Fresh Bread, fresh start

Updated: 2013-04-14 08:02

By Cang Wei and Song Wenwei (China Daily)

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 Fresh Bread, fresh start

Bakers in the Amity Bakery learn customer service skills. Provided to China Daily

Amity Bakery has a noble intention - to train those who are mentally challenged so that they can integrate into society and get a job. But they face an uphill task. Cang Wei and Song Wenwei visit their bakery in Nanjing to find out more about their challenges.

From the outside, Amity Bakery at 79 Huaqiao Road, Nanjing's Gulou district, looks and smells like any other bakeries. But once you talk to the staff members, you will notice the difference - about one-third of them are mentally challenged. Founded by Amity Foundation, a Chinese Christian NGO established in 1985, it is the first organization in China to provide a workshop and career training to mentally challenged people.

Besides the Huaqiao Road branch, the brand has two other branches - one at 45 Youfu West Street, and the other in the basement of a building at 16 Dajianyin Alley.

Through the windows of the bakery at Huaqiao Road, customers can observe the staff as they make the biscuits and bread.

The seven workers there are much slower than ordinary bakers. For example, they need to spend three minutes on packing the products, while ordinary people may finish the task in one minute.

They produce about 60 kilograms of biscuits or 5,000 loaves of bread a day on average.

All the ingredients used by the bakery are of high quality: milk imported from New Zealand, chocolate from Switzerland, and cheese from Italy.

No artificial flavoring is allowed. But, that also mean that the products are more expensive than at other bakeries.

Fu Ye, 33, is now serving customers at the Youfu West branch. Wearing a neat white uniform and a yellow hat, Fu introduces the various bread flavors available to every customer who walks in.

For children, he recommends bread stuffed with nuts, and jujube-flavored ones to women. Jujube is believed to enrich the blood and calm the nerves of women.

"If you come to the bakery more than two or three times, he will remember your preference and choose for you your favorite bread," says Xu Minghao, an ordinary staff member. "It's hard to believe that he has an IQ of a 10-year-old."

According to Xu, training mentally challenged workers requires lots of patience.

"To them, simple procedures, such as kneading a dough and dividing it into small pieces, are difficult. The teachers took a month to teach them how to wipe the tables."

"But it's not only the skills they learn at Amity Bakery that matters," Xu says. "The important thing is that they step out of their homes and integrate into the society."

Huang Wenhui, a girl who used to stare blankly into thin air all day and cried whenever strangers talk to her, can now communicate using simple words. She also knows how to put biscuits into plastic bags and put labels on the biscuit boxes.

The mentally challenged workers receive a salary of about 1,200 yuan ($193) a month. They work from 8 am to 4 pm from Monday to Friday.

"Together with the allowance from the local federation for physically or mentally challenged people, every month they take home about 1,700 yuan, a good supplement to their families' income," says Zhu Yanwei, general manager of Amity Bakery.

Zhang Liwei, one of the founders of Amity Bakery, is instrumental in introducing the concept of sheltered workshop in 2007. He was then the deputy secretary-general of Amity Foundation.

"In China, many families consider mentally challenged people as a shame. Some parents even said they didn't know what sins they have committed to deserve children with mental health problems," Zhang says.

During a visit to Germany in 2007, the workers from Amity Foundation experienced sheltered workshop for the first time. They learned that mentally challenged people could make products fit for used by companies such as BMW.

"We were so impressed that we decided to start our own sheltered workshop in China," says Zhang, who has always shared the worry with Chinese parents.

"The fact that their children have working abilities and can make money may help them to better face the reality and have confidence in the future," Zhang says.

With support from Amity Foundation, which aims to promote education, social services, health and rural development in the country, the bakery was established in 2007, as a base to teach skills and provide a real working environment for the mentally challenged people.

In 2009, Amity Bakery registered in the local commercial and industrial bureau, and started its journey as a social enterprise.

In 2010, the bakery started its online shop with the support of 30 college student volunteers.

Even though they worked hard, they could hardly make ends meet.

In 2011, the sales revenue of the bakery reached 1 million yuan. But after deducting expenses and taxes, the bakery still had a deficit of more than 10,000 yuan.

To expand its influence and increase sales, the bakery opened its first store in Huaqiao Road in 2012.

The bakery adopted a commercial model. A general manager is in charge of the daily operation while an executive director is responsible for charity work. The income earned would be used not only to cover expenses and taxes, but also to increase the training funds for new workers.

But on the first day of operation, the bakery only earned about 3,000 yuan, half the anticipated revenue.

"We cannot compete with other bakeries in techniques, output and packaging," says co-founder Zhang. "And compared with other brands, the salary we offer is not competitive, thus the turnover of the bakers is high."

In Nanjing, a good baker earns at least 7,000 yuan a month, according to general manager Zhu.

The bakery also faces challenges other bakeries do not have.

"Amity Bakery cannot provide products with new flavors frequently, nor can it use advanced machines to improve efficiency," Zhu says.

"The mentally challenged people, even after receiving training, are still unable to see through the whole process of making bread. They can only do simple things and do them much slower than ordinary people."

To strike a balance between commerce and charity is Zhu's priority.

Zhou Hongwei, director of the bakery's sales and marketing department, raises another issue.

"Some people still cannot accept the food produced by mentally challenged people. With so many difficulties and the high tax rate, we don't know how far the bakery can go as a social enterprise," Zhou says.

The initial purpose of establishing the bakery - to enable mentally challenged people to work for other companies after they master enough skills - has also failed.

Fu, who has acquired relatively good baking skills, has not been accepted by any other companies or institutions.

"Chinese laws have provisions for companies and government-affiliated institutions to hire mentally challenged people, but few comply with it," says Zhang.

"They are afraid that hiring mentally challenged people may cause accidents. Some companies even choose to pay these workers but ask them to stay at home.

"Many people still discriminate against them. The purpose of the Amity Bakery project is to let the mentally challenged people live their potential, and let the public know about their capabilities."

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(China Daily 04/14/2013 page3)