Women Bakers, New Bakery, Breathe Life into La Marqueta
The non-profit bakery Hot Bread Kitchen is helping revitalize the once-renowned ethnic food market La Marqueta in East Harlem by offering on-site baking training to low-income immigrant workers, reported Natasha Verma in Northattan.
The results of the trainees labor are sold in the bakery’s recently opened retail store inside La Marqueta, which stretches from E. 111th St. to E. 116th St. under the elevated Metro North train tracks on Park Avenue.
“We really think that our mission is to continue the legacy of La Marqueta in supporting immigrant food entrepreneurs,” Molly Crossin, the bakery’s communications and development director, said.
La Marqueta was opened by New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia in 1936. According to Crossin, the idea was to get the pushcart vendors off the streets and to boost the economy in Spanish Harelm. A majority of the 500 vendors that once operated at La Marqueta were Puerto Ricans, who sold foods and goods popular back home.
But by 2010, the number of vendors had dropped to about only 10. Several failed efforts by the city to revive the business center did not dent the entrepreneurial spirit of local immigrants, especially Dominicans and more recently Mexicans, who like their predecessors, also sold food in the street they cooked at home.
To help these vendors grow and move them into a more professional environment, the City Council and the Economic Development Corporation approved establishment of a food business incubator in La Marqueta. In January 2011, Hot Bread Kitchen won a contract to operate the incubator and became the anchor tenant.
“Immigrant women around the world hold the world’s recipes,” Crossin said. “But when you get to fine dining high-end restaurants in the food industry in Europe and America, it’s mostly white men who are managing restaurants.”
Crossin and the nonprofit bakery’s founder, Jessamyn Rodriguez, wanted to change this. They saw a huge labor force that was unemployed or underemployed coupled with a huge demand for ethnic bread and bread bakers.
“Let’s have these women leverage the skills they already have and move them out of the informal sector!” Crossin said.
Hot Bread Kitchen opened this past July an almacen, Spanish for “store,” inside La Marqueta, which sells their large line of bread products ranging from Moroccan msemen to French baguette and New York multigrain. It also delivers bread to over 40 grocery stores, 18 restaurants and 12 farmers markets and Crossin said plans were underway even for a wider distribution throughout the Northeast.
Nancy Mendes is one of the 39 immigrant bakers who is receiving training and are part of the market’s revival efforts.
When Mendes isn’t working in the large production kitchen, she’s spending part of her 40 hours a week in class learning English, professional skills and baking technology.
“This whole week is professional skills,” Beatriz Mieses, the bakery’s training director, said. “We are talking about time management.”
All classes take place in the afternoon, and the bakery pays the workers for their class and training time. Because the bakery is nonprofit, the proceeds of every loaf that is sold gets reinvested back into the training program.
Mendes, who said the Polish bialy, a bagel-like roll filed with diced onions and garlic is the most popular among customers, is perfecting her art while dreaming of opening her own business.
“Maybe in two years, I open a restaurant,” Mendes said. “Or maybe a bakery for Mexican bread.”