Ruch Helps Build Confidence Through Baking

South Fork Bakery owner Shirley Ruch shows Robert Brodrick, one of her employees, how to drizzle chocolate on a coconut almond macaroon. Frank S. Costanza photo

Shirley Ruch’s day was off to a rough start.

Her baker, Jessica Taccone, had unexpectedly called in sick, and something accidentally triggered the fire alarm inside Amagansett’s Scoville Hall, its high-pitched droning echoing in the background.

Adding to the stress was the Tuesday after Memorial Day marked only the second time that they were making coconut almond macaroons — the newest of six cookies and brownies offered by Ms. Ruch’s business, South Fork Bakery — in the rented commercial kitchen of the community center off Meeting House Lane.

Though things had slowly begun to right themselves by Wednesday, May 30 — her longtime baker was still out sick — Ms. Ruch did exactly what one would expect from someone who is not only familiar with confronting challenges, but also comfortable with overcoming them.

She persevered.

In between pulling out trays of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies from the oven, and shortly after she used the internet to learn how to properly heat up the chocolate that would be drizzled over the 108 coconut almond macaroons being baked specifically for the Hampton Coffee Company, Ms. Ruch continued to teach and encourage her employees.

“We learn from our mistakes — it’s okay,” Ms. Ruch said as she provided a mixture of guidance and understanding to Robert Brodrick, 23, of East Hampton, after he had some difficulty drizzling warm chocolate over one particularly uncooperative coconut almond macaroon.

“Are you sure?” Mr. Brodrick replied with uncertainty, still bothered by the chocolate that nearly covered the top of one of the cookies.

His older brother and coworker, Geoffrey, who was helping with the chocolate dipping and drizzling, then explained that the bakery’s newest cookies require an extra delicate hand, noting that they had to be gently gripped on their sides to avoid crushing them. The problem, he added, is that the warm and gooey chocolate wants to “pull them in,” making the constant cleaning of his latex gloves essential to the process.

Unlike the operators of other businesses, Ms. Ruch, a longtime Sag Harbor resident and special education and speech therapy teacher, hires adults with developmental disabilities, autism and other disorders to help run her fledgling bakery. She explained that she launched her new business, using her own private funds, two years ago so she could offer employment to those who would normally not get an opportunity on the East End due to severely limited options.

She said she picked a bakery because it is a natural extension of her private practice, which she opened in her home before moving to an office off Noyac Road in Sag Harbor roughly 25 years ago, and specializes in assisting children with learning and developmental disabilities. Ms. Ruch explained that she always bakes with her younger students and special needs adults, noting that it teaches them the importance of following directions and relies heavily on repetition—another critical element of teaching those with development issues.

It was only after she launched her business in May 2016 that people shared that she had ventured in one of the more difficult fields to turn a steady profit. “I know, people are telling me it’s the hardest industry in which to make a buck,” said Ms. Ruch, who earned her master’s degree in communications from Ohio State University, where she also minored in special education.

Still, she said she does not regret her decision, observing that the jobs offered at her bakery allow her employees to build their confidence and self-esteem by interacting with other adults.  She also noted that securing non-profit status will allow her to seek grant money and sponsors; she hopes to hear back from the state on her 501-c application by either late June or early July.

“The goal right now is we just need to make it sustainable,” Ms. Ruch said.

For her efforts, Ms. Ruch was recently honored by State Senator Kenneth LaValle as one of the his district’s “Women of Distinction,” with a tip of the cap to her lifelong commitment to serving those with disabilities. In a release announcing her award, Mr. LaValle points to her decision to open South Fork Bakery as one that attempts to address a “critical need” in the area — the lack of employment opportunities for adults with development issues.

South Fork Bakery now employs roughly 15 individuals who, on an average week, make between 1,500 and 2,000 cookies and brownies from scratch, according to Ms. Ruch. She explained that the company now sells six varieties of cookies — chocolate chips, oatmeal raisin, gingersnaps, chocolate chunky brownies, blondies and the aforementioned coconut almond macaroons. While retailers set prices, the twin packs of cookies, and individual brownies and blondies, typically sell for $4 each, while the six-pack cookie sleeves usually retail for between $6.99 and $7.99 each.

They are available for purchase in more than 50 shops and small markets, most of which are located on the East End, though she hopes to see that number swell to at least 70 by the end of the year. “There’s a store in New York City that started carrying our line last year,” Ms. Ruch said, “and another one in Brooklyn that is considering it.”

Ms. Ruch explained that most of her employees work between six and eight hours a week, and earn $11 an hour,the state’s minimum wage. They are also immersed in all aspects of the business, with some focusing on the baking and decorating, while others are entrusted to oversee the packaging and cleaning.

Though he was assigned chocolate dipping and drizzling duty on May 30, Geoffrey Brodrick said he particularly enjoys making South Fork Bakery’s gingersnaps. In addition to gathering the required spices—ginger, cloves, cardamom and, of course, cinnamon—from the hall’s storage closet, the 29-year-old Sag Harbor resident also must pull out all of the required bread flour, white sugar, butter and white vinegar before mixing everything together in an oversized metal bowl.

“I end up doing a little bit of everything,” Mr. Brodrick said, later explaining that he held other jobs in the past, including a temporary position at Staples, though he didn’t particularly enjoy them.

“That was probably my one and only brush with retail,” he added, referring to his brief gig at the chain store, explaining that they only wanted him to restock the shelves with returns.

Doreen Green of Springs, a retired special education teacher who is also on the bakery’s payroll, was on hand to oversee the individual packaging and packing up of the holiday week’s cookie and brownie orders. She explained that several of the bakery’s employees — like Geoffrey Brodrick, who lives on his own and has a driver’s license — are “high-functioning” individuals, while others require more oversight and guidance.

Nick Economopoulos, one of his coworkers at South Fork Bakery, does not enjoy the same independence. He must take the bus from his home in Moriches to Amagansett every Tuesday and Wednesday to work his shifts. In addition to cleaning and moving tables, the 48-year-old places the cookies and brownies in individual sleeves, which typically hold either two or six sweet treats each.

In spite of his long commute, one that can push 90 minutes each way in the summer months, Mr. Economopoulos said he loves his job.

“Well, sometimes I … repeat myself and talk too much. I like to keep myself working and keep busy,” he said, noting that he enjoys the oatmeal raisin cookies the best though the new coconut almond macaroons are also quite tasty.

Earlier, he explained why he enjoys his job so much: “I like baking. I like cooking. I like cleaning up.”

Ms. Ruch said she would eventually like to have her own building for her bakery, even if it is a shared space with another organization that is looking to provide employment opportunities for those with disabilities. She said her employees would benefit greatly from interacting and communicating with others, including those who buy their cookies and brownies.

“These guys are very interesting people, and I think that people don’t know a lot about this population, and they tend to be shy about it,” Ms. Ruch said, the latter part referring to her workers. “What we don’t know we tend to ignore.”