It was the busiest month of the year when Andrew Stoloff bought Rubicon Bakers. The Richmond bakery was producing pumpkin tarts for a local chain of markets, and as Thanksgiving neared, the number of orders climbed from 200 per day to 500 to 1,000.
“The bakery racks were lined up and down the hallway for three days and we had two ovens running 24 hours a day. We couldn’t bake enough to keep up and we had to short their order,” Stoloff said. “It was not a good introduction to the business. I lost a lot of sleep over it.”
Meanwhile, his wife, Leslie Crary, didn’t fully get it. “Throughout my law career, I felt this constant stress, with briefs and court appearances and deadlines,” she said. “And he’s worrying about pie.”
What a difference six years makes.
When Stoloff bought the bakery in 2009, it was a struggling non-profit with 14 employees, on the verge of closure. Now, Stoloff has over 100 employees, and Crary is among them, serving as human resources manager. The bakery has greatly expanded, and it is selling its goods at numerous national grocery chains.
Rubicon Bakers provides a first stop in the workforce for those who are rebuilding their lives after drug addiction or a prison sentence. And for many employees, that first stop becomes permanent; several of them described Rubicon as a family, and said they had no desire to work anywhere else.
“I was part of the team that got it going and I want to be the first retiree,” said Fred Earl, who drives a forklift and oversees shipping and receiving. He’s been at the bakery over 20 years now. “I love what I do and I love the people around me. We’re providing jobs for people who need them, and seeing people being able to take care of their families gives me a good feeling.”
‘It just didn’t enrich my soul’
When Stoloff first visited Rubicon Bakers, it was as a consultant; the non-profit was losing money, and its owners wanted to sell it. It had long been affiliated with Rubicon Programs, which has been providing job-training skills for those who need them since 1973. (The Berkeley-based Bread Project also works with Rubicon Programs.)
Stoloff developed his passion for food and cooking while in college at Oberlin, where he also met Crary. There, he lived in the college’s co-op housing and regularly cooked for around 100 of his fellow residents at a time.
After graduation, he got an MBA from University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and worked in finance. When he later moved to California, eventually settling in Berkeley, he decided he wanted to get into the restaurant industry. He looked for fellow Wharton alumni in the industry and eventually found just one in the entire state, a man who said to him, “Don’t do it.”
Despite the warning, Stoloff found restaurant work was a good fit — at one point, he was running three eating establishments, including Rockridge’s American comfort food restaurant Red Tractor Café, from 1996 to 2001. Another Red Tractor in San Jose closed, but his Dublin location has been open more than 20 years. “I go there once a week and check in,” he said. “I basically pay the bills and leave them alone.”
But there was one thing about the business that bothered him. “I had a manager, an assistant manager and a chef, and I could create careers for them and pay them well,” he said. “But everyone else held two or three jobs and didn’t have benefits or paid vacation. It just didn’t enrich my soul.”
‘I fell in love with its mission’
In 2008, a friend of Stoloff’s who served — and still does — on the board of Rubicon Programs, told him about the struggling bakery that the organization had opened as a job-training and money-raising venture. Stoloff’s friend asked him to evaluate its financial statements, and it became clear they were spending too much on labor and ingredients.
A year went by, and the friend came to Stoloff again to say that the relationship between Rubicon Programs and the bakery was no longer beneficial to either party, and Rubicon wanted to sell the bakery. Would he advise them on getting it ready for sale?
When he came to see it for the first time, there were maybe 12 people working and less than a fifth of the equipment that exists today. “It wasn’t all that attractive a package,” said Stoloff. “It wasn’t much to sell.”
But as Stoloff spent time there, he got to know the employees. “I was able to hear first-hand how the bakery had touched peoples’ lives,” he said. “And I fell in love with its mission. It gave them a second chance, which really enabled them to turn their lives around. These were people who had made a very conscious decision and effort to change their lives, but [after] prison or drug treatment, it was really hard for them to find a job. No one wanted to give them a chance. But here they did, and I saw what people did with that chance.”
He decided to buy the bakery himself.
Under Stoloff’s ownership, the bakery has grown tremendously. Even though he immediately invested in new equipment to speed up production, he told employees that no one would lose their job to a machine.
“I don’t know what would have happened to us if it closed,” said Sheila Young-Eberhart, who has been at Rubicon for eight years. “I don’t know who else would have hired me. I tell Andrew that he saved my life.”
The bakery is still affiliated with Rubicon Programs, but it is now a for-profit entity. “We have a revenue-sharing agreement where [Rubicon Programs] gets a portion of our sales,” Stoloff said. “And they’re seeing way more money now than when they owned the bakery. They also send employees our way, and when we get employees who need additional support, we send them on to them.”
Despite the steep learning curve that Stoloff faced early on with the Thanksgiving pumpkin tart debacle, he was a quick learner. “We came out with a much stronger relationship with that retailer after they understood our mission,” said Stoloff. “They’re still a big part of our business.”
Stoloff takes pride in the fact that over half of the original 14 employees are still at the bakery.
“We’ve given them more responsibility and higher pay,” he said. “My philosophy [while growing] the business has been to provide a career path for people here.”
In the old days, it was hoped that Rubicon employees would use the bakery as a skills-building stepping stone to a new job. But now Stoloff hopes his employees stick around. “I want to retain them,” he said. “Our retention rate is considerably higher than the industry as a whole. We not only give people who need it a second chance, but we treat our employees right. We pay them a living wage, with benefits and paid vacation and sick leave.”
Stoloff also put in place an employee loan program after observing numerous employees head to the neighboring check cashing store to borrow money. When he learned how much interest they had to pay on a small loan, “it really turned my stomach,” he said.
In contrast, Stoloff does not charge interest; the average employee takes about three months to pay back the loan. “They use it to pay their utility bills or for tuition for their kid, or to fix their car to get to work,” he said. “We’ve loaned out hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years. At any given moment we have between 8,000 and 10,000 dollars outstanding, and during the holidays it gets even higher.” The default rate is relatively low.
“It takes up a lot of our time, but it really helps people who need help but can’t get it anywhere else,” he said. “And it keeps people from the sharks.”
The bakery is now growing about 30% each year, and it has contracts with markets like Whole Foods, New Leaf, Andronico’s and another major chain that sells Rubicon products under its own label.
Recipes are developed by May Yee, a first generation Chinese-American, who describes herself as “someone who has always worked for a better world, as a pastry chef, social worker or teacher.” The bakery makes myriad baked goods: cakes, cookies and cream-filled cupcakes; tarts; brownies, blondies and other various bars; hand-made marshmallows and cinnamon bread. Every Peet’s Coffee in the country sells a soft, whole-grain bar, sweetened with brown sugar and honey, that Rubicon developed just for them.
Rubicon Bakers uses nothing artificial — a bright-as-Bazooka pink frosting used to decorate its cupcakes is made using pigment from red carrots, its butter is grass-fed and comes from Rumiano Cheese in Willits, and its eggs are all cage-free. It has also embraced a new ingredient, coffee flour, which is made from milling the husk of the bean; Rubicon is making cookies, muffins and brownies with it.
It goes through 60,000 pounds of sugar per week.
And farmers take away its food waste to feed their animals.
‘For many, we’re their first job’
It’s now Crary’s job to recruit and vet employees. In her many years working as an attorney, she often went to San Quentin to meet with clients. She still visits the Marin County prison and others from time to time, but now it’s to recruit employees.
“It’s a different approach,” she said. “There’s a bit of coming home.”
Crary and Stoloff never ask why an employee was in prison. But over time, as employees get to know them, they often share their stories.
Stoloff recalled an instance in 2013 when the bakery was going to be featured in People Magazine’s “Heroes Among Us.” He called in a few employees to talk with a reporter. “After I heard some of their stories, I thought, ‘How do you come to work every day?’” he said. “Some had horrible stories beyond anything you could imagine.”
Of course, they sometimes run up against people who prove to be unreliable. Stoloff and Crary always give that person a second or third chance, but every once in a while, they do have to terminate someone.
“We’ve had a few heartbreaking cases where you see someone so close to turning things around, but they just can’t do it,” said Crary. “People think that the biggest thing these people need is a job, but for a lot of these people, their lives outside of prison are chaotic. It’s not easy to come to work every day if you don’t have stable housing or are in an abusive relationship or don’t have custody of your kids.”
Stoloff said that for the most part, those coming from Rubicon Programs have already learned some skills, and they do well once they arrive at the bakery. But for those straight out of prison, the adjustment can be harder.
On the other hand, there are cases like one recent employee who just left Rubicon Bakers to take her “dream job” elsewhere.
“For many, we’re their first job, and we get to see them progress,” said Stoloff.
“It can be really bittersweet, like they’ve graduated,” said Crary. “It’s hard because we really like those people, but they want to go in a different direction, or do something they can’t do in a bakery. We want to grow big enough so that we have many more administrative positions, but in the meantime, it’s great to see our employees go on to do other great things, too.”
A tale of two Rubicon Bakers
Sheila Young-Eberhart spent 120 days in jail — more than enough time to realize she didn’t want to spend any more time behind bars. Born and raised in Oakland, she said that short stint convinced her, first of all, that she needed to get clean.
Now 58, Young-Eberhart has been at Rubicon Bakers for eight years. She works in quality control and lives in Richmond. “I needed a new environment and new friends,” she said. “I had to change my whole lifestyle so I could live better and healthier.”
The mother of two and grandmother of seven said that getting out of jail made her realize she wanted a different future: “I want to make my family proud and get my life together and be a productive member of society, because I really never was.”
She began hearing about Rubicon Bakers at Narcotics Anonymous meetings.
And at the same time, she wondered who would hire her. She had no work history to speak of and knew she would be asked about prior convictions. “You check that box and you leave, and they throw your application in the garbage can,” she said. “When I came here, I didn’t know if they were going to do the same thing.”
However, applying at Rubicon turned out to be simple. “They didn’t ask about my criminal history; they just wanted someone who was willing to be on time and do their part,” she said. “That was a blessing for me because I don’t know what would have happened if I didn’t get a job. I was pretty adamant about staying clean, but you need help. Rubicon was here to support me.”
When Young-Eberhart started at Rubicon, there was one assembly line. Now there are three.
She started in packaging, which is where most people start, but she quickly realized things about herself as an employee that she never knew. “I became leader of the line within a year,” she said. “I saw that the leader wasn’t really leading and wasn’t doing the necessary paperwork, so I just started doing it. I’m that type of person, a go-getter. My boss at the time said ‘I think you should run this line.’”
From there, she moved to quality assurance, and now works in the office.
Given her longevity at Rubicon, Young-Eberhart was still a relatively new employee when the bakery was faced with the prospect of closure. “Andrew kept everybody,” she said. “Usually when a company is bought, they bring in their own people or whatever, but he told us he’s not letting any of us go. He said, ‘If you’re a good worker, you’re going to stay.’”
Young-Eberhart describes Rubicon as a family. If you’re having trouble at home, she said, “You can talk to Andrew and Leslie and they understand because they’re family-oriented people. They won’t judge you.”
She’s also taken loans when she’s needed to: “They understand that life happens, and they’re really flexible.”
Young-Eberhart can attend school, sing in her church choir, go to Bible study, spend time with her family and go to meetings.
“I can have a life at the same time,” she said. “This is really a wonderful place. I can’t think of anywhere else I’d rather work. I think God sent me here.”
With 20 years at the bakery, Fred Earl, 57, of Richmond is its longest-running employee.
“I got caught up in drugs, and didn’t know what I was getting into,” he said. By 1984 he was receiving general assistance and went through rehab.
He began by serving lunches to senior citizens, which led to job training at Rubicon Programs, “and the rest is history,” he said.
Earl entered Rubicon Programs around 1989, when the AIDS epidemic was in full-force. “I didn’t have a lot of skills back then, but I did know how to cook,” he said. “We did a lot of catering back then, box lunches for people with the AIDS virus.” Earl said that sometimes he’d realize he was preparing lunches for people that he actually knew, which, while upsetting, gave him a sense of purpose. “You’re making lunches for people who may not be here very long.”
When Rubicon Bakers opened, Earl became the deliveryman. He said it was an exciting time — the bakery started out delivering around 10 cakes a day and grew to a delivery count numbering in the hundreds.
But even as the bakery progressed and grew, things felt shaky, Earl said. When Stoloff came on, “it was just like, wow, the doors were opened.”
Earl said it was hard to keep track of all the new products they were suddenly making. Things changed further as vendors started to pick up their orders, and he was no longer needed for deliveries. He started working in the warehouse, doing receiving and shipping as well as working the forklift.
Earl can be considered “Exhibit A” as a Rubicon success story. He’s been asked to speak to groups about the choices he made and how he got his life back together.
“It’s never too late,” he said. “There are people who help you, as long as you try to help yourself. To see others getting their lives back on track helps me to keep my life going in the right direction. We don’t close the doors on anyone.”
About eight years ago, Earl visited Italy on an all-expenses-paid trip to talk about his experiences working at Rubicon Bakers with people who were interested in copying the model. His words were translated into Italian.
“I had never traveled before, and it was one of the greatest things I ever did,” he said. “That was something I’ll never forget, and I had the chance to do that just being part of the Rubicon family.”