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A Garden Grows Jobs, Reaps Self-Esteem

Once a vacant lot behind a San Francisco bakery, it's now a ladder to a new life for ex-convicts

WITH a sweet tooth, a green thumb, and a keen business sense, Elliot Hoffman has managed to build a multimillion-dollar enterprise in San Francisco.

Mr. Hoffman owns and operates Just Desserts, the largest bakery in this City by the Bay. But what really sets Hoffman's shop apart from all others is that it's a place where ex-convicts can become confectionary experts.

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At his headquarters near Candlestick Park, Hoffman explains how he developed a large garden in back of his building, where many former prisoners from California's state and federal penitentiaries get an opportunity to make a fresh start.

After visiting a local prison and watching inmates' characters transform when they were allowed to toil in soil outdoors, Hoffman decided what to do with the empty lot behind his building. "I saw how people were living like animals in the cells. Their kitchen table was a piece of cardboard over a toilet. Then I was taken out to the gardens," he says. "What a shift! Without tools, or chemicals, the prisoners nurtured vegetables by hand, and they gained a lot of self-esteem."

Hoffman leads visitors through the bakery, past racks of cakes and breads. He dips a finger into a large vat of cream cheese, licks it, and breaks into a smile of satisfaction. Stopping at a cooling area, he grabs a large loaf of bread that's still warm from the oven.

He says hello to white, black, Asian, and Latino workers who are mixing ingredients and rolling dough. Everyone knows him as Elliot, and he greets everyone by his or her first name.

Hoffman strides through a door leading to a walled outdoor area planted with trees and neat rows of fruits and vegetables that are used in shortcakes, cheesecakes, and tarts.

"This was a garbage heap," he says, describing the near-acre-sized lot that was once filled with trash. The walls were covered with graffiti. It took months to weed, remove the rubble, build the plant beds, and paint.

He sits down at a picnic table, and bites off a hunk of the bread. "All people want is an opportunity, a job, and a decent quality of life," he says.

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Unlike other businesses that are cutting costs and reducing employment rolls, Just Desserts is expanding. Hoffman plans to hire 40 more employees in the next six months and an additional 100 over the next two years, bringing his total work force to 500.

Participants in the garden program work four hours a day, four days a week, and earn $7 an hour. "Gardening is about transition. It's therapy," Hoffman says. "You see fruits and vegetables growing here, but what you really see growing is people's lives."

Grady Williams, who worked in the garden from October through January, graduated this winter to a job inside the bakery. Since February he has helped out with odd jobs, repairing equipment and packaging Italian dessert biscotti.

"Before, I was doing a lot of running with a lot of people I had no business running with," says Mr. Williams, who committed 17 armed robberies and served time in at least nine prisons, including San Quentin.

"The prisons get so crowded, they rotate you. When you start doing time like I did, you realize that the only thing getting on in time is you. The walls have been there for a long, long while and they ain't going nowhere," he says.

When he got out, Williams found that the San Francisco Department of Public Works has a tree-planting program that provides one of the very few job opportunities available to former felons. But it's short term, and offers only limited stability.

Fortunately, Hoffman gave Williams a break. Just Desserts offered him the possibility to stay employed and out of trouble. "I needed something long term, and the tree program was only for seven months. I have a son and bills to pay. And I need to stay off the streets."

Williams, who was born and raised in what he calls "a very tough area" of San Francisco, is now back in the same part of town. "Since I've been home, I've been to 17 or 18 funerals," he says. "If you get caught up in all the material things - the glamorous cars, the jewelry - if you get all caught up in wanting to be loud and be seen, well, then 90 days after getting out of the joint you'll be right back in."

Richard Puckett, who works with Williams inside the bakery, agrees. "I can't help my fiancee and daughter being locked up behind bars," he says.

A former drug dealer, Mr. Puckett says working in the garden afforded him "a chance to meet people and pick up a skill." These days, he says, he has more focus and an easier time with people.

Puckett is determined to stay clean and steer clear of trouble. His goal, he says, is to run his own business. "Some people are serious, and some people ain't. Some people stick to it, and some people don't."

People such as Hoffman are rare, Puckett says. "Most folks think `Once a con, always a con.' But that ain't so." He pauses for a moment. "Don't give up on nobody, because there's always some good left in everybody."

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