The following is a conversation between Jessamyn Rodriguez, founder and CEO of Hot Bread Kitchen, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City.
Denver: It is simply wonderful when a person is able to combine two of their passions, and in so doing, creates something that is unique, interesting, and helps so many people to improve their lives and those of their families. And that is what my next guest has done by merging social justice with baking to come up with what some people refer to as the United Nations of Bread. She is Jessamyn Rodriguez, the founder and CEO of Hot Bread Kitchen. Good evening, Jessamyn and welcome to The Business of Giving.
Jessamyn: Thank you so much for having me. It’s great to be here.
Denver: Give us a quick overview of Hot Bread Kitchen and the mission of the organization.
Jessamyn: Hot Bread Kitchen is a nonprofit social enterprise, and what we do is we help people get good jobs in the culinary industry, and we do that through two programs. We help women, low-income women, learn how to bake and learn how to be culinary professionals through the Bakers in Training Program, and then we run a culinary incubator. The culinary incubator is a place where small scale entrepreneurs can start their food businesses and have access to the licensed commercial kitchen space. What makes us I think really unique is that, to help pay for that and create a venue for training, we run a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week bakery business that is a commercial brand.
I was a super foodie before foodie was a word.
Denver: Sustains it all.
I mentioned a moment ago that social justice has played a role in your life, and that piece was pretty much on track for you. You were in the land mine division of the Canadian government, and you worked with the United Nations in Costa Rica. How and when did the baking piece begin to enter into the equation?
Jessamyn: Before I started Hot Bread Kitchen, my background was really in public policy and nonprofits. I would do that work and went to work every day and typed on my computer and thought about those kinds of issues and really understood that as the right career track for someone that was passionate and interested in social justice. But the reality of it was while I was typing up those memos from my job at the United Nations, I was always on my side brain thinking, “What am I going to have for dinner? Where should I have lunch?” I was a super foodie; before foodie was a word, I was a foodie.
Love was in my happiest place when I was entertaining people, providing delicious food for people. In the kind of work that I was doing and just what I’m really interested in, I spent a lot of time abroad and traveled a lot. Now, when I look back on those very formative and very exciting travel experiences in my 20s, the thread between all of it was that I was looking for the best bakery and looking for the best places to eat. Again, this was like before there were food blogs. So, I would read and scour the local newspaper and talk to people about the best place to find the freshest and most traditional foods and places. So, food was the hobby and policy was the work, and I was really fortunate to find this Aha! moment in a job or an organization that married both of those.
Denver: You also said something that somebody misunderstood that kind of planted a seed in your brain as well.
Jessamyn: Early on in my career, I interviewed for a job at Women’s World Banking, and Women’s World Banking is a microfinance institution that makes loans to entrepreneurs in the developing world. Didn’t get the job, but told someone about it, and he heard Women’s World Baking, not Banking. That slip of the tongue, and literally, it was a slip of the tongue, was incredibly evocative for me. This idea of an immigrant women’s baking collective where women could bring talent and passion and bread to a place where we could help them upscale their talent and get good jobs in the industry. The delicious by-product of that being different … breads for me just hit me in the professional sweet spot between the impact I wanted to have with my work and the kind of work that I wanted to do. But I didn’t have any social capital or financial capital at that point, and I didn’t think I was an entrepreneur. So, I tabled it. Someone else is going to have that brilliant idea, and nobody did. So, about eight years later, I got started.
Denver: One of the ways you got started, and it was very smart and practical is that you got yourself an apprenticeship to find out whether this was really for you, and also to learn a little bit about the field. Tell us where that was and what you learned.
Jessamyn: Too often, I see people starting up businesses and not really understanding whether they would like the work they would be doing. It happens all the time… or even just taking jobs where people are like, “Well I like this title.” You know that what you’re going to be doing all day is entering invoices, or you know what you’re going to be doing all day is standing on your feet, packing cupcakes. You might like the end product, but do you like the nature of the work? So, probably the smartest thing I ever did was while I was working a day job, I got an apprenticeship in the bakery of a very prestigious bakery, very prestigious restaurant here in New York called Daniel, and I apprenticed there for about a year and a half, and then I actually got hired, and I was the first woman to be hired in that bakery which has now become… we’ve had many women placed there and worked there since.
I love being in the bakery. The idea all of a sudden became a lot more feasible when I realized that I loved being surrounded by flour. I love the camaraderie. I love working on my feet as opposed to sitting behind the desk. All of those pieces, I was like… okay, check, check, check. I learned a little bit about baking, not enough to run the large scale bakery that we have now. But I learned enough about baking to get started.
Denver: This was for you. And the way you got started was with this business or nonprofit organization out of your apartment. Do you remember your first sale?
Jessamyn: I do remember my first sale. Of course. Actually, it was funny. I remember the first sale. When we first started, we did a couple of small scale catering gigs. The first thing I had to do was find some women who were interested in the program that we were going to do. I never wanted to run a traditional bakery, and I never wanted to run a traditional nonprofit. For me it was like, Okay! Find the woman who has the right talent, skill, interest in a career in this who knows how to make some delicious stuff, and see whether there was a match there… Identify a couple of women who are interested in this with me, and then the first sales we made were more like catering gigs. Charge nothing for the universe of food, worked our tail off and got in front of the right people with the product. Then we got a couple of small wholesale accounts, a little cheese store that I love… somebody that I knew, and then the first regular sales we had were at some farmers markets.
If you look up “bootstrap” in the dictionary, that was me 10 years ago.
Denver: You were selling all the time. You were not going out seeking capital or whatever. You were sustaining this strictly with sales.
Jessamyn: If you look up “bootstrap” in the dictionary, that was me 10 years ago. In the beginning it was really really bootstrapped, and that was just what I did. The idea felt so unique. I didn’t even really… I felt like I needed to prove the concept before I went out and looked for outside investment. In the beginning, it was really just like sell bread, train women, sell bread, train women. I think a key gap that many entrepreneurs recognize is that I also needed to pay the bills. So, I was consulting and working still to keep the lights on in my apartment.
…we won the RFP, and that in many ways was a huge lever to our growth because up until that point, we were sort of running a bakery without a bakery.
Denver: You moved out to some facility in Queens but this idea of Hot Bread Kitchen really entered the new phase when you responded to an RFP by the Bloomberg administration. What was that RFP for?
Jessamyn: There is this very cool space in East Harlem which is called La Marqueta, and it’s been up there since the 30’s. It’s a public market that was built by Mayor LaGuardia. It was kind of like a clean-up-the streets project to get ambulant street vendors out of the streets and indoors. So, we’re underneath the Metro North tracks in East Harlem, really prime real estate. We’re at 115 St. & Park Avenue. The market was there and had been there in the 30’s. In the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s, it was a hugely popular public market. My in-laws are Dominican, and they used to go there and buy Caribbean vegetables. Because it was the only place in the city where you could get plantain and Yukon, those kind of things.
Then in the 70’s, demographics changed. The city went broke and underinvested in this market. Grocery stores started carrying those kinds of products, and the market went a little bit down. So, when I saw it in 2009, what had been this huge foot traffic market was getting used to at the height of popularity about 10,000 walkthroughs a day. And when I visited, there was only really two or three active vendors, and they were really running lotto businesses. They weren’t selling much.
But the Bloomberg administration was eager to innovate and think of great ways to use city-owned assets, and so they issued a public RFP looking for someone to come into that space and reinvigorate food entrepreneurship. So, we… and when I say “we,” really “me” because at that point there wasn’t much of a team. I responded to the RFP and said we would love to think with you about how to support food entrepreneurs. And also will you help us with some of the capital to build out this bakery to help women get better jobs? And we won the RFP, and that in many ways was a huge lever to our growth because up until that point, we were sort of running a bakery without a bakery.
…we breaducate New Yorkers and people across the country about different kinds of breads.
Denver: Probably the biggest space you saw up to then. Probably figured: “How will we ever outgrow this space, but we’ll get to that later on!”
Before we get to your program, tell us what kind of breads do you make?
Jessamyn: Core to the story and the mission of the organization is that we breaducate New Yorkers and people across the country about different kinds of breads. Every day at Hot Bread Kitchen, under the train tracks, we mix over a ton of dough that gets shaped into 75 different products, and many of those products are inspired by the different countries that women come from.
We make breads that you wouldn’t see on every bakery list. We make this phenomenal Moroccan flatbread called the Msemen. That’s our bestseller. Buttery, flakey flatbread. We make Mexican tortillas. We do some Persian breads. So, this is real kind of global feeling to the bread list, and I think that very much is kind of core to this inspiration that we pull from all of the women. Since we have started, we’ve trained women from 43 different countries. So, the goal is to have a bakery that reflects that.
Denver: Is there anything distinctive about your bread, Jessamyn, that if somebody were to take a bite of a piece, they would say, “Oh yeah, this must be from Hot Bread Kitchen.”
Jessamyn: I think what’s distinct about our breads is the diversity in what you look at. Every bread is a little bit different. Everything is slow fermented. Really high quality product. But what makes us really distinct is the variety that you can find.
What we’re looking for is sense of urgency, interest in growing a career. A love of food helps, because quality control is a big part, and we’re placing people in very high end food facilities.
Denver: Tell us about the women in the program. You just mentioned they come from 43 countries. How do you find them, or how do they find you?
Jessamyn: All of the women that participate in the Bakers in Training Program are women who have barriers to employment and are coming from underemployment or unemployment in the previous yehttps://fizzle.co/ar. About 50% of the women in the program are foreign born and from the range of countries, and the other women are facing some other barriers to employment… so coming out of incarceration or situations of domestic violence.
Recently, in New York, what we’re seeing a lot more of is housing instability, so women who are living in shelters. So, there’s these real severe barriers to employment, and most women have a lot of them. Last night, we had a graduation for 29 women, and half of them were mothers and single mothers. There’s a lot of reasons why women aren’t getting good jobs. So, this is about taking women who have the right skill set and marrying them with the right job.
The recruitment process… to get into the program, it is a little bit competitive because we’re really screening for employability. What we’re looking for is sense of urgency, interest in growing a career. A love of food helps because quality control is a big part, and we’re placing people in very high end food facilities.
The interest to learn the difference between arugula and spinach or whole wheat flour, white flour, bleached flour and unbleached flour. These aren’t hard things, but it helps if there’s a love and interest in food. Even if women don’t bake, but they cook at home, really helps for us to screen to ensure that women are employable. So, we work with a lot of great community-based organizations. I’m sure some of them have been on your show. We work with the International Rescue Committee for referrals for women who’ve just arrived from refugee resettlement, the settlement houses; the libraries where they’re doing a lot of ESL training are great referral sources for us. We really just want to get in front of the people that are working with those women who can help us screen for this kind of core talent skill that we’re looking for.
Denver: And a lot of word of mouth too.
Jessamyn: And a lot of word of mouth too. Truthfully, the women who are most successful in the program overwhelmingly come from word of mouth. The sisters and the mothers and the daughters of the women that have done the program because it’s not for everyone. So, very often, women graduate from the program, they’re like, “That was tough! But I got a great job, and now I’m not going to tell all my girlfriends, but there’s one woman that I know that would be right for the program.” And that for us is the strongest referral source.
Denver: Tell us about the program. What do these women learn to do? And what kind of support do you provide for them?
Jessamyn: The Bakers in Training Program is in total a four-month training program. Women start with a fundamentals class that includes bakery science and some technical stuff around baking, it’s knife skills; it’s sanitation. What we want to teach women is how to work cleanly, work quickly, how to protect themselves, how to protect their colleagues, and how to protect their customers.
We always tell people that in food prep, you’re in the life-saving business. So, that’s a core tenement of what we teach. We do this fundamentals class, and then they go into an apprenticeship where they really get to learn on the job how different industry works. An ongoing component of that is definitely English classes. Many of the women, like I said, are foreign born. So making sure women upskill their English so that they’re strong enough to communicate with their managers and their colleagues on the job. After three months, this is kind of our hallmark and what makes us really unique; everybody that gets through that training program gets a job.
Denver: Pretty cool! What are some of those jobs? Where have some of your graduates gone?
Jessamyn: There is not a piece of artisan bread that’s sold in the five boroughs that hasn’t been touched by women from Hot Bread Kitchen. We really do have women at all the best bakeries in the city. Amy’s Breads, Maison Kayser, Zaro’s Bakery in The Bronx. Then in the last couple of years, we sort of expanded beyond that. We have women at Google cafeterias which are run by Restaurant Associates. Some of the fast casual restaurants are sort of expanding a little bit.
Denver: In addition to all this as you mentioned before, you started something called Hot Bread Kitchen Incubates (HBK). Tell us about that program.
Jessamyn: HBK Incubates is a sister program to the Bakers in Training Program. It exists to help people who have food businesses formalize. What the problem that we respond to is that it is hard to get the money that you need to build out a kitchen if you want to start a food business. You can’t sell or grow a business from a home kitchen although I did, for a second. But I’m scrappy. The challenge that entrepreneurs face is they have a great product. People do grow their businesses out of their home, but then at the time that they go to land their first sale at the grocery store or a catering gig, they need all of these insurances and food handling certificates, and they need to move into a kitchen. But it’s a very risky business before you’ve proven concept and profitability.
So, the Incubator is a suite of licensed commercial kitchen spaces where food entrepreneurs can bring their businesses and grow their businesses. It’s nine rentable kitchen spaces that we rent by the hour to right now, 80 different food businesses. Everything is in that program. So, protein bars, caterers, bakers, cookie makers, salsa makers. There’s a real range of kinds of food businesses that operate out of that space.
Then what we provide in addition to that licensed kitchen space is business support. On staff, we have a business advisor. We have a series of workshops on everything from human resource law to packaging and logistics– the full suite of technical skills that people need to grow food businesses. It’s sort of like a community of culinary entrepreneurs.
Denver: Has it been hard to balance building a bread business on one hand and running an incubator on the other?
Jessamyn: Yeah, and running a training school. It’s a bit insane. It’s hard to balance. I wouldn’t have done it any other way. The programs are synergistic, and it’s been great to watch how those three things feed off each other. But it is really like running three very different businesses under one roof.
Denver: When you started this, you sort of kicked around that Hot Bread Kitchen might be a self-sustaining nonprofit based on all the sales you’re able to make. But philanthropy has also become part of the equation. It allowed you to do some of these other things for women that you mentioned a moment ago. Give us a sense of the balance and give a sense of your business model. 0
Jessamyn: We have three revenue streams into the organization–bread sales, rentals from the kitchen, and philanthropy. Bread sales is by far the largest revenue source into the bakery, and philanthropy is the second largest. This is not normal for a nonprofit. Having such a strong earned revenue stream historically, if you look over the last 10 years, we’re about 65% sustained through those two earned revenue streams, and that has been very liberating and has allowed us to remain very innovative. The full dependence on philanthropic support can sometimes be very difficult. It’s a difficult balance to strike around innovation and growth. So the earned revenue has really given us the ability to grow and think about how the organization can change and keep up with demand.
That said, the work that we do that is charitable– so the classes that we run, the social workers that support the women graduates, the postgraduate support that we provide; all of the hours and hours of technical assistance that we put into those small businesses to get them to the point where we can graduate…. is a cost center for the organization, and the philanthropy pays a very key role in that.
So the early stage perspective, the Key Performance Indicators( KPI) for the organization would be how quickly bread sales could sustain the organization didn’t really consider the full potential of the impact we would have with the philanthropic support. So, we are very good at taking philanthropic dollars and putting them directly to the women that need it, and in a way, why wouldn’t you do that, right? If we could raise more money, then we should also be offering child care. Helping women through other struggles that they face in their lives. And about 2014, my board was like, “Stop pushing that as the main agenda.” They were like, that’s laudable as an entrepreneur, but as the CEO of a nonprofit organization, that shouldn’t be the key metric. The key metric is: How many women are we training? And how good is the training that we’re providing? How many businesses are we supporting? And how important is that economic impact that comes from those businesses?
Denver: You also need to be practical as you are. These women have lives, and they have challenges; and you’ve got to bring it all together.
With sales being the lifeblood of the operation, who are your major partners? And where is your bread sold?
Jessamyn: We have 150 different wholesale customers. Whole Foods is our biggest customer. About 10% of all the bread we make goes to Whole Foods, so they’ve been a tremendous partner. They also hire graduates from the training program. We do all of the croutons for Chopped Salad. JetBlue has been an important partner for us, Bread on Board. We sell to Restaurant Associates and some of the larger restaurant groups, and then a lot of local restaurants.
About 30% of the bread we sell goes direct to consumer and that’s through our E-commerce channels. You can go to our website and buy Hot Bread Kitchen bread and get it shipped to your house. You can even get a bread subscription, so it shows up every month, and through our farmers markets. We have farmers markets in Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, and the Bronx, and that is a great way to support us and see the full scope of the breads that we make.
Denver: Jessamyn have you ever thought of taking Hot Bread Kitchen to another city? Or is New York more than enough to keep you busy at the moment?
Jessamyn: We do. The goal was always to scale to other cities, and that’s kind of what we’re working on now. But the first thing that we need to do: New York is such a tremendous market for bread; but also to be blunt about it, it’s also a place of real high poverty and need. So, the work that we’re doing now is about training more women and selling more bread, really using the New York market to its full extent so that we can then move into other cities. Yes, look for us soon in other cities.
I like to open every meeting with a round of kudos to people, making sure that we pause to celebrate all of the hard work that goes on.
Denver: Hot Bread Kitchen is a very distinctive place. I would also imagine you have a very distinctive corporate culture among your staff. Why don’t you describe it for us. And what do you think makes it such a special place to work?
Jessamyn: When people join the Hot Bread Kitchen team, everybody is surprised at how quickly things move and how much happens in the organization… because we run a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week bakery and an incubator with 80 interesting, captivating entrepreneurs, and a training program that is a nonstop center of energy… and that is a really exciting place to work.
I think the ability to see transparency in such different business models has made it a really interesting place to work. We try hard to celebrate success, and the work we have done on that has been really satisfying. I like to open every meeting with a round of kudos to people making sure that we pause to celebrate all of the hard work that goes on. We have an Employee of the Month; we call it Rise Program, and I think it’s been very satisfying for people. Especially as you grow, culture definition is an ongoing project.
Denver: It’s never done.
How does Hot Bread Kitchen, the way it has unfolded and the way it looks today, compare to your early visions for it?
Jessamyn: It is such an honor to have a big vision. An Immigrant women baking collective is where I started. It is such an honor to have that clarity of vision and create that place. it is such an honor to have that vision and see it come to fruition. Some days I walk to work and I’m like, Holy smoke! This is the United Nations of Bread. This is the immigrant women’s baking collective that I envisioned 15 years ago. What I would have never guessed is what it would take to get here. One cannot predict what business growth feels like. So, it is what I wanted; what I thought it would take to get here is not what I expected.
Denver: Let me close with Jessamyn. What does it mean to these women to have their children, particularly their daughters, see their mom be so successful?
Jessamyn: I guess it’s because I’m a mom now. I just weep when I go to graduations. Weep with joy and pride at the impact of children watching their mothers succeed and go through this program. It’s one thing to know my mom graduated from high school; my mom has a degree. It’s another thing to watch your mother invest in herself, come out of all of the hardship that poverty brings on women– and single mothers in particular in the city. To watch women emerge from that victorious and have their children experience that with them is incredible.
Last night at graduation, one woman spoke, and there were tears and tears and tears, and we gave out diplomas and congratulated everyone. Let me remind you, these are all women that have full-time jobs. So, women coming out of unemployment. They do the program. Now, they’re graduating and they already have a full-time position. We give the diploma to one woman, and the kid in the audience yells, “That’s my mom!” I just welled. I’d been crying already. Eyes just welled up, and I just couldn’t help but just feel the impact of that. That’s how you change generational poverty, is to help women bring resources to their families. I hope I do something someday that makes my daughter as proud of me as these kids are of their mothers, having watched the strength that it has taken to get through the program.
Denver: You may already have.
Jessamyn Rodriguez, the founder and CEO of Hot Bread Kitchen. I want to thank you so much for being here this evening. Tell us about your website and, again, where can people pick up your bread or have it delivered to their front door?
Jessamyn: Our website is hotbreadkitchen.org. Go to the shop page, and there’s all sorts of opportunities to buy. What the website is great for is gifts. It’s such a nice wedding gift. I love sending it for new mothers. Bread is the perfect gift, and that’s what the website is great for. If you are in the region, Whole Foods is a great place to buy our breads, and nationally, some products are stocked through Whole Foods, so you can always ask. Then, the farmers markets. The best way to support the organization and see the breadth of breads that we do in the bakery is to visit us in one of our green markets, and all of those are listed on the website as well.
There’s two really powerful ways to support the organization. You can shop for our breads, and also we are a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, so you can make a donation to support our work.
Denver: Fantastic. Thanks Jessamyn. It was so nice to have you on the program.
Jessamyn: Thank you.
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