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January 28, 2010

The Zen of Social Business Success: Greyston Bakery.

Brownies for a Healthier Society! Greyston Bakery video (at bottom), via Good Magazine.

Greyston, founded by Roshi Glassman, a wild and crazy and sweet and actively-not-just-philosophically compassionate Zen teacher, is a wild success story—and it makes the world a better place with every yummy bite.

The full story:

Excerpt via Ascent Magazine

…In 1979, after receiving dharma transmission from his teacher, Bernie Glassman moved to Yonkers with a vision. “I was just working with my ingredients,” he tells me, matter of fact. And in the inner city neighbourhood of Yonkers, New York those ingredients were poverty, homelessness (most alarmingly of single-parent families), drug addiction, HIV/AIDS, massive unemployment and a welfare system that was perpetuating the cycle. Rather than giving handouts to feed the needs of the people around him, Bernie Glassman created a bakery that would provide jobs for the homeless and the so-called “unemployable.” He set out to make the bakery a for-profit business in order to use the funds to further his social activist work and to teach practical, real-life skills to his employees. From the beginning, Bernie saw his work as a mandala incorporating five energies: spirit, learning, livelihood, social change and community. At his first board meeting in New York, when he proposed his ideas, the members said, “You’re crazy, but we’ll go along with you anyway.”

Well, crazy as it may sound, the Greyston Mandala now consists not only of a highly successful bakery, but has created housing for the homeless, child care centres, medical clinics for people living with HIV/AIDS, as well as providing life skills and job training to empower people and promote self-sufficiency. In keeping with its original mission, the bakery still holds to its open-hiring policy; every second Wednesday the homeless and unemployed line up to get work.

The Greyston Bakery now makes cakes for the upper echelons of society, and list among their clients Godiva, Bloomingdale’s and the White House. They have also established a highly successful partnership with Ben and Jerry’s. In fact, this is no coincidence. Bernie Glassman did not just want to create jobs for the disenfranchised, he wanted to prove that the people society had deemed unacceptable, those who had been rejected and labeled as garbage, could not only work, but could be extremely successful at what they do. “Definitely one of the dreams I had in working with people that were homeless or unemployed was for them to work within the world, to get out of the welfare mentality. To be self-sufficient was an incredibly important element.”

When I talk to Bernie about the creation of the Greyston Bakery, he sounds extremely focused and pragmatic in his approach. He looked to the famous Tassajara Bread Bakery in San Francisco as a model of a business he could create in Yonkers: “What I learned was that the Tassajara Bakery was known for its bread, but it actually made its money off its cakes.” And so Bernie Glassman and his team of socially conscious confectioners went into cakes: mud cakes, angel food cakes, cheesecakes. “In fact, our cheesecake won an award for the best in the New York area, which is an area known for its cheesecakes,” he tells me with a smile in his voice. I can’t help but hear his Eastern European Jewish roots shining through. Although Bernie does a lot more than bake cakes to change the world, he recognizes that the bakery is where the money and the attention came from and it has enabled him to undertake all of his other projects involving Buddhist dharma and social activism.

I wonder if using entrepreneurial techniques to further practice is not a particularly American manifestation of Zen. Bernie confirms: “Actually in this country I’m looking to apply Zen to our culture – to the world of social action, the world of social entrepreneurs, the corporate world.” At the same time, even in North America, most people do not equate Buddhism with turning a profit and I wonder how people have reacted to Bernie Glassman’s successes. “My teacher always talked about Zen as being life. If you are going to say that life excludes all the for-profits, then you don’t have life. And to do whatever you do, you need money, and the bakery provides a lot of revenue for the other aspects of the mandala which allows us to do a lot more.”

…for the rest, click the image at top.

Bernard Tetsugen Glassman

This applied mathematician and aerospace engineer-turned-Zen Buddhist priest is known as the mastermind of Greyston Bakery. Although Roshi Glassman (Roshi signifies the highest level of Zen teacher) is no longer actively involved in our daily operations, his unique blend of visionary leadership, analytical acumen, and entrepreneurial vigor remain a cornerstone of Greyston’s history and future. Today, he continues to promote his vision through Zen Peacemakers. He travels and lectures on spiritual practice, socially responsible business, and international peacemaking. For more information on his current activities or to contact Roshi Glassman please visit www.zenpeacemakers.org

Greyston Bakery was founded in 1982 by a Zen Buddhist meditation group led by Bernard Tetsugen Glassman, a former aerospace engineer with an entrepreneurial spirit and a bold vision. The group borrowed $300,000 and opened a small storefront bakery in the Bronx. The original goal — to produce quality, locally made products that would give the group a sustainable, satisfying livelihood — soon inspired a socially responsible business extending opportunity to others.

For years, Greyston Bakery indulged metropolitan New York’s most discerning tastes, supplying outstanding desserts to many of the city’s top-rated restaurants. In 1988, Greyston found a new calling in the inclusion of baked goods in ice cream, and since then has become the exclusive producer of brownies for the renowned Ben & Jerry’s brand, among others. In addition to our output of 20,000 pounds of ice cream mix-ins per day, Greyston now proudly offers a line of exceptional gourmet brownies.

All this takes place in a state-of-the-art facility conceived by the renowned designer Maya Lin and completed in 2004 on the banks of the Hudson River. Here, the Bakery continues to be a force for self-transformation and community renewal, offering on-site training and fair wages and benefits to more than 65 local residents, regardless of their work history.

Consistent with our social mission, profits from Greyston Bakery support the Greyston Foundation’s community development initiatives, including low-income housing, childcare, health services, and technology education.


Greyston Foundation’s mission is to support low-income individuals and families as they forge a path to self-sufficiency and community transformation. Greyston is an entrepreneurial and spiritually grounded organization that operates an integrated network of not-for-profit and for-profit companies in Westchester County providing jobs, workforce development, housing, youth services and health care.

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