Bakers at a small kitchen in downtown St. Louis need not have prior kitchen experience. Just a felony record.
Laughing Bear Bakery founder Kalen McAllister never asks job candidates what landed them behind bars. She just hopes her growing nonprofit can keep them from going back by providing above-minimum-wage pay, a place to learn job skills and build a work history, and a support network to lean on in tough times.
"I don't care what they did in the past," said McAllister, 66, a retired chaplain at the Farmington Correctional Center. "I only care what they do this day forward."
More than 40 percent of former inmates end up back behind bars, according to crime statistics. Lack of community support and the inability to find a good job are primary reasons why ex-offenders, many of whom also battle mental health issues or drug addiction, return to jail, McAllister said.
Many inmates have been behind bars so long that their families have disowned them and they have no one to go to, she said.
"Inmates would come to me upset and shaking, saying, 'I don't have a job, I have nowhere to go,' " McAllister said. "You've been locked away and told what to do every hour, and then suddenly you're out with nothing."
McAllister, an avid home baker, started Laughing Bear in 2015 with only $2,000 in donations and no detailed business plan. It operates out of the basement of a United Methodist Church and sells an array of sweets and treats at nearby grocery stores and area farmers markets.
Among 18 ex-cons who have worked at the bakery, which is meant as a steppingstone to other jobs, just one has ended up back behind bars. Most have moved on to find full-time jobs, McAllister said. The bakery currently employs five ex-cons and pays $11 an hour.
The nonprofit's board, all volunteers, includes McAllister, former Missouri Department of Corrections director George Lombardi, and Mike Gann, a former deputy prison warden. Their connections with the corrections system bring many referrals to the bakery from parole officers and other contacts.
Leah Douglas, 26, said she wouldn't have her job baking sweets at Busch Stadium if it weren't for Laughing Bear. She was aimless after being released from jail in late 2016 having served 11 months on a drug conviction, and she ended up at a halfway home, she said. She found Laughing Bear after her parole officer referred her.
"It was hard getting out there and supporting myself for the first time," she said. "I thought it was going to go so wrong, but I took it each day at a time, and everything went right."
The bakery offers flexibility and support where other employers wouldn't, kitchen manager Peter Wallace said. Ex-felons can get time off for parole appointments or other issues that arise.
"Life has already beaten on them pretty hard by the time they've gotten here," he said. "We just try to make it a little easier and invest in them any way we can."