Case Study

What Works: A Love of Baking Gives Rise to Economic Opportunity for NYC’s Immigrant Women

Objective: To highlight a unique model of workforce development, in which a social enterprise providing training for low-income immigrant women is sustained through the sale of breads the trainees baked, and the revenue generated by the company’s culinary kitchen incubator.

Main Topic: Social enterprise

Geography: East Harlem, NYC

Major Participants: Hot Bread Kitchen

Background: For the first ten years of her career, Jessamyn Rodriguez worked for different NGOs and governmental agencies and had dedicated herself to policy work that focused on issues of immigration, human rights and social justice. Although the work was intellectually stimulating, she found it was otherwise high-level and too theoretical. Rodriguez wanted to be on the ground, offering support and resources to people in a way that would affect long-term change.

One day, during a conversation with a friend, Rodriguez mentioned she had recently interviewed for a position with Women’s World Banking. Her friend misheard her, and thought Rodriguez had said Women’s World Baking. “My mind quickly filled with images of women from all over the world baking together, sharing recipes and cultures,” explains Rodriguez. “When I had that idea, I couldn’t ignore it.”

Rodriguez let the idea simmer for several years before deciding to make the leap. She was already a talented chef, but knew that in order for her business model to work, she’d also need to learn to bake. So she enrolled in the master baking program at The New School in NYC, and locked in an apprenticeship at Restaurant Daniel, a classic French bakery and world-renowned restaurant located in Manhattan. Rodriguez was the first woman hired at the restaurant.

While her hands were kneading away at dough, her mind was focused on how to create economic opportunities for women. Having grown up in Toronto, Rodriguez had a tremendous appreciation for ethnic foods and the contributions of immigrants to their communities. She saw an opportunity to bring women together from diverse backgrounds, teach them how to bake an array of ethnic breads that could be sold throughout the city, and in the meantime, provide low-income women with the skills needed to be successful in the food industry.

In 2007, Rodriguez opened her home in downtown Brooklyn to a small group of women. Together, they developed a line of five multi-ethnic breads that could be sold at local farmers’ markets. The “Bakers in Training” program grew quickly, and before long, Hot Bread Kitchen moved into a shared commercial kitchen in Queens. Eventually, Hot Bread Kitchen outgrew the space, and today, the operation is based out of the La Marqueta building in East Harlem, just a few blocks away from NYC’s largest housing project.

The move to La Marqueta was not accidental. In its heyday, La Marqueta was an indoor market visited by thousands of shoppers a day, many of them recent immigrants in search of products from their native countries. During the 1970s and 1980s, the number of shoppers declined and many vendors were forced to close their doors. In 2010, in an attempt to revive La Marqueta’s entrepreneurial history, the Bloomberg Administration issued an RFP to solicit interest from culinary incubators. Rodriguez made the case that many of the women who came through Bakers in Training identified as entrepreneurs, and estimated that most of the incubator spaces could be filled with program graduates. The City was convinced, and Hot Bread Kitchen was selected as La Marqueta’s anchor tenant.

How it Works: Hot Bread Kitchen (HBK) is a social enterprise dedicated to improving the lives of low-income and minority women facing economic insecurity. HBK has two primary components:

  • Bakers in Training is an intensive, six-month paid job training program in which women are given the opportunity to refine their kitchen skills and learn artisan bread baking. The program began out of Rodriguez’s home in 2007 and continues to be the program for which HBK is best known. Today, program participants help to make more than 75 multi-ethnic breads that are then sold throughout the city. In addition, women spend three hours each week taking classes in English, kitchen math, bakery science, professional skills and management. Upon graduation from the program, HBK helps place women in bakeries and restaurants where they are paid at least $12.75/hour and receive benefits. Applications to the program are accepted on a rolling basis, with the majority of women referred by others who have gone through the program or through various social service agencies.
  • HBK Incubates was launched in 2011 to support the growth of startup businesses, bring food entrepreneurship back to the historic public market at La Marqueta, and aid in the creation of good jobs and good, diverse foods in the community. For food startups, the most difficult barrier to entry is access to a commercially-licensed kitchen. HBK Incubates provides affordable kitchen space to small business owners (male and female alike) to help mitigate financial instabilities, to provide marketing, packaging and other technical assistance, and to cultivate an ecosystem of passionate food entrepreneurs who can support one another.

Results: Since the Bakers in Training program was launched in 2008, more than 125 women from 31 countries have graduated and gone on to work at places like Amy’s Bread, Zaro’s and even Restaurant Daniel. Others have stayed to work for HBK in a managerial capacity. Of graduates who seek full-time employment, HBK has placed 100% in fair wage positions with access to benefits and opportunities for advancement.

More than 75 breads from across the world are made by the women in the Bakers in Training program, and those breads are then sold at more than 90 locations throughout New York City. In addition, HBK distributes fresh bread daily to dozens of restaurants, markets and other customers directly.

Since its inception in 2011, more than 135 businesses have participated in the HBK Incubates program. An estimated 70% of the businesses are run by women and 50% are owned by minorities. The food-related enterprises are not limited to bakers; participants have included a Senegalese caterer, a Nigerian caterer, an Ecuadorian caterer, cupcake makers, jam makers and other unique food businesses. The most well-known graduates include Pipcorn, Tipsy Scoop and My Sweet Brigadeiro.

Remaining Challenges: Despite HBK’s tremendous success, a number of challenges remain. First and foremost is the ability to provide women in the Bakers in Training program with access to high-quality, affordable child care—especially important during the extended hours of food manufacturing. More than 50% of bakery trainees are mothers; some who would otherwise be interested in participating in the program are unable to do so given child care constraints.

In the coming year, HBK will face tough decisions about how to scale its impact. “There’s a deep need here [in New York] for the programs we offer,” explains Rodriguez. Yet rather than expanding locally, HBK is considering expansion to a second city in 2017. That second city has not yet been announced, but the decision about where to go will be made based upon more than twenty variables including transportation, cultural diversity and population density.

Lessons: There have been a number of factors that Rodriguez attributes to HBK’s success. Many of these are connected to its business model. For instance, HBK provides paid, on-the-job training in order to attract low-income women who are also heads of household. The majority of these women would otherwise be unable to attend; unpaid training programs are not an option for women who are the sole providers for their families. Also, HBK is unique in that a staggering 70% of its budget is supported through earned revenue from bread sales and the renting of commercial kitchen space. Most social service providers are heavily reliant on grants and fundraising campaigns. Because HBK earns so much of its own revenue, its model can be sustained over time.

Rodriguez is quick to point out, though, that there is no real “model” for what HBK is doing. Social enterprises like these must continue to learn as they grow. “My biggest mistake was being too afraid of mistakes,” she says. “Now I know that mistakes are the best opportunity for learning. I can’t say I relish making errors, but I don’t fear them.”

Although HBK has evolved since Rodriguez first held classes out of her home kitchen, its mission remains the same: recruiting women from around the world who are passionate about food, and together, they learn to become the best in their field. Not everyone enters the program knowing how to speak English, but every woman brings a love of baking bread – whether that bread is a chewy, sesame seed-topped Persian nan-e barbari or crispy Armenian lavash crackers. That love is then translated into a diverse line of products that only continue to grow in demand.

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