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Tuesday, Dec 6, 2022
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Dough Girl Bakes Hope in Business

It’s opening time at Dough Girl pizza shop in Lake Balboa and all is not well. The kitchen’s drainpipes haven’t been cleaned, boxes haven’t been folded, the ovens aren’t heating up and one of the refrigerators is turned off, meaning the pizza toppings have gone warm. Owner Mar Diego just arrived and is hustling to make sure her storefront is ready for the day’s first customers. “I deal with so much B.S.,” Diego said. “I have a system for it now.” In addition to slinging some of the best and healthiest pizza in the Valley, Dough Girl has a noble purpose: to employ teens and other locals going through hard times, from financial instability to homelessness to addiction. That mission means things don’t always go as smoothly as they could. “It goes south all the time,” Diego said. Today it was a young man named Blue who slipped up. But Diego and the Dough Girl employment model are all about second chances. Diego, from the San Fernando Gardens project in Pacoima, found her calling as a chef while working in the kitchen during a prison sentence for drug-related charges. When she got out, she started Dough Girl as the first vegan and vegetarian-friendly dining option on Victory Boulevard in one of Lake Balboa’s lower-income neighborhoods. “There’s a high school across the street, and I wanted to educate (students) on dairy-free, gluten-free, and all these allergies that they might not know they have so they keep eating them,” Diego said. “I started seeing kids that were homeless or on drugs coming in and asking for food.” Rather than kick them out, she would commission them for chore work around the shop — things like taking out the trash, folding pizza boxes, sweeping the floor — in exchange for meals. Since opening in November 2014, Dough Girl has blossomed into a local institution and a support system for the neighborhood’s youth, offering a steady income, flexible work hours and opportunities for upward growth. “Mar was there for me, you know, she helped me out. And now I’m helping her out, and I’m trying to help these kids out,” said Andrew Owens, a Dough Girl chef. Diego intends to expand Dough Girl, purpose and all, into a franchise with locations from Sun Valley to Canoga Park to East L.A. She sees this first shop as a testing ground to make sure the model works. The next place she’ll bring Dough Girl is her hometown of Pacoima — a means of giving back to the community and showing residents that they, too, can pave a way out. “Sometimes you question your path because of the hardships,” Diego said. “But when I see a kid go from crackhead homeless to someone that knows they have opportunities, that’s the paycheck.”

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