A new North Idaho bakery offers "uniquely abled" employees the opportunity to excel

click to enlarge A new North Idaho bakery offers "uniquely abled" employees the opportunity to excel
Alyssa Hughes photo
The Village Bakery owner Dana Bellefeuille helps her employee Nikki decorate a chocolate cake.

The Village Bakery doesn't look like much from the outside. Only the bakery's logo — two people high-fiving, one of them in a wheelchair — suggests the business might be unusual, which it most definitely is.

When the Village Bakery opened on New Year's Day, it offered all the kinds of things you might expect: a rotating variety of cupcakes ($3), macarons ($2.50), cinnamon rolls ($4), and cake pops ($2.50). Hungry for something savory? Try a ham and cheese croissant ($4) or baked mac-and-cheese ($6.95).

But the Village Bakery also offered something more: opportunity, kindness, and above all, acceptance.

"When you walk in here, the feeling of happiness just exudes from the building," says Janet Waterdown, one of a growing network of volunteers vital to supporting the Village Bakery's unique mission of providing on-the-job training for special needs populations.

Janet decided to volunteer at the bakery after her adult daughter, Abbey, got a job there and needed transportation.

Abbey has always loved being in the kitchen, Janet explains. But doing anything substantive with her passion? That's been a challenge for Abbey, who's one of an estimated 41 million adult Americans with a recognized disability, according to 2019 census data (the CDC puts the number closer to 60 million, or one in four adults).

"I just never really found somewhere that I felt was a good fit for her," Janet says.

That changed last fall when Abbey reached out to the Village Bakery's founder, Dana Bellefeuille, whose past baking experience includes working at the Coeur d'Alene Resort and Bardenay Restaurant and Distillery.

"Abbey," Bellefeuille calls out to the kitchen from the sunlit dining area. It's near closing time on a Tuesday, and Abbey is behind the counter cleaning up her station. "What color is the cutting board for vegetables?" Bellefeuille asks her.

"Green," Abbey answers, without hesitation. And white for pastry, yellow for chicken. As Bellefeuille peppers her with questions about food safety, Abbey nails every response.

Abbey's mother smiles, her eyes glistening. "Everyone has noticed such a change in her," Janet says.

If and when Abbey wants to take the test to receive a food handler's license, which is not required for kitchen staff in Idaho, Bellefeuille will pay for it.

"Test taking is hard," says Bellefeuille, who struggled with dyslexia growing up, yet parlayed a lifelong interest in baking into a successful career.

Since 2004, Bellefeuille has made a name for herself as a custom cake designer, sought-after pastry chef and accomplished culinary instructor. She judged cakes for the Washington State Fair in Puyallup, owned and co-owned several businesses, and most recently was a pastry chef for Chomper Café and Belle's Brunch House.

In 2018, however, Bellefeuille set her sights on something bigger: the Village Bakery.

In her business plan, Bellefeuille defines the bakery's mission as "a resource in the community," including emphasizing the teaching of front- and back-of-the-house skills, and finding "where each person thrives," building on their strengths.

Bellefeuille also drew on her children's experiences to inform the model for the Village Bakery. Because both of her now-adult children had disabilities — she uses the term "uniquely abled" — Bellefeuille knew that entering the traditional working world would be challenging for them, but also that help was available.

When her son was in high school, he received job skills mentoring through Project Search. The Coeur d'Alene School District internship program was created in collaboration with the Idaho Division of Vocational Rehabilitation and TESH, a private nonprofit supporting childhood development, independent living and employment for people of all ages with disabilities.

As good as her son's program was, says Bellefeuille, businesses willing to work with special needs students were limited. The Village Bakery, she realized, could help interested young adults gain that all-important entry into the food industry.

So Bellefeuille began teaching individuals and small groups with unique learning challenges out of her North Idaho home. She discovered she was good at teaching.

"I don't know how it happened that I was given the gift of calmness... being able to teach and not stress out over little things," she says.

Bellefeuille continued planning the Village Bakery with the goal of finding a permanent space. After a few false starts, she lucked out in July 2021 with its Hayden location.

Even before the bakery opened, like a scene from the movie Field of Dreams, people showed up to participate. Donations included a commercial oven, washer and dryer, and labor to install tile and flooring.

One local man showed up with bread baking skills, while a woman who played wheelchair basketball with Bellefeuille's daughter came by to make cookies and then offered to create soups and help run the kitchen. Local chef Patricia Hebert-Jenks donates her time to make quiches ($7.95).

Bellefeuille's vision has always included students, whom she calls bakers-in-training, but also others — the proverbial village — meaning students' families, plus volunteers, businesses and whoever else is interested in being involved.

"We're all learning together to find out what brings [everyone] the most joy," Bellefeuille says.

The bakery's menu will continue to evolve according to the interests and abilities of her nearly 40 employees, says Bellefeuille, who doesn't yet take a paycheck.

"We all give and that's really what Village Bakery is about." ♦

The Village Bakery • 190 W. Hayden Ave., Hayden • Open Tue-Sat 8 am-4 pm; Sun 10 am-2 pm • thevillagebakerycda.com • 208-446-4860


INCLUSIVITY IN ACTION

The Arc of Spokane is one of more than 600 state-based chapters of the national nonprofit, which "promotes and protects the human rights of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and actively supports their full inclusion and participation in the community throughout their lifetimes."

Matching individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities to the right job is one of many services provided by The Arc's supported employment team. Services include assisting with filling out job applications and the interview process, as well as post-employment coaching to ensure individuals' continued success.

Currently, The Arc of Spokane has 14 clients in the food service industry, including several fast food places, Sodexo and numerous grocery stores. Visit arc-spokane.org for information.

— CARRIE SCOZZARO

Riverfront Eats @ Riverfront Park

Tuesdays, 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Continues through Aug. 20
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Carrie Scozzaro

Carrie Scozzaro spent nearly half of her career serving public education in various roles, and the other half in creative work: visual art, marketing communications, graphic design, and freelance writing, including for publications throughout Idaho, Washington, and Montana.