream in a breeze in front of our amused eyes. Of course, with those Popeye’s arms it was more like a tornado than a breeze. Me? I need to borrow the muscles of my Kitchen-Aid!
My spouse made a horseradish sauce and a vanilla gelato...from scratch. When I say from scratch, I mean it. He pulled the horseradish root from our backyard, and even scraped vanilla beans for the gelato.
A few burns from scalding custard later, he ended up with a scrumptious vanilla gelato. I could see the pride shinning in his eyes when done.
Ok, I confess. I gave some tips along the way, but he did all the work. Remember that rule of the ladies not moving a finger that day???
So I got to wondering: How can I similarly challenge the cadets of Rockin' Baker Academy?
The Valentine's Challenge
When Ryan, my assistant baker, mentioned having some of the cadets come up with their own breads, my mind immediately thought of a challenge.
Yes, a Delicious Challenge for Valentine’s Day!
Cadets were challenged to not only create their own bread, but also to name their loaves.
Surprisingly, the cadets have enthusiastically embraced the challenge. It’s been empowering to see the cadets planning, thinking, and sharing their ideas.
Plus all the giggling makes it quite fun.
The ingredients. The names. Everything. It's all been amazing!
Jen’s Nut? Yep! We all laughed out loud when Jennifer told us the name for her loaf. A loaf with roasted banana, toasted walnuts, raisins, and a touch of cinnamon. I’m already thinking of a nice toasted slice for breakfast. Bring on the fromage blanc cheese baby!
Only Camryn could’ve thought of calling her loaf Sharp Dressed Man. You may wonder what salami, cheddar, green onion, caramelized onion and All Spice have to do with a sharp dressed man, except for maybe wearing All Spice cologne. When asked where that name came from, her reply was: “Because on Valentine’s Day, a man should dress sharp.”
That’s makes a lot of sense to me. Deliciously sensible by the way.
Since Love is in the air, Leah’s loaf is a Love Portion #9: raspberry, white chocolate chips, dark chocolate ganache, and secret spice. No wonder why she’s calling it Love Portion #9—nine words in her ingredient list. Clever!
Joaquin is fantasizing with his Strawberry Dream: a loaf with fresh strawberry compote, cream cheese, and honey. As much as he loves jalapeño, I just hope he’s not adding it when I’m not looking.
Daniel has turned out to be a cook, and since pizza is one of his favorite foods, he’s going with Pizzazz . . . Until the day to make their loaves arrives, Daniel continues delighting us with his breakfast dishes. Next, waffles. I’ll have my honey ready to drizzle!
Are You Up for a Fun Challenge?
I’m very pleased with how the challenge is turning out. It has been exciting, motivating, and fun.
If a challenge is presented right, and the support is there, I believe most people will deliver beyond expectations.
Since we’re still on the topic of challenges, I'd like to challenge you.
You’re challenged to pick your favorite loaf.
I know, I know! I’m making it very hard for you to choose a single one. Psst, between you and me, you can pick more than one.
Whoever sells out first will win a doughty medal and the rights to brag about being #1. And #2. And #3.
Just stop by on Valentine’s Day or Saturday 15 to pick up your favorite loaf!
Cadets will be also selling their loaves on Saturday 15 during the Self-Care Saturday at The Record from 10 am to 2 pm (104 NW A St., Bentonville). Here is a Facebook link if you want to find out more about this free event: https://www.facebook.com/events/470778270495404/
Which one will you pick?
Body wanting to rest, but keep going? Yes, that’s me.
I’ve been working at the bakery for too long without proper breaks, and my body was starting to scream: Let me rest a little!!!
This is a topic for another blog: taking care of yourself if you truly want to help others.
I finally got the courage to take a couple of days off. I was confident the cadets could pull it off, but at the same time I was a little nervous leaving them alone.
Who hasn’t been there?
It wasn’t that I didn’t trust the cadets. I just never want to undermine their confidence by putting them in situations they may not be ready to tackle. I only want to build their confidence!
Well, they did it! Better, they ROCKED it! No burnt loaves, no damaged buns.
Can you believe Joaquin (pictured), who’s not even 21 years old, led his team like nobody else? He had his moments of doubt, and made some mistakes. Yet, he was able to fix them and, most importantly, learned from them.
That’s what you want from an employee: to solve problems as they arise, without waiting for the manager to fix them.
I’m so proud of them.
It takes patience, but when you train well, provide the right tools, and give them space, they will certainly deliver. Trust is key.
I learned this lesson, thanks to them.
After this experience, I’ll leave them on their own more often. Forcing them to run the show by themselves will be instrumental in building the confidence they need to keep shining!
Sometimes they just need a little push.
Meanwhile, keep stopping by to get your loaves. You know how much they love to serve you. And please subscribe to the blog on the right (or below, on mobile).
Together, we're Baking a Difference!
The Rockin' Baker
Hi, I'm Daymara Baker, founder and CEO of Rockin' Baker. Venezuela native. European-style baker. Proud American and Northwest Arkansan.