Blue Sky Bakery Serves Up Social Change

By Diana Di Lenge and Alex Johnson

Posted: Sunday, Nov. 17, 2013

A small storefront with bright blue awnings welcomes customers inside Blue Sky Bakery & Cafe.

Like most trendy North Side bakeries, Blue Sky serves an array of delectable treats and fancy coffees, but many don’t notice that painted delicately on the window is the phrase “Social change, powered by your appetite.”

The bakery doesn’t just serve its North Center neighborhood’s sweet tooth. It’s actively working to help homeless and at-risk youth in the community.

Lisa Thompson, the executive director and founder of Blue Sky Bakery founded the Blue Sky Employment program three years ago with the hopes of helping youth who have barriers in the way of employment get started in the world of work.

“We help youth with criminal background, unstable housing, incomplete education, and little or no work experience, and we give them that first, strong entry on their resume,” Thompson said.

As a nonprofit organization, Blue Sky Bakery raises what it calls the “edible consciousness” of the community by providing transitional employment to homeless and at-risk youth.

The Blue Sky Employment Program provides 12 weeks of paid employment as well as workshops to address professional and personal issues. Youth gain valuable experience in cooking, baking, maintaining a sanitary work environment, performing deliveries, customer service and cash-handling.

They receive on-the-job training in food service and learn the “soft skills” that will help them be an excellent employee. With that comes the opportunity to build a work history and references as well as assistance securing permanent, long-term employment. According to its website, the staff is paid minimum wage but can receive pay raises for enrolling in GED programs and passing the GED exam.

Head baker Sammy McQueen works with and trains Blue Sky’s employees. Many new employees come in with no prior knowledge of how to bake, and it’s up to McQueen to teach them the basics.

“A lot of them are really motivated,” McQueen said. “It’s a good start for them because they might be like troubled youth or they might be in a shelter and it gives them work experience.”

During the program, employees work with McQueen daily to bake the cupcakes, muffins and other baked goods that Blue Sky sells.

“They do what I do,” McQueen said.

When the 12-week program is over, Blue Sky works with their graduates to help find them long-term employment.

In the short time that McQueen has been head baker at Blue Sky, she’s already seen her share of success stories.

“If any of them find jobs it’s a success because it was hard for them to begin with,” McQueen said. “One guy was here for six weeks and he’s already found another job at a catering company.  Another one just had a couple interviews with a business as well.”

Alexis Calvillo is currently a part of Blue Sky’s employment program for two weeks and has already made personal strides within the program.

“Working here kind of opened my eyes and has made me start my career off the right way,” Calvillo said. “At first I had no clue what I wanted to do with myself. Being back in the kitchen and learning new things, I figure later on in life I could do this myself and open a bakery myself and help people out who need help, like me.”

Being a pastry chef at Blue Sky Bakery is the first job Alexis has ever had. In the two weeks that she has worked there, Cavillo has gained motivation to succeed and an eagerness to work.

“I thank Lisa for this program because if it wasn’t for her I don’t know where I would be,” Calvillo said. “This place actually motivates you, it puts you on level ground.”

Calvillo credits her success to Blue Sky Bakery owner Lisa and manager Sammy. While most first jobs can be nerve wrecking and discouraging, Lisa and Sammy made sure that Alexis felt at home and comfortable in her work environment. When Alexis would make a mistake, she would not be scolded. Workers say that positive reinforcement is a vital part of the work environment at Blue Sky Bakery, and through this reinforcement that the workers gain confidence.

“Sammy helped me a lot so now every day when I come in I have confidence,” Alexis said. “ I know what I’m doing, I know where things are at, so I definitely have confidence now.”

The work done by Sammy and Lisa at Blue Sky Bakery & Café is something cherished and admired by those in the North Center neighborhood. Over the past few years, the bakery has gained notoriety throughout the Chicago area and a waiting list has been made for people who wish to join the program in the future. The staff is usually referred to the program by a probation officer or social worker seeking to find a part-time job in a supportive environment for their clients.

With 60 catering orders a year, Blue Sky Bakery is able to employ one more youth a year. All money earned at the bakery goes toward helping the workers in the program succeed and further their careers. For customers, being able to see the fruits of their labor play out in such a unique way gives them a satisfaction few other places offer.

Blue Sky Bakery has given Cavillo and others a purpose. There are no longer obstacles in the way of their future.

 “I thought to myself, I don’t know about baking, I’m not a baking kind of girl, but now I love it,” Calvillo said. “It’s ridiculous.”

Interactive map: Other restaurants and bakeries focused on social change.

Connect: Blue Sky Bakery website, Twitter and Facebook page.

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