Gregory Carpenter stands over an industrial-sized sink rinsing his hands off, lathering them with soap, and then rinsing them off again. He repeats this process three times until his hands are good and clean. After all, in his profession cleanliness is the most important ingredient. He clears his worktable and makes a few trips in and out of the freezer for ingredients which he carefully sets by a 30-quart mixer. He has 200 bean pies to make and little time to waste.
"We have the best carrot cake in the world," says Carpenter as he cracks open egg after egg. The carrot cake is the bakery's signature dish and Carpenter's personal specialty. "I've been making that carrot cake for over 20 years."
"Yeah, but we have to watch this thing," says Mikal Abdul Mateen, Carpenter's partner and co-founder of 2AM Bakery. "We can't let no secrets out of here."
"We also do a mean sweet potato cheese pie that Mikal is over there working on," says Carpenter, pointing to Mateen who is on the opposite side of the room whipping together cream cheese and sugar in a mixing bowl. "It's some kind of wonderful."
At noon on a Tuesday in November, the two men are the only bakers at 2AM Bakery, a small wholesale shop that specializes in pastries of all sorts. They met while on a pilgrimage to Mecca in 1996. The two hit it off instantly as they bonded over a love of cooking and baking. They made a brotherly pact to open up a bakery together, and more than a decade later in 2009, 2AM Bakery was born*. Choosing a name for the bakery was, well, a piece of cake. Abdul Mateen also happens to be Carpenter's adopted last name; add the number 2 in front, keep the initials, drop the rest of the letters, and there you have it.
In addition to making cakes, pies, and cookies, the bakery also serves as the site for Eye Can Bmore, a program founded by Carpenter that will teach ex-offenders to bake and hone their entrepreneurial spirits. The Open Society Institute-Baltimore awarded him a $60,000 Community Fellows grant in November to develop the project.
"2AM Bakery is kind of the catalyst for the program," says Carpenter. "We figured we would train guys, give them certification that is industry recognized, and give them an opportunity to become something different, something better."
Eye Can Bmore training will span an 18-month period and offer 30 formerly incarcerated men a chance to learn the profession. Carpenter will also teach food service and safety, inventory, purchasing, job development, basic computer skills, and financial literacy—and will have the men prepare and sit for the ServSafe Certification Exam, qualifying them for management jobs in food service.
"We're going to replace the dope deals with cakes and pies," says Carpenter. "These guys will be able to embark on their own professional careers as entrepreneurs because now they'll know how to do this stuff."
Carpenter knows just how hard life after prison can be. He served 20 years of what was originally a 50-year sentence for armed robbery, use of a handgun, and second-degree assault. Nov. 30 marked the 21st anniversary of his freedom.
When he was released in 1994, he says, he found that getting a job as a convicted felon was harder than he thought. "When we think about how people perceive individuals who are returning back into the community after incarceration, it's like the scarlet letter," says Carpenter.
He worked a few odd jobs but the worst part was the interview process. "I went to a children's hospital to try and get a job in the kitchen," he says. "I let the guy trick me into talking about stuff that wasn't relevant to the job. Next thing I know, he shook my hand and told me good luck on my job search."
That experience opened Carpenter's eye to the bigger picture. "I realized all of obstacles and challenges that I had to deal with, if I can buffer and run interference for as many people as I can, then that will help make their transition smoother."
Carpenter first learned about cooking and baking in his hometown, Augustus, Georgia, "a little ole town me and James Brown put on the map." His grandmother was a private chef for a puppeteer and she used to let him lick the bowl after making a tasty dessert. "They say the apple don't fall too far from the tree."
While imprisoned at the Maryland Correctional Institution in Jessup in 1989, he took full advantage of an 18-month culinary program. Carpenter says a big problem with the prison system is that it does little to help inmates prepare for re-entry into society. "Fortunately for me, I was able to prepare myself and I had a support network but everybody is not so fortunate," he says.
A firm believer that preparation equals success, Carpenter says that he will reframe the mindset of these guys who otherwise feel hopeless. "It's all about building character, self-esteem, inspiring, and motivating," he says. "If you believe you can, you will but if you believe you cannot you won't even try."
Eye Can Bmore will hold its first class in January after the holidays and some recruiting. In the meantime, 2AM Bakery products can be found at Shareef's Grill, Hip Hop Fish & Chicken, and other local vendors around the city.
"We have to get going making the stuff for the brother tonight, right?" asks Mateen, spreading a hefty layer of cream cheese on his pies.
"Yeah, I picked some cornmeal and stuff up from Sam's Club this morning," says Carpenter, transferring his bean pie mixture to a container.
"Man, what are you over there making?" asks Mateen.
"A mess," says Carpenter.
The two share a laugh and continue rolling through their work—a typical day at 2AM Bakery, where the dough rises.
*An earlier version of this sentence contained a mathematical error. City Paper regrets the error.