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Serving up Hope at Blue Sky Bakery

By Anthony Todd in Food on Nov 19, 2010 5:00PM

"More than learning how to bake, I want our youth to learn how to have a job," says Lisa Thompson, founder of Blue Sky Bakery. As Mayor Daley noted on Wednesday night, Chicago's chefs are wonderful citizens of the city. But rarely do we encounter an organization so perfectly positioned at the intersection of "serving great food" and "helping the world" as Thompson's Blue Sky Bakery. Blue Sky trains homeless and at-risk youth to become bakers, helps them learn to hold down a job, pays them a good wage and supports their education. The youth staff the bakery's retail establishment, work at farmers markets and get a real connection to the products that they create - and often go on to brighter futures.

Thompson's background is in non-profit work (Ed. Note: For more on Thompson's work with Blue Sky Inn and Bakery, please revisit my interview with her from 2008. - CS), but all of the recipes at the bakery are her own. She started baking at Kitchen Chicago and selling at farmers markets, and as the business grew, she moved into catering and retail. The job training program recruits from social service organizations all over the city, including the Center on Halsted and the Broadway Youth Center, and trains 15 young bakers a year. Each goes through a course of instruction on baking and service, and works 25 hours a week. They also get bonuses for staying in school and earning their GED. Lisa attributes much of their success to the hands-on nature of baking, since "teenagers don't want to sit and watch people do things - they want to get to work." This does lead to some higher costs - if a student accidentally creams salt in with the butter instead of sugar, it has to be thrown away - but Thompson believes that the results are worth the costs.

Let's talk about the food. Blue Sky offers a full range of pies, scones, cupcakes and quiches. Lisa rocked our culinary world by combining her amazing gingersnaps with homemade lemon curd, a combination we were skeptical about but can now wholeheartedly recommend. Everything in the bakery is made from scratch, and Lisa works with local purveyors as much as she can. Their regular presence at farmers markets gives them a great way to buy from local farms and producers.

Blue Sky is a perfect example of an organization that manages to do good and turn out great product at the same time. They don't expect any allowances to be made for their workers-in-training; products should be excellent enough to compete with any bakery in the city. In fact, Thompson argues that her youth provide a unique experience to customers, especially at farmers markets. "They know every step of the process, and want to talk about it," she says, so if you have any questions, be prepared for a thorough answer.

This weekend, Blue Sky Bakery is holding a special event - a pie tasting. As part of the run-up to Thanksgiving, customers can taste three different desserts: apple cranberry pie, chocolate pecan pie and pumpkin cheesecake with gingersnap crust. Samples of all three, including your choice of coffee, tea or hot cider, cost just $5. Visit this Saturday or Sunday from 11-5 to try them all - doing good has never been so delicious.

Blue Sky Bakery and Cafe is located at 3720 N. Lincoln Avenue.