Yessenia Oporta grew up dreaming of going to culinary school. Raised in Brooklyn, in a close knit family of cooks, she started baking when she was eight-years-old. But by the time she entered high school, she’d given up on her dream. “Culinary School was way too expensive,” she says. “I decided I shouldn’t go. I knew it would never happen.”
As it turns out, Oporta was wrong about her future. In 2015, she secured an internship at Sweet Generation in the East Village and was one of the early graduates of the bakery’s nonprofit RISE — Reach, Inspire, Shape, Empower. Today, Oporta is a baker and Kitchen Operations Manager at the bakery’s newly opened Bushwick space, located at 1329 Willoughby Avenue, where she’s helping train underserved youth pursue careers in the culinary arts.
The bigger space has also allowed Amy Chasan, who founded Sweet Generation / RISE nearly 16 years ago, to open another chapter for the social enterprise by adding entrepreneurship to the mix. At the end of the 10-week internship, students will compete in a food entrepreneurship lab where they create and pitch their own food pop-up idea to be located in the new Brooklyn shop.
While the job training is invaluable, many RISE graduates say it’s the intangibles that have been most meaningful. For Oporta, a self-confessed perfectionist, it was letting go of her fear of failure. “I learned that making mistakes is okay,” Oporta says. “You can learn from them and come back from them. It’s okay.”
For Tia Owens, 21, a baker who hopes to have a place of her own one day, it was time management. “I had no idea what urgency was before I started here,” she says. “Now I feel like I understand what it means when things need to get done.”
And for Leslie Carrasco, 19, who hopes to become a journalist one day, it has been a masterclass in confidence. “I was so shy when I started this program,” she says. “Working here on the counter, I am now so comfortable talking to people. Meeting my regulars and forming relationships, I’ve learned not only the business of food, but how to connect. I’ve become a different person.”
Oporta, Owens, and Carrasco are part of an alumni group of nearly 150 graduates of Sweet Generation / Rise. But the program started off as just a little germ of an idea hatched by Chasan — a former teacher who for several years served as program manager for NYC’s Department of Youth and Community Development. At the time, Chasan was also nurturing a fledgling baking business, doing small weddings, gallery openings, and baby showers. She began to wonder if there might be a way to combine her burgeoning baking business with a program to transform the lives of young people by training them in the culinary arts.
Chasan went back to school, earning a masters in nonprofit management and social entrepreneurship while developing the concept for Sweet Generation and RISE. “My vision was to create a hub where young people could come and work with professionals who would train and mentor them, teaching them hard skills like food production and management, but also soft skills like getting to work on time, what to wear to an interview, how to manage workplace politics, and more,” she says. “I wanted to create a safe supportive space for people who might not have access to that type of opportunity on their career journey.”
Sweet Generation opened its doors in a small storefront in the East Village in early 2015, hiring students through partnerships with nonprofits, community organizations, and schools who pay them during their 10-weeks internships.
Some students worked in the kitchen to learn from pastry chefs: baking, weighing ingredients properly, and scaling recipes. Other students at Sweet Generation completed a formal barista certification program with Partners Coffee while learning how to run front-of-house operations, from basic customer service training to seamlessly handling sales transactions.
Graduates of the program have an opportunity to stay on for a six-month paid apprenticeship (if there’s enough business). From there, they may be hired full time. If a need doesn’t exist, the RISE team works with students to navigate their next steps. “We help them figure out their goals and figure out a process to get there,” Chasan says. “We teach them how to look for a job, how to write a resume and cover letter too. We want them to have the skills to look for a job when they leave here.”
While they can leave, many don’t because of the strong mentorship and opportunities for growth. “I feel very prepared to go anywhere from here,” Oporto says. “I can work the counter, I am a certified barista, I can bake, and I can decorate. I’ve stayed so long because there has been opportunity for growth into higher management. They have created a pathway for me to move forward.”
Their track record with disconnected youth caught the attention of the Manhattan DA’s Office, which in 2017 awarded Sweet Generation a multi-million dollar grant from the Manhattan DA’s Office Criminal Justice Investment Initiative. The transformational fund invests millions of dollars in funds seized by prosecutions against major banks into large-scale efforts to reinvest in the local community to mitigate the prison pipeline and prevent recidivism.
“Poverty and unemployment are criminal justice issues,” said Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, when awarding the grant to Sweet Generation. “Social enterprises offer a positive economic impact in communities with few job opportunities, and a means of advancement for individuals who may not have job skills, training, or access to employment.”
With the grant, Chasan worked on moving the bakery and its training program to its new bright and airy 8000-square-foot space in Bushwick with mile-high ceilings, a massive cafe, a production kitchen, a professional culinary event space, a teaching kitchen, and a multimedia classroom. The new location, which opened at the end of February, not only allows Chasan to do more with her business; it allows students to expand their skill set to include event planning, culinary instruction, and catering.
She also hired chef Rob Valencia, who has expanded the sweets menu to include generously glazed sourdough rise cinnamon buns, fluffy cupcakes crowned with swirls of orange blossom cream, salted cookies the size of saucers, vegan sticky buns, and chocolate Oatly vegan soft serve. He has also added a robust savory menu with sandwiches like roasted broccoli with butternut squash, red beet hummus, and greens on a sourdough baguette, and a Forbidden rice grain bowl with fava beans, pickled red onion, radish, sesame, and jammy eggs.
Students are involved in all aspects of menu production — savory and sweet — and are even learning how to bake bread. “We are in-sourcing everything not just to have amazing quality food,” Chasan says. “But also because the more we do, the more opportunity there is for our students to learn more skills.”