When Shirley Ruch takes on a new client, she’s in it for the long haul.
Ruch, a speech and language pathologist with a private practice in Sag Harbor, specializes in working with children with autism. When they turn 21 and age out of high school, their parents are often faced with a big problem — finding meaningful employment for them.
It’s an issue Ruch said would come up again and again, but there was no easy solution. The occasional store or business here and there would make arrangements to hire perhaps one employee with autism or special needs, but it wasn’t nearly enough to fill the demand.
“They did not have opportunities for work, and I heard parents being frustrated, asking, ‘what are they going to do all day?’” Ruch said in an interview in October.
In 2016, she decided to do something about it.
Ruch founded the South Fork Bakery that year, starting small with just six employees and a professional baker who worked making various baked goods out of the kitchen at the Hayground School. Just a few years later, South Fork Bakery has earned nonprofit status, and currently employs 12 workers with autism, as well as a professional baker and special education teacher, operating out of Scoville Hall in Amagansett. While Ruch does not have formal training in baking, she said she has long loved to bake at home, describing it as therapeutic, and even has a kitchenette at her office.
Workers at the bakery were enjoying a short break in mid October before getting ready to gear up for the busy holiday season, when they will be hard at work making gingerbread cookies, pies and other holiday-themed treats, which will be sold in many stores as well as at fairs and festivals throughout the area. The employees are a diverse group, ranging in age and coming from all over the East End, including one man who takes a long commute by bus from his home in East Moriches to work in the bakery. They do their baking on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays at Scoville Hall, for roughly four or five hours each day, and make deliveries to vendors and stores on Thursdays and Friday, while also attending any festivals and fairs on the weekend.
Ruch is humble but proud of what the bakery has meant for the community and says its importance in creating a good quality of life for adults with autism cannot be overstated. She has a waiting list of potential employees who want to work at the bakery, which illustrates just how necessary it was to create a business dedicated to hiring workers with special needs.
“It has changed people’s lives, there’s no question,” she said. “I say that as a humble person, but I’m not afraid to say it because I see it. It’s created meaning and purpose in their lives and provided socialization. And they can take pride in their work. Without a job, they don’t have the opportunity to experience those things, and they need those same opportunities to experience that as we do.”
Ruch also pointed out that hiring people with autism is good for the general health of a community, not just for the individual workers and their families.
“My employees are all paid, so they are tax paying citizens,” she said. “They contribute to the economy through their taxes and by spending their paychecks. We’re paying for programs and services for adults with disabilities one way or another, so why not give them a job and have them contribute back? They can be giving back too, and they’re proud to be able to do that and say they’re contributing to their local communities.”
At this time of year, those workers are contributing some of the most coveted items of the season. South Fork Bakery makes a variety of holiday-themed goodies, from peppermint brownies and gingerbread and sugar cookies to peppermint bark. They use many of those items in holiday gift baskets that range from $20 to more than $100 in price, and also include hats and tee-shirts with the bakery name and logo. The baskets can be shipped anywhere in the U.S. or can be delivered by the bakery. The workers are hands on in every sense of the business operations, from decorating cookies to gift wrapping the baskets and delivering them.
The bakery began making pies for the first time this year, offering several flavors, including pecan pumpkin, apple crumb, and chocolate cream.
South Fork Bakery items are sold in more than 40 stores across the East End, but Ruch said some of her biggest and longest supporters have been Hampton Coffee Company and Goldberg’s Bagels, which both have several locations in the area, as well as Schiavoni’s IGA in Sag Harbor.
Earning nonprofit status was a huge boost for the bakery, and Ruch said it will help her expand the business, which she wants to do mainly so she can hire more of the people who are currently waiting and hoping to be employed at the bakery.
“In the long term, we want to expand and maybe open another satellite location or a small retail store with the bakery in the back, where the employees could be more front and center in the community,” she said, while acknowledging the challenges that come with trying to find and afford retail space. “The main thing we need to do is make the bakery sustainable, and this is the first year, really, that we’re doing that with the help of the community.”
The bakery still has a GoFundMe webpage, and has currently raised around $31,000 of a stated goal of $40,000. Ruch said she and her colleagues are also in the process of applying for grants, and are hoping to put money toward a bigger marketing and promotion push, to make more people aware of the specific and important mission of South Fork Bakery, so customers who find the products in the stores understand it’s not just another baked goods company in the Hamptons.
“People see our cookies in stores, but they don’t always know about the mission behind them,” she said.
South Fork Bakery Gingerbread Cookie Recipe
1 cup butter
1 cup brown sugar
¾ cup molasses
5 cups flour
1 tsp. salt
1 ½ tsp. baking powder
2 tsp. ginger
1 ½ tsp. cinnamon
1 ½ tsp. clove
½ tsp. nutmeg
In a large bowl, cream the butter, sugar and molasses together; then beat in the egg.
In a separate bowl, stir all the remaining ingredients together with a fork until well blended; then beat this mixture into the butter-sugar mixture. Shape the dough into a ball, wrap it tightly in aluminum foil or plastic wrap, and chill until firm, about 3 hours.
Preheat the oven to 350 F. Grease baking sheets or cover the sheets with parchment paper. Divide the dough into two parts. Return one half to the refrigerator and roll the other out on a floured surface to a thickness of a little less than ¾ inch. Cut out the cookies with a gingerbread man cookie cutter.
Using a wide, flat spatula, transfer the cookies to the baking sheets and bake until the edges of the cookies are lightly browned, 10 to 12 minutes.
Repeat steps with the other half of the dough.
When cool decorate the cookies with frosting.