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Norwalk's Crumb Together Bakery sets people with disabilities on career paths

Fairfield County Business Journal - 2/10/2020

Always Rising" may JUk be a nifty slogan mm A for a bakery - but in the case of a kosher purveyor of cookies and other treats in Norwalk, it also underscores its mission.

"It works metaphorically ... for helping the people who work here - young adults and adults with disabilities," said Freída Hecht, whose business' name is Crumb Together Bakery.

The store at 40 King St. opened in 2018 as an outgrowth of Circle of Friends, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that Hecht started 15 years ago, again with an eye toward helping those with disabilities navigate through what can be difficult waters when it comes to socialization and building self-esteem.

"I'm the mother of 11 children," Hecht, who serves as Circle's and Crumb Together's director, said. "Playdates and birthday parties were no big deal. But I was talking one day with a woman who said her daughter, who had special needs, had never been invited to a birthday party or been to a playdate."

Suggesting to an acquaintance that her daughter get together with the girl in question, Hecht said she was surprised when a friendship sprouted. "The rest is history," she laughed, noting that parents of other children with special needs began asking her to set up playdates and teenagers began volunteering to work with those children. Nine months later. Circle of Friends was born.

Hecht's can-do attitude is partly due to her standing in the community. Her husband, Yehoshua Hecht, is senior rabbi at Beth Israel Chabad of Westport/ Norwalk as well as spiritual adviser for Circle of Friends, which like Crumb Together is located within the Orthodox synagogue. Nevertheless, she noted, both endeavors operate on a non-sectarian basis.

When warming to her subject, she also reels off sobering statistics: 75% of adults with disabilities are unemployed, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, and 28.4% of them live below the poverty line, per a Cornell University study.

Circle of Friends offers a range of activities and surveys its participants each year on which are particularly enjoyable. Cooking and baking routinely finish at the top, she said, leading to the establishment of Crumb Together.

"Baking has so many parts to it," she said. "In addition to making the cookies and bread, there's sales, marketing, packaging and so on. Not everyone here can bake, but they can get involved in the other aspects of being a part of a business.

"People with special needs can feel so isolated. But everyone needs a friend. Friendship is a part of the human condition. Everybody was created in God's image and has a Godly soul, and everyone deserves to have a purpose and mission on Earth."

Employees at the shop - currently 14 young adults

- are trained by executive pastry chef Michelle Klem and job coach Rachel Carusone, with the hope that a future working as a baker can be secured. Hecht noted that eight of its bakers recently received certificates from the U.S. National Restaurant Association's ServSafe food and beverage training course.

While growth was slow in its first year, Crumb Together began picking up momentum in 2019, Hecht said.

"A lot of it has been word of mouth," she said, "but we've also had some success in going out to the smaller stores and saying. Hey, would you like to sell our cookies?' "

While Norwalk's Harbor Harvest sells the bakery's wares, on a regular basis, other stores have taken a more cautious approach.

"It's still better than dealing with bigger stores, which involve getting corporate permission," she noted. "Hopefully they'll keep coming back for more."

In addition to local pickup and delivery, Crumb Together is also growing its online sales at ctbakery.org, Hecht said.

"We shipped 200 cookie tins all over the country during the holidays," she said. "That was a beautiful feeling."

Cookies range from $1.25 to $7 - snickerdoodles and chocolate crinkle cookies are especially popular - with rugelach priced at $9, blueberry muffins with Streusel topping going for $3.50 and challah for $8.

Hecht said she's had inquiries from around the country about how to reproduce Crumb Together's business model and mission.

"It took some time for us to figure out what we're doing," she laughed. "But maybe by the end of 2020 we'll have a guidebook available to make this a replicable program."

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