It’s about so much more than doughnuts.

“Carriage Town Ministries didn’t save my life, but it did give me life,” said Bruce Sowles, who was homeless before the Flint shelter took him in and helped him restart his life with a job at Blueline Donuts.

Blueline Donuts is a job-training initiative of Carriage Town Ministries, a homeless shelter founded 73 years ago as the Flint Rescue Mission and now the largest nonprofit of its kind in the Flint region. It launched in 2017 as a way to teach job skills and provide transitional work for shelter clients.

“They not only learn the technical skills required to work in retail food or food service, but they’re learning — or sometimes relearning — those soft employment skills to help them succeed in the workplace,” said Nic Gatlin, associate executive director for Carriage Town Ministries.

Leadership at Carriage Town Bakery
Nic Gatlin, associate executive director at Carriage Town Ministries, sits with John Rigg, food service manager at Carriage Town Ministries, and Bruce Sowles, lead baker at Carriage Town Bakery.

What started as a small doughnut- making retail/wholesale operation in the shelter kitchen has proven so successful that in November, the nonprofit opened its own bakery location – called Carriage Town Bakery – across the street from the shelter.

Its construction is part of a strategic plan to grow Blueline Donuts, serve espresso and other baked goods and prepare even more people for work. It was funded, Gatlin said, in a “miracle of benevolence” when two men offered to pay for the bakery’s construction.

“True to the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 6, they choose to remain anonymous as they enjoy coffee and doughnuts at Carriage Town Bakery,” Gatlin said. “We remain forever grateful.”

The handmade doughnuts are massive and feature a wide range of options including fritters, custard- filled, nutty and buttermilk glaze.

But they weren’t always so dazzling and delectable.

Experienced baker saves the day

“When we first came up with the idea of this social enterprise, we were trying to make the doughnuts but failing miserably,” Gatlin said.

That’s when Sowles chimed in.

“Dude, your doughnuts suck,” Sowles told Gatlin. “After three weeks of watching them roll out these crappy test doughnuts, I said ‘Nic, let me do it, man. I’ve been making doughnuts most of my life. I got this.’”

Lead baker at Carriage Town Bakery
Lead Baker Bruce Sowles puts the finishing touches on a batch of doughnuts served at Carriage Town Bakery.

Sowles, who’d lived at Carriage Town nearly a year, marched into the shelter’s kitchen and has been creating delicious Blueline Donuts ever since. He now works full-time as their lead baker.

“There’s an artistry to making them. But it’s not difficult for me because I’ve been making doughnuts since the Tigers won the World Series in ’84,” said Sowles, now 57.

The Flint native bought his own doughnut shop in 1994, purchased a home in Genesee County, and raised his family before deciding to sell his business in 2001.

“I honestly thought that was the last doughnut I’d ever make,” he said.

But years later, after falling on hard times, Sowles found himself alone, unemployed and living in his Mercury Villager van.

“When I walked into Carriage Town in May 2016, that was the first time I came to the realization that I was homeless,” he said. “That was really hard because I’d always worked my whole life.”

Carriage Town shelters nearly 150 men, women and children every night and serves 450 to 500 meals every day.

After a year at Carriage Town and working at another local doughnut shop, Sowles stepped up to help make the shelter’s doughnut-making dream a reality. He lived at the shelter another year before saving enough to move out and buy his own home. Now he works nights at Carriage Town Bakery and teaches other Carriage Town clients the ropes.

Employee selling doughnuts at Carriage Town Bakery
Derek Mason works in retail sales at the new bakery.

Carriage Town Ministries and Blueline Donuts changed his life, Sowles said.

“I had no future and no plan. And when you don’t have a plan, you don’t have nothing,” Sowles said. “But Carriage Town gave me the time to make a plan and now I’m pretty excited because I know where I’m going in life.”

Bakery drawing hungry patrons

Carriage Town Bakery featuring Blueline Donuts is already becoming a destination for people looking for a morning cup of Joe and a doughnut on Flint’s north side.

Open 7 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday at 604 Garland St., the bakery sells about 70 dozen doughnuts each day — more than triple its sales prior to the new bakery’s opening.

“We are so pleased with how things are going,” Gatlin said. “Our hope is that Carriage Town Bakery becomes a place where people can come and really enjoy this part of town.”