National News

Growth moves Special Kneads and Treats to larger, promising location

Posted August 8, 2017 12:40 p.m. EDT

— Lawrenceville's nonprofit bakery known for hiring special needs adults has officially moved out of its location on the square - and that's a good sign.

Special Kneads and Treats started out at 132 E. Crogan St. when the Kohlers bought the former Sweets on the Square in 2014. This week, the bakery began operating out of a bigger and better equipped location off the square at 156 Scenic Highway.

"We signed a lease in our previous location for three years," said Michael Kohler, who owns Special Kneads with his wife, Tempa. "But we very quickly outgrew it."

When Special Kneads first opened on the square, the operation was small. A handful of special-needs adults volunteered in the bakery, including the Kohlers' son, Bradley, who suffers from a genetic chromosome disorder that can cause mild to severe mental impairment.

Besides that, the couple had only one full-time employee. They hired Austin Kulp, a former Sweets on the Square employee who still works for the Kohlers. He said Tempa worked anywhere from 80 to 100 hours a week when the bakery first opened and that Michael came by before and after his 40-hour-a-week job to help open and close up.

"There would be days where it was like, well you know, Tempa's got to go on the grocery run so I'll run the store by myself - answer the phones, make the cupcakes, help the customers," Kulp said.

At that point, the bakery was also still trying to figure out how to implement its outreach goal. Special Kneads sells cakes and other sweet treats to the public through its store, but that's not its real mission. It also gives away birthday cakes through nonprofits and food co-ops to families who wouldn't normally be able to afford one.

Back in 2014, when they were still new, the Kohlers needed to search for opportunities to give their treats away. As a result, they had an appropriate amount of baking to fit in their 300-square-foot kitchen.

Kohler said that changed quickly.

"Our core mission started with the birthday cakes," he said. "But that kind of mushroomed."

Today, Special Kneads partners with upward of 15 food co-ops and numerous Gwinnett nonprofits. They bake birthday cakes for kids celebrating their birthdays in Division of Family and Children Services care. They donate cupcakes for people graduating from the Rainbow Village program. And they provide the sweet treats pro-bono for any number of special needs proms, parties and functions.

Recently, Kohler said the shop has been going through an average of 15 to 20 of their 9-inch-by-13-inch birthday cakes a week. Cupcakes have been disappearing at the rate of 1,500 to 2,000 a month.

"That is a pretty conservative number," he said. "There's weeks where we might blow through 4,000 cupcakes. That's not only for the storefront but also for the programs that we do."

Less than two years into their three-year lease, the Kohlers realized their 300-square-foot kitchen just wasn't cutting it.

"In order for us to do more, we just needed a bigger kitchen," Kohler said. "We needed more capacity in order for us to produce more and do more with what our core mission is."

Their new Scenic Highway location features a 2,600-square-foot kitchen. Not only can the new kitchen handle more baking, it can also handle more bakers.

"There's room to move our arms, now," said Courtney Southerland as she put the finishing touches on pineapple-upside down cupcakes on Thursday, the bakery's second day in the new kitchen. Southerland and her younger brother have worked as paid employees at Special Kneads for the past two years.

Special Kneads now employs 16 special-needs adults, like Southerland, who are paid minimum wage. A handful of others volunteer. And even more want a chance to work at the bakery. Kohler said Special Kneads has a waiting list of 160 names.

Some of those wait-listed adults and current employees are bound to wheelchairs or walkers. The new Special Kneads kitchen facilitates those disabilities in a way the old kitchen couldn't. Silver work tables in the new kitchen can be lowered to wheelchair height with a hand crank.

The bigger, better-equipped kitchen doesn't necessarily mean Special Kneads will be able to hire more paid employees from the waiting list. Kohler said that requires more funding. But it does mean the Kohlers can bring on some wait-listed adults as volunteers.

"We're hoping to bring in a minimum of 20 to 30 off that list," Kohler said.

Kohler said for these adults, the chance to work, even without a paycheck, could be life-changing.

"When they're working here, they're not sitting on the couch at home," he said. "They want to be a part of something. They want to feel a sense of need, they want to feel a sense of pride."

Kulpe said he's watched as special-needs adults who came in as volunteers over the years found talents that made them invaluable members of the team - something they'd never had a chance to feel before. He pointed to Eric Sweet, an assistant baker, as an example. Sweet sometimes talks a little slowly and his mind works differently than most.

But Sweet understands and remembers numbers in a way "that is astonishing," Kulpe said.

"You'll be like, 'Oh, shoot, I forgot to write down how many cupcakes we baked,'" he said. "And (Sweet will) be like, 'Oh, today, we baked 112 vanilla cupcakes, but on Tuesday, we baked only 60 vanilla cupcakes.'"

In society, Kulpe is considered "disabled," but at Special Kneads, he's a valuable member of a team working to make a real difference in his community.

Kohler said Special Kneads' move to a bigger space will help create a sense of purpose for people like Sweet - and more treats for people in need of something a little sweet. But the bakery isn't done expanding. Kohler said he'd eventually like to have a main distribution center manned by employees with all levels of disabilities. The distribution center of his dreams would feed store fronts all over Gwinnett, which would employ special-needs adults with higher levels of ability

He said Special Kneads' growth over the coming years will be fed by one simple question.

"How much can we do," Kohler said. "And how many people can we help to just spread the love?"