Food & Drink » What the Fork

Rubicon Bakery and the Sweet Business of Second Chances

Plus traditional Ethiopian coffee comes to Uptown Oakland.

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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, and 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.

Rubicon Bakery hired her because that's what it does: Almost all of the company's 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's 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 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.

That success hasn't come easily, according to Andrew Stoloff, who bought the bakery from Rubicon Programs 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 tiny staff.

When Stoloff came on, he hadn't run a bakery before — his background was as a restaurateur. 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 new equipment when Whole Foods came knocking. As originally conceived, the bakery served as a job-training facility more than anything else. Now, as a for-profit venture, the bakery provides full-time work to 85 employees. In addition, under the terms of Stoloff's deal 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, both are able to thrive.

Stoloff said one of the advantages of taking a chance on people no one else will hire is that company loyalty is very high — the bakery experiences extremely low employee turnover.

Ultimately, then, the heart of Rubicon Bakery lies in the stories of people like Young-Eberhart, who said she loves coming to work each day. She's gone back to school, too, and expects to complete a bachelor's degree in psychology in two years.

As Stoloff put it, "We don't turn their lives around; they turn their lives around. We give them the chance to do it."

Ethiopian Coffee

Anfilo Coffee (35 Grand Avenue), the Uptown Oakland brick-and-mortar coffee shop whose Grand Lake Farmers' Market stall (then called "Jébeena") What the Fork highlighted last summer, is finally open, after several months of permitting and construction delays. The cafe had its soft opening last Friday, January 18, and hours are tentatively set for 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.

Right now the menu consists only of coffee and tea, but owner Ambessaw Assegued said he'll start rolling out a limited food menu as early as this week: Western-style pastries, salads and soups, and a few Ethiopian items, too. Most of the food, with the exception of the pastries, will be made in-house.

Opening a new cafe now is a bit of a risky gambit — Oakland has no shortage of coffee shops, and Farley's East is right next door. But Assegued hopes there will be enough customers looking for something different.

They've aimed to create a place for coffee lovers to stay and linger. And while espresso drinks and quick-serve coffee to go will be available, the focus is on coffee served the traditional Ethiopian way: a smooth, rich brew that's heated over an open flame and poured, unfiltered, out of the jug-shaped clay pot known as a jébeena.

Is there room for something like that in Oakland's crowded coffee scene? Here's hoping.

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