Foodie Father Greg Boyle on the healing ministry of baking
Homeboy Bakery in Los Angeles is the site of reconciliation and transformation for ex-gang members.
Step into Homeboy Bakery and you might think it’s any other neighborhood bake shop. You can buy artisan breads, pastries, and cookies that are made every day from scratch. Take a step into the kitchen, though, and you’ll understand why it’s not just any other bakery. All of the bread and treats are made and sold by formerly incarcerated and rehabilitated gang members.
Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles is the largest gang intervention, rehabilitation, and reentry program in the world. Homeboy Bakery, which opened in 1992, was the first of Homeboy Industries’ social enterprises.
The face of the now multimillion dollar operation—which today includes several other food-related social enterprises—is Homeboy Industries founder and executive director, Jesuit Father Greg Boyle. In 2016 Boyle was given the James Beard Foundation Humanitarian of the Year award for his accomplishments. While giving ex-gang members a job is important, it’s the healing community that the bakery and its counterparts create that makes Homeboy Industries’ gang rehabilitation so successful. Although Boyle is even hesitant to call it that: “We’re less concerned with being successful than being faithful. We’re faithful to our vision and our mission.”
Why did you open a bakery as a means to rehabilitate gang members?
Back in 1992 there was an abandoned bakery across the street from the church. The owner, who had just retired, came to me and said, “Do you want to buy this?” And I said, “We don’t have any money to buy anything.”
Then, the Rodney King riots happened in Los Angeles. Our community had the highest concentration of gang activity in the city. A movie producer with a lot of money read an article in the L.A. Times where I said we had rival gang members working side by side. He was intrigued by this, so he summoned me and asked what he should do with his money. I told him, “Why don’t you buy the abandoned bakery? It’s got ovens. We’ll put hairnets on rival gang members. We’ll bake bread, and we’ll call it the Homeboy Bakery.” That was the extent of my business plan. It was really that simple. If it had been an upholstery shop, I probably would have done that.
Then, about a month later, at the Grand Central Market in downtown L.A., I was trying to get someone to hire homies for some janitorial work. I saw an abandoned tortilla machine. I asked a guy, “Why don’t you lease it to us for a dollar a year? Then we’ll start Homeboy Tortilla.” And he did. That’s how I got into the food business. Today, the bakery is pretty much a 24/7 operation.
Why does Homeboy work as a means of gang rehabilitation?
Father Richard Rohr always says, “Women work things out face‑to‑face and guys work things out shoulder-to-shoulder.” That’s my experience in the bakery. Enemy rivals will work side by side making croissants or something. They’re not talking stuff out, but they are working stuff out. I don’t know how it works, but before you know it, there’s a bond deeper than they’ve ever known in their gang and stronger than anything they’ve even known in their families.
How has Homeboy Bakery become so successful?
How does anybody measure success? Homeboy Bakery certainly hasn’t been financially successful. It’s brought in some money, and thousands of gang members have worked in it. So that’s a success, I guess, but it’s not something that makes money. On a good year it’ll break even. But training gang members and helping them work side by side has a higher value than success.
We have to fundraise like crazy. Homeboy Industries is a $18 million annual operation. Seven million comes from revenue from the businesses, and the other 11 million we have to raise, which is a heavy lift. That keeps me awake at night. It’s not all easy.
There are 120,000 gang members in L.A. County, and I suspect every single one of them knows what and where Homeboy is. We want to stay faithful to helping them the minute they decide to walk through our door.
Homeboy sells product with a mission and poses the question, “What if we invest in people rather than just incarcerate our way out of stuff?” That feels important to me.
It’s not just the bakery, either. We also have Homeboy Grocery, where we sell chips and salsas in all the supermarkets. Then of course we have the Homegirl Café and the restaurant at the LAX American Airlines Terminal.
Everybody needs food, and buying something from Homeboy gives them that feel‑good factor. People want to buy a sandwich before they get on the plane, and they buy one from Homeboy because it stands for something.
Would a non-food-related gang rehabilitation program be as effective as Homeboy Bakery?
Yeah, I think so. It isn’t just a bakery—because that’s just training and a job. It’s the context of this community of tenderness where people find transformation and healing. That’s what you want. The bakery is just a placeholder while these gang members get healed. It’s a job, but the more important thing is that they are able to come to terms with their past and find healing.
We have a thing called Global Homeboy Network. We’ve helped start 141 programs in the United States and 15 programs outside the country modeled on Homeboy.
Usually people start programs with a social enterprise, and it’s usually food. I’m not sure I recommend this, but they like it because it’s sexy. Everybody likes food—a café, a restaurant, a bakery. But food is so hard. It’s hard to make restaurants work. It’s hard to make a bakery work.
The better business is Homeboy Silkscreen & Embroidery, which has been around for 22 years. That’s surefire. You don’t have to worry about the health department. You print a shirt. If the shirt goes bad then you just print another shirt.
What has changed since you first started?
Next year we’ll celebrate 30 years. Since the beginning, a lot of things have changed. We used to work with gangs and not just gang members. Now, we don’t work with gangs because we don’t believe in it. If you work with gangs you serve the cohesion of the gang. You supply oxygen to the gang. We don’t want to do that.
In the early days, we operated with the idea that “nothing stops a bullet like a job,” so we tried to find felony‑friendly employers. We’ve realized that far more essential than a job is healing. People need to heal. They don’t just need to be employed or even to be educated. They need to heal from all the stuff that has been done to them and from the stuff they have done.
When we started, gang‑related homicides in L.A. were at a thousand a year. Now that number has been cut in half and then cut in half again. So it’s completely changed. Policing has changed. There was hostility, death threats, and bomb threats toward Homeboy during the first 10 years. Not from gang members, but from people who were angry we were helping gang members. That mentality has completely changed.
I think Homeboy has had an impact on public safety, but it also put a human face on this issue. It led people to invest in people, rather than just locking them up.
In the old days it was about being tough on crime or being soft on crime. Today Homeboy raises the issue of, “What if we are smart on crime?” People would rather be smart than tough, but they don’t always know that is their choice.
In 2016, you were awarded the Humanitarian of the Year award by the James Beard Foundation. What effect has that recognition had on your ministry?
I don’t think very much, except it seems to get mentioned when people introduce me. They had the big event in Chicago. It was like the Oscars. The Lifetime Achievement award and the Humanitarian award are the only ones that you know beforehand. I’m kind of a foodie myself, so I kind of knew who these people are. It was pretty interesting.
It is funny. The homies are foodies, too. You ask them what they watch on TV, they’ll talk about the Food Network, which I find kind of interesting.
Do you see a connection between your role as a priest and your role running food ministries?
No, probably not. There are three Jesuits, myself included, who work at Homeboy. We do a variety of things, but there are far more people who aren’t priests running the place. Homies are really running the place and embody in the fullest sense the spirit of it.
Greg Boyle, the foodie
What is your favorite food?
I’m kind of steeped in the whole Mexican food thing, so I love carnitas. All the people know I love carnitas. My comfort food is pasta carbonara.
Do you like to cook?
I do. People will ask, “Are you a good or bad cook?” or “How did you learn to cook?” I always think if you know how to read, you know how to cook. How hard is that? You just do what the recipe tells you to do.
I live in a house with all these Jesuits, so I cook once every six weeks. I like to do it—it’s a kind of mind candy. I like to lose myself in trying different things. I basically find a recipe I’d order in a restaurant, then I try to make it.
What’s your favorite thing sold at Homeboy Bakery or Homegirl Café?
The bakery has good pies. They also have a double cinnamon bread that I like. The café has these great grilled cheese sandwiches that have all sorts of things in them, from kale to bacon to different kinds of cheeses. They’re pretty good. Their tacos are also good. The food at Homegirl Café is kind of gourmet, so it’s nice.
What is your ideal meal?
There’s a local place that we always go to called El Paseo. It’s one of those places where they know what you want to eat and bring it to you. We go there as a staff a lot. It’s a good winding‑down place. They have good margaritas.
This article also appears in the June 2017 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 82, No. 6, pages 18–21).
Image: Courtesy of Homeboy Industries