If you’ve ever bought a brownie from a Whole Foods Market instore bakery or enjoyed a scoop of Ben & Jerry’s Chocolate Fudge Brownie ice cream, there’s a good chance you’ve tasted a product made by Yonkers, New York-based Greyston Bakery.

What you may not know is that your purchase helped support a groundbreaking social justice project that has helped thousands of otherwise unemployable people find jobs baking treats that have won awards including a Gold SOFI from the New York-based Specialty Food Association.

Greyston Bakery was founded in 1982 by Roshi Bernie Glassman, an entrepreneur, aerospace engineer and Buddhist monk. The name comes from Greyston Mansion, a house in Riverdale, New York, where Glassman ran a Buddhist retreat. Greyston eventually moved from Riverdale to the nearby city of Yonkers but kept its name.

Greyston Bakery is a part of the non-profit social enterprise Greyston, formerly known as Greyston Foundation. The parent organization employs about 160 people, and the majority of those — about 100 — work at the bakery.

According to Greyston’s mission statement, the non-profit’s goal is “creating thriving communities through the practice and promotion of Open Hiring.” Open Hiring, a trademarked practice, means that anyone, regardless of their past, can work at Greyston. Some Greyston employees have language barriers. Others are immigrants, others have served time in prison.

At its 23,000-square-foot plant, Greyston bakes about 7 million pounds of brownies per year. Every day, a huge amount of that ships to Ben & Jerry’s for use as ice cream inclusions. (Greyston Bakery also makes vegan fudge for Ben & Jerry’s non-dairy products).

But instore bakeries also make up a significant chunk of Greyston Bakery’s business, says Sunitha Malieckal, a Greyston account manager. Whole Foods is the company’s top customer. Greyston Bakery also ships to Mrs. Green Natural Market stores and to other retailers.

Greyston Bakery’s original instore product is its signature Chocolate Fudge Brownie. But the company also ships its Snickerdoodle Brownie, Brown Sugar Blondie, Vegan Fudge Brownie and Mini-Chocolate Fudge Brownie to its retail customers. (Greyston Bakery has offered cookies in the past, too, but currently does not have them on its product roster.)

Vegan success story

The vegan brownie, introduced just within the past two years, already has become Greyston Bakery’s top instore seller. The company’s secret? Make a vegan version of an old standard that has all the old standard’s decadent delectability.

“We had been hearing that vegans wanted something that was a real treat, but that that product really wasn’t out there,” she says.

By the end of the year, Greyston Bakery hopes to have a vegan version of its Blondie ready for retail. “A lot of our work is around expanding our vegan offerings,” she says. 

The majority of the company’s retail product ships in 2.5-oz individually-wrapped packs, Malieckal says. About two years ago, Greyston Bakery also began shipping a 1.25-oz version, which has been a hit, she says, with people who want to balance delicious with healthful.

“There’s a trend of people who want to indulge but who also want smaller portions to help maintain their healthy lifestyles,” Malieckal says.  

Greyston also packs product in a retail tray, which Malieckal says retails well in a bakery window. “We’re seeing a lot of trending around trays,” she says. “It looks like it came right off the bakery line.”

Malieckal says it’s exciting to see many consumers catching up to the social justice message Greyston Bakery has been preaching and practicing for 36 years. More and more consumers, particularly millennials, are far more likely to buy products that are in line with their ethical beliefs.

That said, when it comes to selling brownies, it still comes down to the product itself, Malieckal says.  “At the end of the day, people want to be eating a great-tasting brownie. We use clean, all-natural, premium ingredients, and consumers respond to quality. Our packaging tells a little a bit of the story, but mainly it’s the taste that brings people back. You always have a challenge with how much you can say on a 2.5-oz product. The social mission almost comes second —an extra note of sweetness.”

In addition to being top-quality, ingredients Greyston Bakery uses in its brownies are Fair Trade- and kosher-certified. 

Jobs for the taking, “no questions asked”

Barriers to employment — language, education, history of incarceration and others — are greeted by Greyston with a “no questions asked” philosophy. Greyston Bakery’s CEO, Mike Brady, said in a TED Talk that “anyone who comes through the front door of Greyston gets a job.”

Greyston was the first company in New York, Brady said in the talk, to incorporate as a benefit corporation. Its philosophy, Brady said, is based on Glassman’s firm belief that “business success and social justice are two sides of the same coin.”

“How can business, this great force, be used to solve some of the social problems we have going on right now,” is Greyston’s motivating challenging every day, Brady said. In its 36 years it has employed thousands of people, he said, who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to find a job.

In that same TED Talk, Dion Drew, a Greyston Bakery employee, describes how the company saved his life. The Yonkers native was dealing drugs by 15, in jail by 17 and hopeless about his job prospects when he got out of jail. After being rejected by numerous potential employers, Drew was hired by Greyston. He’s since been promoted twice, and he says he “feels like Rocky running up the steps in Philadelphia every day I come to work.”

In addition to employment, “no questions asked,” Greyston Bakery employees enjoy access to career development assistance, supportive housing, child care, educational opportunities (Greyston funds community educational programs) and community gardens.