French bakery gives workers a second chance

When Warren Coleman moved to Charlotte from Detroit in March 2009, he was, as he puts it, "homeless, helpless and hopeless." Coleman, 51, was trying to put decades of drug and alcohol abuse, and the criminal record that often accompanies such addictions, behind him.

His first stop in Charlotte was Rebound, a drug treatment facility. His second? Amelie's, the French Bakery in NoDa where he began as a dishwasher and now serves as a maintenance manager supervising more than a dozen workers.

The three years Coleman has worked at Amelie's represent the longest he has ever held a job, and he credits his employers with "giving me the chance to live clean and sober."

"All of us have a heart for helping the job-challenged," Bill Lamb, 68, says of himself and his two partners, Lynn St. Laurent, 58, and Breda Ische, 56, with whom he opened Amelie's in the spring of 2008.

The initial concept belonged to St. Laurent, who was determined to open a French bakery in Charlotte and was armed with some family recipes, a solid business plan, and a desire to "reach out to the community."

Lamb, a retired IBM executive who was looking for something meaningful to do in his retirement, met St. Laurent through a mutual acquaintance at a charity event. The two joined forces and brought in Ische as a third partner after enlisting her help to decorate the converted warehouse that is so much more than a bakery.

"They told me they didn't have much money for furniture and décor," Ische, recalls, "which is how I like to work. It's much more fun and challenging that way."

St. Laurent, who oversees the day-to-day operations and supervises the staff, wanted Amelie's workers to be as eclectic as its clientele and its décor.

It is open 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year, "so that," Lamb says, "you never have to worry about whether or not it is open. It is always open."

Its hours and location, especially its proximity to several NoDa treatment facilities and halfway houses, attract a diverse client base.

"Many of our early patrons were in recovery programs down the street," Lamb recalls. "They'd come in and have coffee and pastries late into the night." It only made sense to hire some of them because, as St. Laurent puts it, 'giving back to the community is part of our mission.' "

All three Amelie's partners are passionate about filling what Lamb describes as "a void in the system."

It is a vision and agenda they share but did not articulate at the onset.

"It just happened," Ische explains, "It was serendipitous."

All three believe that, as St. Laurent puts it, "it takes a community effort to accept people and give them job opportunities."

People leaving prison and drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers "need something to be there for them. You have to replace structure with structure."

Amelie's employs over a dozen "employment-challenged" individuals at a time, with the hope that they will learn valuable skills and become contributing members of society, whether at Amelie's or elsewhere.

Coleman is a poster child for recovery and for making the most of the opportunity Amelie's afforded him.

"The responsibility we gave him," Ische says, "was like fertilizer. He has thrived."

And so has Amelie's.

Other business should take note. St. Laurent is convinced the bakery's phenomenal success, which has "exceeded our wildest dreams," is because "we put something good out into the universe."

Coleman has reconnected with his estranged daughter and is now paying for her to go to college, is "finally at peace."

"I have an awesome gratitude," he says, "for living life and the chance they gave me."