The Bakery Using Desserts to Give Refugees a Home

Ken Hardy and Jur van Hoorn at American Baking Company in the kitchen

From Vice:

American Baking Company is more than a shop for sweets—it's become a home where immigrants from around the world come together over cupcakes.

Tucked deep in a sprawling forest on the southern edge of Amsterdam is a plain white tent full of cookies and cupcakes and two husbands who won't let you leave until you're laden with sweets.

Ken Hardy and Jur van Hoorn never planned to create the gay United Nations of bakeries. But after homophobic laws forced them to flee the United States, they opened an American-style bakery and hired an international staff that includes refugees who fled countries of their own. Now, through the power of junk food, this gay couple has created a home for the displaced and a place of comfort for weary travelers.

Hardy and van Hoorn met a decade ago in Los Angeles through decidedly casual means: "Craigslist," Hardy blushed when asked. "It was totally for pleasure."

"There's nothing wrong with that," van Hoorn interjected.

At the time, Hardy was a recovering actor who left theater to help uninsured people obtain medical care. Van Hoorn was a bartender, and an undocumented immigrant since 1989. He'd planned to visit the United States for just a few months, then return to Holland to start a career in economics. But he hated the work that awaited him back home and managed to remain in America undetected.

"I knew there was a risk," he said. Marriage wasn't an option—they met in 2006, and same-sex marriages wouldn't be recognized for the purposes of immigration until 2013.

The law caught up with them in the last week of 2007. Van Hoorn had returned home to visit his sick father, and upon his return to the United States, he was jailed for a night and sent home on the first plane in the morning.

Van Hoorn's mind raced as they escorted him back. "What if, what if, what if? What if I can't come back? What am I going to do in Holland?" he remembered thinking. On a hurried call to Hardy while in custody, he broke the news that he wasn't just being kicked out: He was banned from the country for the next ten years.

"I expected to spend the rest of my life was him," van Hoorn said. "And that was gone."

They soon found that the United States presented them with no legal recourse for a reunion. "We were going to fight it," Hardy said. "But you could get nowhere."

After a visit to van Hoorn in Holland, Hardy was taken aside by a family friend. "'For gay men, love doesn't come around very often,'" he said she told him. "'I wouldn't deny yourselves this opportunity.'"

It was clear what had to be done. Hardy took the plunge and moved to Holland, where a domestic partnership allowed him to stay indefinitely.

"As an American, I never considered I might be an immigrant. But I was having to flee my country because of persecution," Hardy said. "My work history was nonexistent. My education meant nothing. I had a language barrier. I had to figure out how to start over from nothing."

Baking helped Hardy cope with feeling homesick. In 2010, cupcakes were a relative novelty in Holland, and a friend hired him to make 150 of them for a work function. It had never occurred to them that they might bake professionally, but then, van Hoorn recalled, "We were like: Why not?"

"At first, this was an opportunity for Jur and I to better ourselves, and a way for me to celebrate my culture," Hardy said. "I could share a bit of myself in a place where I felt like a stranger."

They called themselves American Baking Company, and their specialty was American-style desserts made using European techniques, a blend of American ebullience with Dutch pragmatism. It proved a hit, and after a year, they both quit their jobs to bake full time.

Their first employee was a neighbor who wandered in to ask what they were baking. After expressing enthusiasm for the food, Hardy simply asked, "You want to work?" They were swamped with orders and needed help to keep up with demand; she was from South America and looking for employment. It was a perfect fit.

The bakery soon became distinctly international. They hired another baker from Portugal, a Syrian refugee to make deliveries, and a baker from Curacao named Kevin Goijla.

"I come from a very food-oriented family and food-oriented country," Goijla said. "Food is my connection back to my birthplace. It just brings you joy."

Goijla moved to Holland by himself when he was 18,and befriended the couple at a market. Since then, the bakery's become a sort of second family where he feels completely safe as a gay man.

"I can talk about whatever gay topic I want to talk about," he said. "Your love life, and boys."

When their Syrian delivery driver invited the staff of the bakery to his daughter's wedding, Hardy had some reluctance at first, given the pervasive narrative in Europe that Muslim and LGBTQ populations are in dangerous conflict. "We were like, oh my God, what's going to happen?" But of course: "We walked into that wedding and they treated us so respectfully," Hardy said. "The issue was with me. It wasn't with them. I was the one terrified, closed off, questioning. They were nothing but lovely and welcoming."

Whether inside the kitchen or out, their bakery has proven a bridge between cultures. It's one they build every week at their local market, where Europeans initially approached their desserts with trepidation. "They don't know what a lot of our desserts are, but you let them try them," said Hardy. "That's all we can do as people, as the world closes in. We have to learn to try things."

"Communication between people of different languages can be difficult, even when you speak the same language," said Goijla. With Hardy and van Hoorn's encouragement, he's recently resumed his studies in international business. "Food unifies everyone. It doesn't matter where you're from. If you bring food to a party, people will gravitate toward you. It will unite people."

Desserts, hosting, and entertaining guests may seem like unimportant, frivolous acts—especially now, at a time of urgent political volatility around the globe. But a kitchen is the heart of any home, and out of forces that sought to keep them apart, Hardy and van Hoorn have built an international hearth that overflows with understanding, reconciliation, and common ground, all centered around delicious desserts.

Their customers are "willing to accept what I offer," Hardy said. "I had so many walls in the States. When I moved here, they all crumbled down. … Paths have replaced the walls. I can celebrate food, build a home, invite people to spend time with us. I built a path to love someone."

As they spoke, Hardy and van Hoorn moved their hands together, and at the mention of the crisis that once threatened to send them to opposite sides of the planet, they now smile.

"One of the best things that happened to us," Hardy said.