Out of dough: BreadWorks shuts down from pandemic losses

Charles McElroy says he hopes the WorkSource program will be able to find new jobs for former BreadWorks employees. PC: Zack Wajsgras Charles McElroy says he hopes the WorkSource program will be able to find new jobs for former BreadWorks employees. PC: Zack Wajsgras

After nearly 30 years of serving up sunflower wheat bread, curry chicken salad sandwiches, and other local favorites, BreadWorks Bakery & Deli is shutting its doors this week.

Due to a huge drop off in sales, “it’s just not sustainable,” says Charles McElroy, president of nonprofit WorkSource Enterprises, which owns and operates the business.

Since opening in 1994, what’s brought customers to the Preston Avenue shop is not just its wide assortment of baked goods—seriously, you have to try the cookies—but the people behind the counter: Over half of its employees are disabled, and involved in every aspect of the business, from mixing dough to manning the cash register.

“For many people, customer service was our biggest attraction. Our retail staff knew a lot of customers by name,” says McElroy.

At BreadWorks, disabled adults built up a variety of crucial skills in a positive and uplifting environment, he says. After receiving hands-on training, they’d try different jobs, and pick the one they felt best suited them.

“The sense of being a part of a team, the accomplishment, the popularity of BreadWorks—they all make an enjoyable work experience for them,” says McElroy. “They stay many years on end.”

Longtime employee Raquel Terrell says she’s done a “little bit of everything” during her 15 years at BreadWorks. She eventually decided to work the front counter, where she felt the most at ease.

“I’m a shy person. …When I first started here, I felt comfortable being in a corner, looking out the window. But I met some nice friends that broke me out of that,” says Terrell, now 39. “[BreadWorks] was a place where I felt comfortable.”

When she learned that the shop was shutting down, Terrell was devastated. “I was really looking forward to staying here until my retirement.”

The decision to close was incredibly difficult, but after months of severe financial losses, it is necessary, explains McElroy.

As soon as the pandemic hit, BreadWorks lost a huge source of income: catering. Its once-popular sandwich platters and breakfast spreads were no longer in demand, thanks to massive closures and event cancellations.

The shop stayed open for curbside pickup, but a decline in sales forced it to shut down in mid-April. (WorkSource ensured that all of its employees still received their regular paychecks and benefits.)

Since BreadWorks reopened for take-out in June, foot traffic and catering orders have not picked up.

McElroy hopes the shop will be able to open again someday, perhaps in a different location. But with no end to the pandemic in sight, he remains unsure when that could happen.

“We’ll keep our eyes open…but at this point, it’s impossible to predict when the local economy will rebound to the point where the BreadWorks model is viable,” he says.

All disabled BreadWorks employees will be referred to the WorkSource community job placement program, which has partnerships with businesses in Charlottesville and surrounding counties.

“They are all very capable…We should be able to place [them] in other jobs fairly quickly,” says McElroy, encouraging local employers looking to hire “talented and dedicated staff” to contact WorkSource.

Since announcing its closure, BreadWorks has received an outpouring of support on social media, offering a glimpse of its longstanding impact on Charlottesville.

“We are incredibly thankful for the support from the community over the years,” says McElroy. “[But] the real legacy is the fact that we’ve had such a positive impact on persons with disabilities.”

BreadWorks’ last day of business is Friday, September 25.

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