Outside, the temperature climbs toward 110 degrees. Inside, Mariel Montiel is baking cupcakes. Most Tucsonans avoid ovens during fierce summer heat, but Montiel is prepping for a summer deal she has put together: six cupcakes, six cookies, six brownies, delivered to your door for $25. In a white apron and hairnet, she sifts chickpea flour into a large plastic bowl. Nearby, employee Rebecca Drake builds cardboard boxes at a long card table. Wednesdays are big baking days for Tilted Halos, a vegan, gluten-free baked goods business with a mission.
Montiel stumbled into the baking business.
Her journey began with recovery from addiction. Four years ago, as she entered a sober lifestyle and watched her then-boyfriend facing release from prison, Montiel began thinking about the tremendous barriers people face when re-entering their communities after addiction and incarceration. In her 12-step program, Montiel met many people with one or more felonies. “I got to thinking how hard it is to get clean without any obstacles,” she says. “I don’t have a felony record. I have support from my parents, I had a car, I had a house—and it was very difficult to get back into the workforce.” She wondered what she could do to help.
Around the same time, Montiel starting eating a vegan diet and avoiding gluten. She began to experiment with recipes, using her friends as taste-testers. “And there was a particular cupcake recipe,” she says. “I thought: this is better than anything I’ve had.” She shared the cupcakes with a friend who confirmed their deliciousness. Then, the vision came together for Tilted Halos: a baked goods business that also provides transitional employment and support to people re-entering the workforce after incarceration and addiction. In March 2016, she sold her first cake.
Montiel started small—taking decorating classes at Michael’s and selling goods at farmers’ markets. When her ex-boyfriend was released, he was her first employee. Since then, she has employed two other people: Drake, who began recovery at the same time as Montiel, and Michael Saaby, who was recently released from prison.
Tilted Halos operates through the cottage law. People who prepare food at home for sale must register with the Arizona Department of Health and stipulate that they are cooking in a home kitchen. Montiel can’t make products that need refrigeration, which works, as all her products are dairy free. The law also requires that she, as the sole resident, do all the baking. Her employees help with prep work like labeling and decoration.
The day before the weekly farmers’ market at the Mercado San Augustín, Montiel bakes for three or four hours. Cupcake trays with Chocolate Churro and Chai Latte batter sit on the countertop, waiting to go in the oven. Lining the wall are mahogany shelves stacked with jars of coconut oil, containers of shortening and spices, and food-grade buckets holding chickpea and coconut flour. She bakes every item in her small vintage minioven, which is half the size of a standard oven and can be a bit temperamental.
“I didn’t choose this house knowing I wanted to do this,” she says, laughing. “It’s everything you wouldn’t want. But I made it work.”
Drake sits at the table punching out hearts in red fondant. “I really liked the larger scope of helping addicts in recovery,” she says. “’Cause we do a lot of damage when we use and that involves incarceration for a lot of addicts—that is directly connected to their using. One of the hardest things to do is get a job and find steady employment … Being associated with something that is giving a positive push for people who really need it is really inspiring to me.”
Montiel makes brownies, cookies, and 12 flavors of cupcakes—the most popular are Churro, Cookies and Cream, and Triple Chocolate—and offers vegan and gluten-free lactation cookies. Montiel also makes custom-flavored cakes, including many requested by Narcotics Anonymous members to celebrate sobriety anniversaries.
Montiel says that in recovery she’s met “some of the most intelligent, creative, amazing people I’ve ever known. They’re smarter, more open-minded, loving. I feel that way about people in prison, too. I’m like: Why are these people not out here?” She paraphrases a quote attributed to Pope Francis: “I’m afraid we’ve incarcerated the majority of our moral leaders.”
On a hot July day, Montiel and Michael Saaby set up for the farmers’ market. On the red and white polka-dotted tablecloth are containers of lavender shortbread cookies and Montiel’s newest creation: cupcakes in jars.
Saaby has been working with Mariel for four months while attending the University of Arizona to obtain his certificate as a recovery support specialist. This program will enable him to do peer-to-peer counseling for those recovering from addictive illness. In some ways, this certification is a continuation of work he did in prison. He was released in September 2016 after serving four years. Using literature sent in from the outside, he and two other men began a peer-led recovery program. By the time he left, there were 38 men involved. “Once I started changing my life, I liked doing it—so if I’m able to make it a career, it will make me feel good when I go to work, to be helping somebody,” he says.
One of the biggest obstacles of re-entry from incarceration, particularly for those with a felony, is finding a job. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, more than 650,000 Americans are released from prison annually, and approximately two-thirds are likely to be rearrested within three years. A 2008 study from the Urban Institute found that only 45 percent of Americans who had been to prison had a job eight months after release. Most of them found work through family and friends or by returning to their previous employer.
Saaby says stereotypes are often the biggest hurdle: “People see we have a record or see our charge, and automatically think we are messed up for life. We’re not bad people—give us a chance and you’ll see.”
In 2009, research funded by The National Institute of Justice revealed that in New York City “a criminal record reduced the likelihood of a callback or job offer by nearly 50 percent,” and that this negative effect was substantially larger for black applicants.
On the table, Montiel often places a board with information about Titled Halos’ mission and a sign-up sheet for her prison correspondence program, where she sends monthly cards with inspirational quotes to men and women in Arizona state prisons and jails. While many people have been supportive of the mission, others have questions. “One man said, ‘Why would you trust those people?’” she says, “And I’m like, ‘I am those people. I just haven’t gone to prison.’”
She explains, “I honestly feel like I was spared … I think because my father had money and is a lawyer, I had ways out. It’s so hard to stay clean. I know a lot of good people who have felony records and struggle.”
Part of her goal with employees is to help them reorient to engaging with people on the outside, which includes helping with communication skills. Montiel and Saaby often talk about recovery in lulls at the market. Montiel says, “I think there’s a better chance of re-entering society when you’re in an environment where you can be honest. You don’t have to hide what you’ve done.” She says, “Mikey thrives in it: he glows when he’s working. I want to work with people who want to change or are willing to change.”
Montiel’s business is self-sustaining but doesn’t yet pay all her bills, so she works part-time at a crisis hotline. Some weeks, when she has holiday deals, custom orders, the weekly farmers’ market, and donations to local fundraisers, she bakes every day, in addition to her part-time job. She makes it work because of her employees. “Mikey washed and cleaned my car [for deliveries], he did boxes, he cut business cards, and then Rebecca helped cut fondant decorations,” she says. “Without their help, there’s no way I could have taken all those orders.”
When she can, Montiel incorporates local ingredients, like Meyer Lemon Jam from We Be Jammin’. “The next mission of mine is trying to find more [local] products that work with mine,” she says. “I contacted Flowers and Bullets to get their prickly pear juice for a frosting.”
Drake shares Montiel’s satisfaction in providing baked goods to those who have allergies or dietary restrictions. “When I worked a couple markets with her, there’s such gratitude from people that they have found something they really enjoy that fills that spot of having a comfort food or treating themselves,” she says. “It’s cool to be a part of that.”
The name Tilted Halos came to Montiel while praying one day. “I was looking for a name that had something about redemption or a second chance,” she says. “And I was having a really hard time finding one.” She sat down with a Christian-based meditation book and read. “It said, ‘Jesus Christ ran with a group of Tilted Halos.’ I thought that was perfect. For me and the people working with me. I like people who overcome things.”
Outside her brick home is a large hanging ornament. “It’s funny,” Montiel says. “I got that about 10 years ago. Long before ‘Tilted Halos.’” The metal decoration is of a cupcake, iced, with a cherry on top. ✜
Lisa O’Neill is a freelance writer living in Tucson. Her work focuses on intersections of social justice issues including sustainability and food security. Visit LisaMOneill.com.