The Bread Project's new kitchen is currently under construction. Photo: Kate Williams
The Bread Project’s new kitchen is currently under construction. Photo: Kate Williams
The Bread Project’s new kitchen is currently under construction. Photo: Kate Williams

The Crayola-blue storefront at 1615 University Ave. has stood empty for three years, slowly collecting window graffiti and dust. But this June, signs of life began to appear. Baking racks appeared in the windows. Long wooden work tables filled the room. Soon, a sign appeared on the front door: The Bread Project is moving in.

Founded in 2001 by Lucie Buchbinder and Susan Phillips, The Bread Project trains low-income individuals in food service skills — specifically baking —  and helps them find and retain jobs across the service and culinary industry. Its students come from many walks of life. About 30% are formerly incarcerated individuals, 20% are refugees and new immigrants and others that have other significant barriers to employment. “Everybody is starting over, starting anew,” said Valerie Afroilan, the senior director of programs.

Food service is a good match for job placement, says Afroilan. “It’s a very forgiving industry.” Many food businesses “just want to know if you can follow directions, show up on time, work with other people, and just do your job.”

The Bread Project originally operated out of the Berkeley Adult School, but it re-located to a larger facility in Emeryville in 2010. After rising rent costs at its Emeryville location made its operation budget skyrocket, The Bread Project began looking for a new location. Executive Director Alicia Polak said that she looked at close to 60 buildings before “looking out [her] window” and landing on the University Avenue location.

The Bread Project has moved to 1615 University Ave. (at California). Photo: Kate Williams
The Bread Project has moved to 1615 University Ave. (at California). Photo: Kate Williams

The organization’s new location will not only allow for a six-figure cost savings per year, it will also give The Bread Project something it has never had before — a formal retail shop. And while the building hadn’t been used for culinary purposes in the past, it won’t require too much work to bring the interior up to snuff.

The Bread Project is currently raising funds for the renovation; the building needs a new electrical and plumbing system, as well as a paint job, roof repairs and a few additions to make it ADA-accessible. Polak hopes to be up and running in three to four weeks, dependent on final permitting.

In the interim, The Bread Project is operating in a limited capacity. Currently, former students prepare baked goods for both the Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) and Williams-Sonoma as part of the organization’s social enterprise program; they are baking at a kitchen in San Leandro until the renovation is complete.

The core of the The Bread Project, the Bakery Bootcamp, is currently on hold until construction is finished. Bakery Bootcamp is a three-week intensive skills training program in which students learn both hands-on bakery skills as well as “soft skills” such as resume writing and interview preparation. The goal of the boot camp is to “empower low-income individuals on their path to self-sufficiency,” said Polak.

It is remarkably successful. The Bread Project consistently bests other job placement programs in one third of the time. So far in 2015, the organization has had a 90% employment rate. (Its average across its history sits closer to 85%.) Most similar programs employ graduates in the 70% range and they take 10 to 12 weeks to complete, according to Afroilan.

Even better for students hungry for income, most of The Bread Project’s graduates find jobs in less than a month. From start to finish, the average Baking Bootcamp graduate spends less than two months training and looking for a job. “We feel like people just need to get in there and get to work,” said Polak.

Bread Project stickers for packaging. Photo: Kate Williams
Bread Project stickers for packaging. Photo: Kate Williams

But simply finding any old job isn’t the ultimate goal for graduates like Becky, who finished the program in May. “I really wanted to go through a program that would help me get a job where I actually wanted to go to work,” she said. Becky is now a manager at the Berkeley location of Lanesplitter Pizza.

Becky found The Bread Project through Rubicon Programs, which operates in partnership with The Bread Project. Before entering the program, she was on unemployment after leaving a career in accounting in Santa Clara county. “I moved to the East Bay and had to start all over again,” she said. “I didn’t want to go back to accounting.”

While Becky had worked as a kitchen manager at Chipotle in the past, she had never worked with pastry before starting the boot camp this May. “Baking and getting to learn the different components and equipment was really interesting,” she said. But the best part of the training, she says, was the fact that she got to get into the kitchen every day and work with many different people. “It was really interactive and nicer than just sitting in a classroom. It was nice to get to go into the kitchen after sitting in the classroom working on resumes.”

Like many of the other students, Becky’s favorite thing she learned how to make was pizza. Lanesplitter was therefore a natural fit. She was working there within a month of graduating.

Three other Bread Project graduates also work at other Lanesplitter locations. The company is a perfect fit for The Bread Project, says Afroilan. “They go above and beyond the minimum wage,” she said.

The Bread Project aims to place its graduates in positions that pay a living wage. (Its average graduate’s wage ranks in the top 25% among food service workers in California.) Many of the organization’s partner employers consistently hire Bread Project grads. These include popular East Bay restaurants and cafés like Actual Café, Semifreddi’s Bakery, Revolution Foods, SpoonRocket and House Kombucha. Other graduates go on to work for BUSD, Oakland Unified School District and UC Berkeley’s dining program.

Many of these positions have little to do with baking. But Polak says she really isn’t trying to train bakers. Instead, she believes that her curriculum teaches skills that are transferable across the food industry and beyond. “The whole point is learning how to follow directions, to be accountable. Baking teaches that. It can set you on that path to self-sufficiency,” she said.

In the curriculum are a mix of “hard and soft skills,” said Afroilan. Students learn how to prepare a range of commonly prepared baked goods — think biscuits, scones, cookies, pizza, bread and cinnamon rolls. “They’re items that you’ll see in bakeries everywhere,” said Afroilan. This portion of the curriculum is structured around kitchen equipment, so that graduates can feel confident using everything from a small Kitchen Aid standing mixer to an industrial pastry sheeter.

A pastry sheeter is one of several industrial pieces of equipment that Bread Project students learn to use. Photo: Kate Williams
A pastry sheeter is one of several industrial pieces of equipment that Bread Project students learn to use. Photo: Kate Williams

Another key component of the curriculum is the vision board. “I ask students: Where do you want to go? What do you want to do? It could be this week, this year, or even bigger life goals,” said Afroilan. “Some people describe opening a restaurant and give all the details. Other people just say that they want to have financial security. One student said, ‘All I want is to have my own bed.’ ”

Boot camp students also learn food safety, good manufacturing practices, kitchen professionalism, culinary math and soft skills like resume writing and interview preparation. Finally, each student spends time working on production of The Bread Project’s social enterprise products to learn efficient packaging skills and quality assessment. Many students stay on and work on social enterprise production full time.

Others shift away from kitchen work completely. Polak described a graduate who immediately went to work at Perdition Smokehouse after graduation. Later he moved on to a job at a thrift store, before being offered to to learn to write computer code. “Now he can go out and make a serious salary,” she said.

Beyond employment, Polak says that The Bread Project simply provides for a strong sense of community for people who previously didn’t know anyone outside of their social group. Students from all different parts of the world come together in the classroom and learn to work together, she says. Afterwards, that focus on teamwork shows. “All of our students advocate for each other,” Polak said.

Polak hopes that the move to Berkeley will allow The Bread Project to keep doing what it does best. She doesn’t have a vision for rapid growth; rather, she hopes to continue to maintain their consistent results. “We have very challenging markers for ourselves,” she said. “We just want to continue to provide an excellent service.”

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Kate Williams has been writing about food since 2009. After spending two years developing recipes for cookbooks at America’s Test Kitchen, she moved to Berkeley and began work as a freelance writer and...