RABBI MARC FITZERMAN TALKS ABOUT
THE ALTAMONT BAKERY...
Q: How did you get interested in mental health?
Many of our members are on the front lines in Tulsa. Gail Lapidus is the Director of Family and Children Services. Mimi Tarrasch leads Women in Recovery, and Steven Dow is the Director of Community Action Project Tulsa. Our members are therapists, planners, and social workers, and there are a number of family foundations that are deeply engaged in this area. All of these people have been inspirational to us, and mental health issues are always in play at the Synagogue. It helps that my wife, Alice Blue, is an advocate who has worked in social policy making and planning for decades.
Q. Have you tackled a project like the bakery before?
We've actually been active at the Altamont Apartments, a Mental Health Association facility, for years. Our first project was a partnership with Metropolitan Baptist Church where we refurbished apartments for formerly homeless residents. Maxine Zarrow called to ask if I knew Bob Althoff, the director of the Housing Faith Alliance, and now the clinical consultant for the Bakery. The next thing I knew we were hauling furniture.
Q. How did that project turn out?
The results were mixed. We did some good work, but there wasn't a consistent way to structure contact with residents. We also needed a project with a predictable schedule so that we could recruit volunteers for regular responsibility. We were renovating apartments whenever they became vacant. The work was great, but it didn't suit itself to volunteers.
Q. How did you decide on a bakery?
I tried to figure out what we could do well. It seemed to me that we had real skills in the kitchen and that we were good at solving practical problems. In addition, we had the right set of resources: a million sheet pans and an institutional kitchen the size of Grand Lake. We actually have two kitchens, meat and dairy, but the dairy kitchen was built with volunteers in mind. I figured that we could work side by side with Altamont residents, and pick up experience along the way.
Q. Where did you start?
I'm a big believer in plunging in, getting down in the dough as soon as possible. I put a few founding principles down on paper and started talking to everyone I knew. The result was a kind of crazy enthusiasm. A small group came together to test drive recipes. My cookie was rejected, but I tried not to take it personally. We eventually went with a cookie by Nancy Cohen that baked up beautifully, tasted great, and could be made by people with a beginner's skill set. I still believe in my original cookie, but people are beginning to lose patience with my whining.
Q. Start-ups always hit a first big roadblock. What was yours?
Ovens. We started out with our existing ovens, which weren't up to the challenge of consistent baking. They were old and finicky and unreliable. And it took forever to do a full run. I shared all of this at a dinner with someone who decided then and there to be a benefactor. We now own the greatest oven on Planet Earth, with another just like it on the way.
Q. What are you baking now?
We gave ourselves a year to get chocolate chippers right, and that signature cookie is a sweet little masterpiece. No false modesty from The Altamont Bakery! Since then, we've added Oatmeal Raisin Jumbles and Sugartops. We're now embarking on another run of tests, including shortbread and chocolate crinkles. I'm a big fan of shortbread, but Nancy Cohen is resisting. I hope that anyone who reads this will take my case to Nancy.
Q. Tell us about Nancy Cohen's role in the bakery?
God sent Nancy to be the presiding genius of the Altamont Bakery. She's a gifted baker, a master of production management, and a person of abundant and overflowing kindness. The Altamont bakers love her and we revere her at the Synagogue. I try to bake every week at her side because I love the atmosphere she creates in our kitchen. She's where quality control meets unconditional love. Along with everyone else, I believe that she is central to the Altamont blessing.
Q. What's your favorite part of the project?
All of us would say it's our relationship with the residents. Three of them have been with us from the beginning and collectively constitute a great team of bakers. All of them would call themselves mentally ill. All have been through years of homelessness. Their daily struggle make my problems look piddling, and I learn from their courage and perseverance. And their conversations in the kitchen go deep very quickly. They tell stories about prison, abuse, and addiction, and it challenges me and others to attain their level of honesty. Nothing is hidden. It's all real and significant. I hope that these words don't sound like mental health boilerplate, but being with these people has been transformational.
My other favorite part of the project is rolling the dough for Sugartops in a big bowl of coarse sugar. There's just something about that move that really rings all of my bells. Scooping? Not so much.
Q. Apart from you, has the project changed the Synagogue?
We bake fifteen hundred cookies or more every Tuesday. On Wednesday mornings, another group comes in to bag, label and seal each cookie for delivery. It's fourteen to sixteen Synagogue men and women each week who are now an inter-generational tribe of volunteers, totally committed to the project and its purpose. My 89-year old mother, Ethel, used to bag cookies for three hours at a crack and thought of this as one of the highlights of her week. And she gained a dozen new friends who bagged and sealed along with her.
Q. Tell us about the business end of the project.
The Synagogue underwrites the use of the facilities. I raise funds, myself, for major purchases. We currently sell thousands of cookies each month, which is enough to cover our raw ingredients and packaging. All the rest of the income goes to the Mental Health Association residents, who clear at least $10 an hour for their work. As you can imagine that goes a very long way when it comes to encouraging pride and self-esteem. The more cookies we sell, the more hours of employment. The equation is that simple, which is why we are so eager for customers. We are baking our way to a better world, but we need to sell thousands of cookies to get there.
Q. Tell us about your sales program. We're feeling tempted!
Our cookies are $18 a dozen and they are delivered each week wherever you want them. You can sell them in a counter basket or give them away. We provide all the baskets and sales material, and we recommend a sales price of $2 apiece. The cookies contain absolutely no funky chemicals or preservatives, and they have a shelf life of seven days. We like to deliver a minimum of four dozen, but we're also working with small retailers and smaller quantities.
We've just started a cookie appreciation program for businesses and institutions that want to treat clients, customers, and members each month. The minimum order here is 10 dozen cookies. For $180 you can treat a whole office to a once-monthly indulgence that will likely exceed expectations. We think the program would be great for Sunday mornings at church, or Friday giveaways as employees exit for the weekend. Every cookie sold helps an Altamont baker toward health and independence.
Q. It sounds like you're in love with the Altamont Bakery.
We've done many good things at our Synagogue, but nothing like this. Imagine standing in a beautiful kitchen, baking beautiful cookies to help other people, and those people are baking those cookies with you. It's about independence and self-worth and second chances. Jews would say that the Altamont is a mitzvah, a deed that captures some of God's own love. At the end of a baking night my heart is full. I feel that the Altamont is a redemptive act, a way of achieving holiness in the here-and-now.