Sunflower Bakery started as a casual conversation between Laurie Wexler and Sara Portman Milner. Sparked by a sweet tooth and a passion for ensuring that people of all abilities have access to meaningful employment, Sara and Laurie envisioned the art of pastry and baking as a pathway to opportunities for people with learning differences.
Today, that vision is a reality.
In June 2008, a group of parents, professionals and activists concerned with the lack of skill-based training and employment for individuals with learning differences created Sunflower Bakery. Co-founders, Laurie Wexler, Sara Portman Milner and Dina Leener met with governmental and agency leaders and area service providers to better understand the shortage of opportunities. The need for an additional skilled, on-the-job training program in the Metro DC area was clear. In May 2009, Sunflower received 501(C)(3), non-profit status.
The organization began as a modest eight-month pilot program in donated kitchen space at Beth Sholom Congregation in Potomac, MD. A market study was undertaken by an MBA class at American University’s Kogod School of Business. The study confirmed the favorability of targeting the kosher market. Early on, Sunflower’s products were sold by phone and email orders. Once stakeholder interest in the program was established and success in training demonstrated, foundations and individual donors became increasingly interested in Sunflower Bakery’s mission.
In February 2010, the Sunflower Bakery moved into a 1200 square foot warehouse space at 8507 Ziggy Lane in Gaithersburg. An added incentive for the move was the lessee’s agreement to donate his heavy baking equipment to Sunflower Bakery as part of the deal. Sunflower received approval by the Maryland Division of Rehabilitation Services as a Community Rehabilitation Program in 2011 and began the Pastry Arts Program that same year.
Sunflower celebrated its first class of five graduates.
Cafe Sunflower opened in April 2015, at 6101 Executive Blvd. in North Bethesda as a collaboration of Sunflower Bakery along with the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and the Jewish Foundation for Group Homes. The Cafe was created to provide expanded employment training and employment opportunities to adults with learning differences in front-of-house operations and customer service.
In 2018, Sunflower located a 5668 square foot warehouse in Rockville, Maryland and spent the next two years raising $1.38 million for its Capital Campaign to build out the space. Funds raised included $450,000 from Montgomery County and a $75,000 Bond Bill from the State of Maryland along with wonderful support from foundations and individuals.
Sunflower moved into our new Sunflower Bakery Employee Training Center in January 2020 and opened Sunflower Bakeshop in March 2020 just before COVID hit the Metro DC area. The new site includes a large production kitchen, a dedicated training kitchen, classroom space, offices and a small retail bakeshop where Sunflower’s Pastry Arts students receive customer service training.
In June 2020, Sunflower moved the Cafe Employment Training Program to our new Employee Training Center and renamed it our Hospitality Employment Training Program. Sunflower also incorporated breadbaking into its Pastry Arts curriculum in the summer of 2020 and began selling challah and rolls. In February 2021, Sunflower started its shipping program with shipments of hamantaschen nationwide for the holiday of Purim.
Sunflower added Job Services including Job Development Preparation, Job Development and Job Coaching to our suite of services for Sunflower graduates. In January 2022, Sunflower receives the F. Michael Taff Award from the City of Rockville Human Rights Commission as part of Rockville’s celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy. This award recognizes an individual, organization, non-profit employer or business that has helped to improve the lives of people with disabilities in the City.
In May 2022, Sunflower graduates 26 students from our Pastry Arts and Hospitality Programs. Sunflower also passed the 500 mark, having served over 500 young adults and teens in its programs since 2010.