Rubicon Bakery and the Sweet Business of Second Chances

by

comment

Every morning, Sheila Young-Eberhart arrives at the 18,000-square-foot manufacturing facility for Richmond’s Rubicon Bakery, punches the clock, and gets to work. She’s the bakery’s quality assurance manager: one of the last lines of defense in making sure every cupcake, marshmallow, bite-size brownie leaves looking and tasting the way it’s supposed to. By all accounts, she is a model employee.

But before Young-Eberhart started her entry-level job in Rubicon’s packaging department four years ago, she was a drug addict who’d just completed a four-month stint in jail. She wanted to turn her life around but had few realistic employment prospects.

Sheila Young-Eberhart credits Rubicon Bakery with helping her turn her life around.
  • Luke Tsai
  • Sheila Young-Eberhart credits Rubicon Bakery with helping her turn her life around.
Rubicon Bakery hired her because that’s what it does: Almost all of the company’s 85 full-time employees are ex-cons, recovering drug addicts, and the recently homeless. Many of them are funneled in through the job-training services offered by Rubicon Programs, the Richmond-based nonprofit that founded the bakery in 1993. It is a company that has staked its entire business model on the idea that people deserve a second chance.

“Rubicon saved my life, literally. I don't know where I would be right now,” Young-Eberhart said.

Her success — and eventual promotion to a management position — is part of Rubicon Bakery’s larger success story as a socially conscious business. In its twenty-year history, the bakery has gone from selling cakes out of a van to putting a whole line of baked goods and confections on the shelves of Andronico’s and Whole Foods supermarkets throughout the Bay Area and beyond.

Packaging cakes at Rubicon Bakerys manufacturing facility.
  • Luke Tsai
  • Packaging cakes at Rubicon Bakery's manufacturing facility.
That success hasn’t come easily, according to Andrew Stoloff, who bought the bakery from Rubicon Programs a little over three years ago, in November of 2009. At the time, Stoloff said, the bakery had grown beyond the point where the nonprofit was able to manage it effectively — it had a shoestring budget and a staff of only about a dozen employees. It was losing money every month.

When Stoloff came on, he hadn’t run a bakery before — his background was a restaurateur (he’s the owner of Red Tractor Cafe, which closed its Rockridge location years ago, but has another location in Dublin that’s still open). But, though the learning curve was steep, he was convinced that the bakery could better achieve its social mission as a for-profit enterprise.

To wit: When it was run as a nonprofit, the bakery never could have invested tens of thousands of dollars in buying the new equipment it needed when Whole Foods came knocking. As originally conceived, the bakery served as a job training facility more than anything else — employees would come in, work for a few months, pick up some skills, and then go out into the workforce.

Now, as a for-profit venture, the bakery provides full-time work (a modest living, to be sure, but a steady one) to 85 employees — a sevenfold increase. In addition, under the terms of the deal Stoloff cut with Rubicon Programs, a cut of the bakery’s annual profits goes back to the nonprofit: a total of $70,000 over the past two years — considerably more than the bakery ever made when it was run as a nonprofit.

All told, Stoloff believes the bakery can serve as a new hybrid model for social enterprises. By separating out the nonprofit organization from the business entity, he believes both are able to thrive.

Andrew Stoloff bought Rubicon Bakery three years ago.
  • Luke Tsai
  • Andrew Stoloff bought Rubicon Bakery three years ago.
Many of the bakery’s current employees started out as participants in Rubicon Programs’ on-the-job training services, but Stoloff said he’s also hired plenty of eager-to-work people who just showed up at the door.

“Anybody who walks in the door who is ready to work is qualified as far as we're concerned,” Stoloff said. “We're hiring people who don't know how to hold a job, and we're training them to hold a job.”

One of the advantages of being in the business of second chances — of taking on the risk inherent in hiring people no one else will hire — is that it fosters company loyalty. According to Stoloff, the bakery experiences extremely low employee turnover in a high-turnover industry. He said he’s had to fire “less than a handful” of people in three years.

Ultimately, then, the heart of Rubicon Bakery still lies in the stories of people like Young-Eberhart, who has started taking night classes and expects to complete a bachelor’s degree in psychology in two years. She says she loves coming to work each day, and it’s easy to see why: All her co-workers have come out of a similar place in life, so there’s no fear of judgment.

It helps too that, as Stoloff put it, the bakery business is a “happy business.” The work is hard work, but there are perks: the smell of cinnamon perfuming the air, “research and development” that consists of tasting the beta version of a new cookie recipe, and the immediate gratification of creating something that people like to eat.

“We don’t turn [our employees’] lives around; they turn their lives around,” Stoloff said. “We give them the chance to do it.”

Add a comment