How You’re Saving the World by Eating Ben & Jerry's (Really)

·Editor
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Photo: Ben & Jerry’s

In all likelihood, you’ve probably tasted Greyston Bakery brownies before. That is, if you’ve ever dug into Ben & Jerry’s flavors such as Chocolate Fudge Brownie, Half Baked, or the ice cream juggernaut’s latest limited-time offering, Peanut Butter Half Baked. Those fudge-y chunks of brownie that lurk inside all three, like buried treasure, are all made by a single bakery tucked away in a rough corner of Yonkers, New York.

There, nearly all the workers are hard-to-employ adults—people who were previously incarcerated, addicted to drugs or alcohol, homeless, or faced other issues that made them seemingly unemployable. In other words, Greyston Bakery hires the people that no one else will. But not only that—it also offers subsidized housing and childcare to its employees, maintains community gardens and nutrition education classes, and offers free job training programs to the community’s needy.

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A worker stirs brownie batter at Greyston Bakery. Photo: Greyston Bakery/Facebook

"Right now, we’ve got about 85 employees at the bakery," Greyston Bakery account manager Sunitha Malieckal told us, adding that "our slogan is brownies plus cookies equals jobs." Since the bakery’s founding in 1982, the total number of individuals helped by the organization is "in the thousands, over the years."

But how did such a bakery come to be? And how did their brownies end up in some of Ben & Jerry’s most iconic flavors?

The story is an odd one. In the early 1960s, a Jewish-born aerospace engineer named Bernie Glassman began studying Zen Buddhism. In the decades that followed, Glassman became a Buddhist monk, co-founded the Zen Center of Los Angeles (which went on to play an influential role in the growth of Buddhism’s popularity in the United States), and, finally, laid the foundation for Greyston Bakery and its idealistic mission.

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A Greyston Bakery employee poses with freshly baked cookies. Photo: Greyston Bakery/Facebook

For a few years, the operation puttered along, producing a modest number of cakes, pies, and brownies. But in 1989, everything changed: Glassman met Ben & Jerry’s co-founder Ben Cohen at a conference—the event’s subject has been lost to history—and the two men, inspired by their common values, resolved to work together. Glassman would supply the key ingredient for what would prove one of Ben & Jerry’s most enduring flavors, Chocolate Fudge Brownie. But things got off to a rocky start.

"Greyston was this little bakery, and all of a sudden we were phoning in and saying that we needed 10,000 pounds of brownies tomorrow," said Ben & Jerry’s representative Sean Greenwood, whose official title at the company is "Grand Poobah of PR."

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Brownies are packaged on the Greyston assembly line. Photo: Greyston Bakery/Facebook

"There was a scale up that needed to happen on their side, for sure,” Greenwood said. "With that, of course, comes quality issues." In essence, Greyston had no idea how to bake brownies on such an enormous scale. Its first delivery to Ben & Jerry’s wound up melting in transit, arriving in the form of a 50-pound brownie.

"That took some time [to sort out,]" Greenwood admitted. "What we tried to do was support them." Thus began a nearly 26-year-long partnership that, beyond an explainer printed on the back of Chocolate Fudge Brownie cartons, has gone largely unnoticed. Ben & Jerry’s began sending its engineers, so-called “flavor gurus,” and other support staff to help with Greyston’s operations free of charge. The team helped rejigger Greyston’s brownie recipe to make it more suitable for Ben & Jerry’s ice cream (it’s now denser and moister) and scaled up its operations.

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A worker readies another batch of brownies. Photo: Greyston Bakery/Facebook

These days, Greenwood estimates that Ben & Jerry’s goes through up to 20,000 pounds of Greyston brownies a day, which translates to hundreds of thousands of brownies a year. Glassman is no longer affiliated with the bakery officially, but still drops by from time to time, dispensing Buddhist wisdom. Greyston makes a range of other cookie and brownie products, too, many of them sold at Whole Foods. And the bakery continues to employ whoever walks in from off the street, willing to work.

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Greyston’s 12-piece brownie gift box. Photo: Greyston Bakery

"I think one person who always stand out to me is Charles in the shipping department," Greyston’s Malieckal said, just before finishing our conversation.

"He’s from Yonkers, which many of our bakers are. He was in the streets when he was younger, spent some time in prison, and came out really wanting to do something different for his life. Then he came to Greyston bakery, and turned his life around. There are [unfair] conceptions about people like Charles—but what I find is that Greyston is like any other company. The only difference is yes, the employees may have spent time in prison. That’s what’s so powerful."

More stories about companies making a difference:

Growing Warriors, a group that turns veterans into farmers

Snowday, a French Canadian-styled food truck that employs previously incarcerated young people

Food Forward, a group that forages fruit for charity

Love Greyston Bakery’s story? You can order its brownies and other baked goods direct from its website.