A Conversation With Shirley Ruch

Shirley Ruch. Photo courtesy Ellen Hermanson Foundation

Shirley Ruch, the founder of South Fork Bakery, which provides job opportunities to adults with developmental disabilities and other special needs, will be honored this year at the Ellen Hermanson Foundation’s “Denim and Diamonds” event in recognition of her contributions to both the organization and to the community at large. Ms. Ruch opens up about her involvement with the foundation and the bakery.

What is it about the foundation that made you want to get involved with it in the first place?

I know there is a high incidence of breast cancer on the island, and I have friends who have had mastectomies or lumps removed, though thankfully no deaths among my friends. I also have had cancer incidences in my family. The Ellen Hermanson Foundation does a lot of hands-on work for women through the whole breast cancer process, from getting free mammograms to support while they’re getting chemotherapy, and I think it’s a wonderful support system. … They call and I’m very happy to contribute. I think it’s a wonderful thing they have done for the hospital.

How do you feel personally to be among the honorees this year at Denim and Diamonds?

I’m thrilled and I’m very surprised. I’m flattered and humbled by the people that I’m being honored with, Dr. Louis Avvento and Hampton Coffee Company. I know they do a lot in the community. The Ellen Hermanson Foundation is very supportive of what I’m doing and believes in the mission of the bakery. Part of the reason they are honoring me is because they feel this is a part of the community who are not really integrated into the community once they get past high school. There’s not really a place for them, especially in the employment realm, and they’re aware of that.

Take me back to the roots of South Fork Bakery.

The statistics out there on employment for adults with special needs are pretty grim. There are many adults who could work, who may need some extra support or some extra time in learning a skill, and often there is not that opportunity in a regular workplace. South Fork Bakery really gives them that opportunity to experience what it’s like learning a job, to have pride in what you do and have meaning in your life surrounding your work. Many would not have that opportunity otherwise. I guess one of the things that stands out for me is the bakery itself has created a community for people with special needs. It has been a wonderful social experience for them as well. Many are isolated and living with their parents. The community itself here has been so supportive of what they are doing. Most of the stores are willing to put a basket on the counter and give it a try. Our cookies are good so they sell themselves, but the community has really embraced this mission. That’s a wonderful thing and I’m very, very grateful for that.

Do you have any new or different plans ahead in 2018 at South Fork Bakery?

Our cookies will probably be the same, but we’re looking to move into some different markets, perhaps in New York City and the North Fork, and a little bit farther west of Riverhead. Also, a big change for us this year is we’re moving into nonprofit status. We were a for-profit business the last two years. This will afford us some grants to cover our expenses and perhaps buy us some new equipment. That will help us become more efficient and more sustainable.

To learn more about South Fork Bakery, visit southforkbakery.com. Denim and Diamonds, a benefit for the Ellen Hermanson Foundation’s programs and services at Stony Brook Southampton Hospital, is on Saturday, March 10, at 6:30 p.m. at 230 Elm Productions in Southampton. The event will feature comedian and Emmy Award winning producer Angela LaGreca. The dress code is casual. Tickets are $75 to $250 and can be purchased at ellenhermanson.org.