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Like a lot of people you might know, an East Village bakery is leaving the Manhattan life for Bushwick.
A refugee of the gourmet cupcake craze that petered out in the early ‘10s, Sweet Generation announced last year it was ditching the postage-stamp-size location on First Avenue for a former factory around the corner from the Jefferson Street L. It wasn’t the first to make the move: Mahalo New York Bakery, which sat a few blocks away on East 9th Street, had moved to a cafe in nearby Glendale before shuttering last year.
Unlike some NYU grads, however, Sweet Generation has discovered far more space in its new digs. In fact, according to a press release, the bakery claims to have calculated at 16-fold increase in space, a number that the company’s owner, Amy Chasan confirmed vigorously to Bushwick Daily.
“We wanted to have a space where we could train our youth participants in the larger hospitality world,” Chasan said. Before she turned to monetizing her weekend baking habit, she had a desk job working as a program manager for the New York City Department of Youth & Community Development and she had discovered a way to get her former employer to foot some of the bill: Sweet Generation has a nonprofit arm called RISE, which hires interns for the bakery who are high school students as well as “disconnected out-of-school youth,” according to the site. The city funds this operation through various organizations, an arrangement that has also earned Sweet Generation some plaudits, with a Village Voice reporter deeming the business a “philanthropic bakery” in 2015 and earning the brand a number of corporate sponsors, like a grant from Eileen Fisher.
The move to Bushwick is being funded, in part, by a grant as well: $2.2 million from the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, which runs a program called the Criminal Justice Investment Initiative that is funded, curiously, from settlements the office makes with international banks that violate U.S. international trading sanctions, an apparatus of likely-outgoing District Attorney Cy Vance that had been criticized for doling out the dough with minimal public oversight. But with the program’s help, the bakery was able to keep their moving plans afloat amid the ongoing pandemic.
The financial security has also given them permission to go big with the new operation. A publicity shop was hired and safely secured a notice this week in the Times. Where the East Village location was as inconspicuously cramped as any other cupcake shop in the city, Sweet Generation polished up with the move, hiring the same design shop as Manhattan fast casual chains like By Chloe, Taim and Westville. At the new location on Willoughby Avenue, mysterious orbs hang on the walls and a factory door is used to decorate the dining area, creating a curious cross of styles that manages to both evoke the Korova Milkbar in Clockwork Orange and the industrial chic nowadays very popular in Dumbo.
“We tried to think of it as a white box, nice and simple,” Chasan said. “Everything that we do, even the branding and stuff, is really focused on creating a whimsical and fun experience.”
The cupcakes remain quite good — the Village Voice also named Chasan’s cupcakes “best in the city” in 2013 and they still are pillowy and come in unique flavors, accompanied by a rich, non-cloying frosting. Chasan says that she also tasks herself with outfitting “flavor palettes that are a little nontraditional.” Exemplifying this is one of Sweet Generation’s bestselling cupcakes: a crisp, yellow lemon lavender, which comes with a citrusy bite that Chasan describes as “not something you’d see everyday.”
Among the seasonal array of cupcakes that Sweet Generation plans on opening with are: fig and thyme; an orange guava coconut and a matcha rose, and these go for about $4 each, though Chasan says that she has since given up hold of the reins on cupcake development to a pastry chef she hired named Rena Lampka. Also present from Sweet Generation’s East Village location are the arresting array of blondies and brownies, some stuffed with marshmallows and all of which crumble gracefully. Generously sized cookies, about the size of saucers, are also sold, and these are as rich and crisp as they are large.
Newer additions to the menu include an elaborate array of scones and a lunch menu that includes numerous sandwiches, such as turkey bacon on a half-baked pretzel roll and a citrus tuna salad on sourdough, which can be switched for red beet hummus as well. For the carbohydrate-wary, Sweet Generation also offers a variety of grain bowls, another curious, though more recent, trend. All of these go for about $13 or $14 a pop, steeper probably than your local bodega but certainly more elaborate.
These are all the creation of Rob Valencia, who used to work as a pastry chef at Bubby’s in Tribeca and, later, a catering company in the Bronx. Valencia tells Bushwick Daily that he’s most excited to start baking bread, which he promises Sweet Generation also sells fresh and by the loaf, a feature that’s more often than not missing from your average corner bakery.
“Everyone loves bread, everyone got addicted to sourdough during the pandemic,” Valencia told Bushwick Daily.
Also in tune with the moment is Sweet Generation’s commitment to instruction: tucked into the enormous space is a teaching kitchen, from where Chasan says that Sweet Generation plans to start marketing cooking and baking classes whenever that becomes possible. (“We haven’t yet priced them out because of COVID,” she says.) Their primary purpose, of course, are the programs that the company’s nonprofit arm operates, which run the gamut from having participants work the shop to taking classes upstairs as part of a series on what Chasan calls “entrepreneurial thinking.” In the past Sweet Generation was forced to teach these classes in the unused classrooms of local high schools, but now the program will be able to do it in a room with color-coded chairs that have the energy of a small charter school. The lessons cover skills needed to “excel your pathway,” she says, from the value of starting sole proprietorships to pitching projects at a desk job. Like the cooking and baking classes, there are plans to eventually market these classes to adults as well.
“We feel like that is the key to expediting a career path,” Chasan says.
At the helm of this effort is Jared Spafford, a former chef who also migrated into the nonprofit scene.
Like a kind of big city summer camp, Spafford says these classes generally culminate in a pitch competition between the people participating. He’s hoping to use the extra space to reward the winner with a brief pop-up at the bakery, an idea that connects the program’s small biz ethos with the theatrics of a reality TV show like “Shark Tank.”
Fortunately, the city is paying these young people to participate — Spafford estimates that the company’s RISE employees (he calls them “interns”) make around $15 an hour, though that largely depends on which nonprofit or city program hires them. Some of the big ones are the New York City Council-funded Work, Learn & Grow Employment Program and the Summer Youth Employment Program, which is run by Chasan’s former bosses at the city’s Department of Youth & Community Development. The program yields a rich pool of applicants: SYEP claims to be the nation’s largest youth employment program and is open to anyone in the city who lives within the five boroughs between the ages of 16-24. But those programs also double as a hiring effort for Sweet Generation: Chasan says, with pride, that the company has ended up hiring a total of 12 former RISE workers over the past decade (out of the “upwards of a 175” interns they’ve hired, per Spafford’s estimate.)
Getting participants in the program lately has been a bit of an issue — the city kiboshed its in-person work placements for much of last year because of the pandemic, though Spafford says the business has been operating virtual cohorts with the hope that the program will be able to restart at full capacity once the summer starts.
Top photo credit: Robin Insley Associates.
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