The little bakery that could is making a comeback.
When Haley House Bakery Cafe in Roxbury, a bustling eatery and beloved community gathering place, closed its doors in January, its executive director vowed it wasn’t goodbye. It was a timeout to figure out how to make the grand social experiment in Dudley Square financially sustainable. Since its opening in 2005, it never broke even.
Now the cafe, known for providing job training for former prisoners and hosting community discussions, poetry slams, live music, and community dinners, is planning to reopen in mid-December. It will feature a new menu with an international flair (and some reimagined old favorites). More on that in a minute.
But pivotal to its sustainability, says Bing Broderick, the cafe’s executive director, is its new open-book approach.
The restaurant’s financial information is being shared with workers, everyone from the cashier to the dishwasher, and each is being trained to be an efficiency expert. They’ll learn how seemingly little things, such as food waste or showing up late for work, affect the entire operation. Employees will have a say in menu pricing and taste-testing new dishes.
“It’s very empowering if everyone understands how they can help the success of the business and lead to a better organization overall,” Broderick said.
The place will also have a new look, with brick walls white washed to brighten things up. The front cashier space will be shrunk to half its former size, and all food assembly will be moved to the kitchen to free up more space for its legendary live performances, as well as for private events, such as wedding receptions and corporate meetings that Broderick hopes will help them bridge the financial gap.
And about that new menu. Broderick and new general manager Misha Thomas said the meals will be bowl-based, with customers choosing a base of grits, home fries, mixed salad greens, or rice, with a pick of protein options — including vegetarian offerings — and a sauce topping. The new recipes will reflect the culturally diverse Dudley Square area, including the bakery’s workers, with African- and Caribbean-influenced sauces and spices.
“Eating out of a bowl is very indicative of home, curling up on the couch and eating out of a bowl,” Thomas said.
The process of redesigning the menu has featured some fascinating in-house discussions among the bakery’s international staff, Thomas said.
“It’s been cool to get their thoughts,” she said. “Everyone has an idea of how spicy things are supposed to be.”
Added Broderick, “And how hot is OK.”
But bakery faithful fear not. The menu will also feature some “Haley hitters,” old favorites from years past, including “The Firecracker,” a spicy breakfast wrap, re-created in a bowl format.
One thing that will not be changing is Haley House’s social mission.
Founded in 1966 as a provider of food and shelter for the homeless in the South End, Haley House, the bakery’s nonprofit parent company, uses food and community ties to provide job training and help revitalize neighborhoods.
Its original soup kitchen expanded to include a weekly food pantry and later a community meal program at the Dudley Square site. The meal and training programs went on hiatus after the bakery closed last winter, but Broderick said they will be bringing them back.
Also returning will be cultural events in the evening, from jazz and history to poetry and movies, all offering a beacon in a community that has weathered some tough times and frustrating one-step-forward-two-steps-back revitalization efforts.
“The arts and cultural programming at the cafe was very much its identity and community ownership, too,” Broderick said.
The cafe plans a soft launch the weekend of Dec. 13, Friday through Sunday, with the official reopening in January.