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COVID fallout claims special local bakery as BreadWorks' business drops

BreadWorks, a Charlottesville bakery staffed by people with disabilities, will close its doors this month because of a pandemic-related drop in business.

The store’s last day will be Sept. 25.

The closing is due to a crash in catering contracts and walk-in traffic caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent restrictions, officials said.

Officials with WorkSource Enterprises, which provides job training, employment and services to people with disabilities and runs the business, said the 26-year-old bakery no longer pays for itself.

“It’s incredibly difficult because it has been a labor of love,” said Charles J. McElroy, WorkSource president. “BreadWorks has had a loyal following and it was a difficult decision to make, but it was hemorrhaging financially and there was just no way to stop the bleeding.”

From opening as strictly a take-out bakery with minimalist décor in 1994 to expanding into coffee and ready-made sandwiches with a contemporary coffee shop vibe by 2019, BreadWorks seems like any other Charlottesville cafe.

Pastries, breads, sandwiches and the bakery’s signature cookies sit in display cases while an airpot of specially blended coffee begs for a customer’s squeeze.

The secret behind the storefront is the people behind the counter, running the ovens and creating the goods. From the scones to the soup, people with disabilities are involved in all aspects of the operation.

McElroy said the bakery had a solid business catering to meetings for local governments and the University of Virginia. That ended when Virginia ordered all but essential businesses to close as COVID-19 hit the state.

Area governments, businesses and UVa shut down most in-person operations and shifted meetings to virtual formats.

“When COVID hit in mid-March, the bottom just fell out,” McElroy said. “We had a bunch of catering contracts and when the pandemic came, they were almost immediately canceled. We did curbside pickup and online ordering before we closed it down from April 17 to June 9. We just couldn’t make a go of it.”

McElroy said the state going into Phase Three of reopening, allowing businesses to seat some customers and requiring facemasks and cleaning procedures, did not bring the business back.

“It’s been incredibly slow and unsustainable from a business standpoint,” he said. “The catering orders we were accustomed to having just dried up.”

Customers leaving the BreadWorks counter one recent afternoon said they were disappointed. Many were coming back for their favorite cookies before the shop closes.

“They have the best soft, chewy chocolate cookies,” said one man who asked that his name not be used because, he said, “I’m on a diet.”

“I’m going to miss them.”

Dozens of people poured out sympathy and sadness at news of the closing on BreadWorks’ Facebook page.

“I’m so very sad to read this. I will miss your amazing food but also the wonderful people who have made it a special place to visit. You guys made Cville a better place,” said Nancy Payne McCarthy in response to the post announcing the closing.

“My heart is breaking,” said Olivia Branch.

“It’s gratifying to read all of the comments on Facebook,” McElroy said. “It’s great to know you have done something that people love and care about.”

Employees at BreadWorks with disabilities will be referred to other WorkSource programs, officials said. The majority will be seeking work in the community, and McElroy encouraged interested employers to contact WorkSource.

WorkSource serves people with intellectual and learning disabilities and mental illness, as well special education students and people with autism, sensory impairments and traumatic brain injuries.

McElroy said the decision to close BreadWorks was tough, but final.

“It’s a competitive business to begin with,” he said of food service and bakeries. “When you throw in the COVID downturn on top of it, you have a difficult situation. We just couldn’t make it. We’re like a lot of other businesses in that respect.”


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