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Still rising: Rubicon Bakery’s amazing run

on September 26, 2014

The air smells intoxicatingly sweet on the factory floor at Rubicon Bakery. During the afternoon shift change, bakers clean sticky batter and frosting from the belts, presses, and ovens.

Those hanging up their hair nets and once-white baker’s aprons and those just coming in for the next shift are part of Rubicon’s 90-or-so deep workforce, a stark contrast to the 14 part-time employees at the same location just five years ago.

The 23rd Street bakery opened in 1993 as a non-profit, job-training center for ex-convicts and recovering addicts in the Rubicon Programs system. After years of mild success with cafés and local stores, it started to hemorrhage money and the board began hunting for a buyer.

“But they needed someone who would keep the same mission,” says Frankie Whitman, director of marketing. “They would have rather closed the doors than see that go.”

Enter Andrew Stoloff, a Bay Area restaurateur and former Wall Streeter from Philadelphia.

A board member and friend had asked him to help with the buyer search, but Stoloff ended up purchasing Rubicon himself — the old building, donated equipment, unlikely employees — warts and all.

“I fell in love with the mission,” he says of the bakery’s second-chance, clean-slate hiring philosophy. “I promised [the employees] right off the bat, ‘I’m not going to fire anyone.’”

“I saw what a difference it made in their lives,” Stoloff says. “And I thought — against my better judgment and the advice of my family and friends — maybe I can turn this place around.”

In one month of transformation, Stoloff renegotiated contracts with ingredient suppliers, improved in-house efficiency, and quickly brought Rubicon, now a for-profit business, back into the black.

When he first came on, they were producing a few hundred cakes a day. Now Rubicon bakes up 120 different products at 3,000 cakes a day, filling five semi-tractor trailers of cakes, tarts, cookies, cinnamon bread, and “anything sweet.” (And at 25,000 pounds a week, sugar is unsurprisingly the biggest expense.)

Many of those trucks spread out across Northern California, where Stoloff says the Rubicon name is well known. Contracts with some western regions of the rapidly growing Whole Foods supermarket chain have been great for business, but the real challenge has been expanding into larger markets out of the area.

From now until Christmas is the baker’s busy season. And next month, as a sort of audition, ten Safeway locations will feature select Rubicon products: red velvet and “very strawberry” cakes, and red velvet and chocolate truffle cupcakes.

Stoloff and Whitman say a connection with a big-name, national retailer (more centralized than Whole Foods) is the key to deals with distributors. But for now, as always, “the mission comes first.”

Sixty percent of the employees are from Richmond. And even though the bakery is quickly outgrowing its space, Stoloff says he’s committed to staying on 23rd Street and “moving is a last resort.”

Many of the applicants walk in from the neighborhood. “If they’re ready to work, we’re ready to hire them,” Whitman says. “We don’t care where you’ve been.” It’s quite the offer for people who so often have to wear their criminal history like an albatross around their neck when looking for work.

“We’re not in the business of turning people’s lives around,” Stoloff says. “That’s up to them. All we’re doing is providing the opportunity.”

Employees each get a piece of the pie, working full-time with full benefits and full support. Workers earn anywhere from $9 to $24 per hour. Rubicon started a no-interest loan program where employees can borrow money for a kid’s birthday or car troubles or anything else that might come up unexpectedly. Whitman says it’s no wonder the employees are so loyal. “They’re just so grateful.”

The warehouse manager, Fred, who prefers to be known by one name, has been with Rubicon since the bakery opened in ’93. A man down on his luck, once caught up in the drug scene, Old Fred (as he also calls himself) found a second chance somewhere between the batter and frosting.

“Listen to Old Fred,” he says, placing a pallet on the floor and stepping forward. “Mr. Stoloff is the savior of this place, and every day is like working with a family here. I’ve loved watching it grow.”

Like Whitman says: “It’s a really sweet place.”

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