Andrew Stoloff, owner of Rubicon Bakery in Richmond, Calif., has a secret he’d like to share. Hiring people with barriers to employment can result in some of the most loyal workers anywhere. And it makes good business sense. Is anybody listening?
Baking is a business that Stoloff fell into by chance. Nonprofit Rubicon Programs had operated the bakery since 1993 to train homeless people, ex-offenders and recovering substance abusers. The bakery was losing money, and Rubicon recruited Stoloff, a local restaurateur and former Morgan Stanley director, to help sell it. After finding little interest in the business, Stoloff decided to buy it himself. The terms were that it would continue to hire the same sort of workers it did in the past.
That was in 2009. Since then, Rubicon Bakery has increased its staff from 14 part-time to 100 full-time employees and increased its output from less than 1,000 cakes per day to about 5,000. It sells through a distributor to places like Whole Foods, Andronico’s, Mollie Stone’s and smaller San Francisco Bay Area stores.
What does Stoloff look for in the people he hires? “Someone who has committed to turning their life around and is not afraid of hard work,” he says. “We don’t turn people’s lives around or even help them turn their lives around. Rather we give people a break if they’ve demonstrated what they have done to turn their lives around.”
And among those who have done that are ex-offenders, who make up about 15 percent of the bakery’s workforce.
Once hired, new employees start right to work. There’s no official training program, and Stoloff doesn’t expect anyone who starts working there to have any baking skills. Some do, however, including people he hires from Emeryville’s The Bread Project.
Each new employee is assigned a buddy who has been working at Rubicon and knows how things are done. It’s a kind of mentoring relationship that works well, says Stoloff. And the proof is in the low turnover in an industry that tends toward the opposite.
The personal training/mentoring is crucial, as the company makes more than 100 different products and each of those has a different process, but Stoloff is pleased with his loyal employees.
In fact, he’s learned a very important lesson in his new venture: If you give people a second chance, they very frequently surprise you at what they can accomplish.
Knowing that, he has a suggestion for how ex-offenders can increase their odds of securing a job.
“They need to tell their story and explain to a potential employer what they’ve been through, how low they got in their life and how hard they’ve worked to make sure they never go back there again,” he says. “Any employer who is willing to listen will realize that, yes, they made some really bad choices, but this is a pretty exceptional person.”
And hiring this sort of person is a win-win for everyone involved.
“Not only should you hire them to do a good thing for society, but you should do it for your business. When I bought the bakery the condition of the sale was that I maintain the social mission. What I learned is that it makes business sense. I have all of these very loyal employees that I wouldn’t normally have. If businesses understood that, they’d all be better off. And the rest of us would be too.”