South City

Bakery that employs at-risk youth expands to East Memphis storefront

For Lauren Young, owner of Sweet LaLa’s Bakery, the journey from home-based side hustle to a brick-and-mortar location in the Regalia Shopping Center at 6150 Poplar Avenue has been a slow build. The businesses’ path to growth, in large part, has been led by a commitment to service of others by providing second chances and even first opportunities for at-risk teens.

The commercial bakery started in her kitchen in 2002

“I love being in the kitchen. It's something I really enjoy particularly sharing baked goods with friends,” said Young, who ran the Kemmons Wilson Family Foundation until 2014. Kemmons Wilson, her grandfather, was the founder of the Holiday Inn motel chain, among other notable business ventures.
Construction is still underway at Sweet LaLa's Bakery new retail space in the in the Regalia Shopping Center at 6150 Poplar Avenue. The shop is slated to open in February. (Submitted)In 2001 while pregnant with her first child, Young was carjacked at gunpoint by a group of young people. The experience would change the scope and trajectory of her life and business.

“I began reflecting on what's going in a kid’s life where they don't feel valued and they don't value other people,” said Young. “It was that moment where I realized the world is very different for people living in high-stress situations. I really began to believe the kids had been victims long before they made me one.”

While serving as the executive director of her family’s foundation, Young came across JIFF, or Juvenile Intervention and Faith-Based Follow-Up. She was touched by its mission and started to serve on its board in 2006.

JIFF is the leading provider of re-entry services for youth coming out the Shelby County court system. Many are repeat offenders. It was through this work that she got a glimpse of the obstacles and pitfalls that can send a child down the wrong path — and how to potentially redirect them.

Although she found board service satisfying, Young felt the impact was limited. She saw gaps in opportunity for JIFF graduates with many lacking viable workplace skills. An employer also has to be willing to take a chance on a kid with a troubled past.

“When kids get out of JIFF, the big obstacles are workforce development and training. It wasn’t able to provide that extension,” said Young.

But a small business — a bakery, for example — could be that provider.
Sweet LaLa's Bakery and JIFF partnered in 2014 to develop a workforce training program and pipeline into employment for JIFF youth. Once a JIFF participant completes the program, they are eligible to be a Sweet LaLa's employee. (Submitted)
“I started feeling a weight on my heart that said ‘hey, I could probably bring recipes down to the JIFF kitchen, my lease would give direct revenue to JIFF’s operations and then ultimately, the kids could be trained to create the product that I developed,’” said Young.

After hiring a chef, who was a JIFF volunteer at the time, she began in 2014 to fill out a staff to produce Sweet LaLa’s cookies out of JIFF’s commercial kitchen, located at 254 S. Lauderdale Street.

“We would do the paid training at $8.50 an hour and then the kids could be rolled onto our payroll. JIFF really became the contractor for production in our bakery,” said Young.

The bakery has seen about 75 youth come through the program. One of the first JIFF graduates who joined the crew was John Young (no relation). Once he completed the culinary program, he began his work learning the ins and outs of rolling dough, baking and packaging cookies. Now 24, he has been with JIFF since he was 16.

“In the kitchen, we face a lot of adversity, but it’s also a good thing because it helps us bond together. It’s been wonderful working with her,” said John Young.

The past year, Sweet LaLa’s has grown significantly with more orders, products offered and customized packaging. As a result, they are outgrowing JIFF’s kitchen. The new retail and kitchen space in East Memphis is under construction and will include a cafe and event space. The opening is set for February.

Along with their cookies, the new location will serve coffee and breakfast. The menu will feature products from local and southern makers, including Blackberry Farm for jams, Dave’s Bagels for bread, Shotwell’s Candy and Bluff City Toffee.

Sweet Lala's Bakery in South Memphis employs juvenile offenders from High Ground News on Vimeo.

In addition, they will look to further support nonprofit work by stocking honey from Thistle and Bee, a support service for victims of human trafficking; pottery from Shepherd’s Haven, a residential program for special needs adults; and My Cup of Tea from Orange Mound.

They also will move to a grant-based contract where JIFF will produce 500 cookies a week, with the ability to increase as demand dictates, instead of leasing the kitchen.

Young will provide the dough for JIFF’s portion and bake the remainder of the cookies out of the East Memphis location. Meanwhile, JIFF will have two teens staffed to bake and package the cookies from their South City facility.

“It’s a beautiful partnership that’s run almost four years in a manner where we have direct revenue funding as a lease,” said Young. “We didn’t want to strip all of it out by leaving the center to operate our business, but we want to create a model that’s going to be more successful.”
An assortment of Sweet LaLa's cookies that are baked and packaged out of the commercial kitchen at JIFF. (Submitted)
In the JIFF program, mentoring of the student bakers is a key ingredient. John Young benefited from several mentors in his time and returns the favor by giving counsel to the teens that work in the kitchen.

“I just try to let them know, ‘everything you’ve done, I’ve done it.’ I can give you advice about whatever you want because I have been on both sides of the gate. I’ve been where you are now and I can show you what progress looks like,” said John Young.

And as the grand opening draws closer, he was an easy choice to work in the new retail store.

“I have been here pretty much from the start. There means nothing more [to me] than to grow with this business. I’ve seen the growth, us packaging 200 to 300 cookies a month to 200 to 300 a day. And that’s from maybe one or two orders,” said John Young.

John Young is the only JIFF graduate who will be employed full time. His primary role has been in the kitchen and packaging, but Young notes he will be doing a little bit of everything once the shop opens its doors.

“It is my expectation — my hope — is he’ll be the life of the store because he is going to help us remind people why we started the bakery,” said Young.

She also expects part-time help at the retail location from employees at the South City facility, but challenges do exist. Many of JIFF’s teen employees lack reliable transportation. Sweet LaLa's is working on a car donation as an option, in addition to help with driver’s licenses. The bus line also runs by the East Memphis shop as a last resort. With 7 a.m to 7 p.m. hours at the East Memphis retail location, school-aged kids won’t be available to work until the afternoon. Some will also have to acclimate to the challenges of customer service.

“It’s a whole new world from the JIFF kitchen, which has created a safe space in all respects. The challenges are the age and, not even the education level, but the processing ability,” said Young. “My goal is to not make anybody feel unsuccessful. The hope is it will be a stepping stone to the next job.”

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Read more articles by Kim and Jim Coleman.

Kim Coleman is a journalist with over 20 years of experience in newsrooms as a reporter, editor and graphic designer, including ten years with The Commercial Appeal as Design Director/Senior Editor and Print Planning Editor. 


Jim Coleman is a freelance writer, covering a variety of topics from high school sports, community news and small business. He has written for different news organizations over the past 20 years, including The Commercial Appeal, Community Weeklies, Lexington Herald-Leader and The Albuquerque Journal.