A bakery enterprise built on giving people second chances

Andrew Stoloff went into the restaurant business 26 years ago despite some pretty dire warnings to the contrary. After moving to Berkeley in 1993, he ran Rockridge’s Red Tractor Café from 1996 to 2001, another Red Tractor in San Jose that has since closed, and a Dublin location that has been open more than 20 years, serving American comfort food.

But while he felt he was providing decent careers for the manager, assistant manager and chef, it bothered him that the wait staff all held multiple jobs and didn’t have benefits or paid vacation. “It just didn’t enrich my soul very much,” said Stoloff, 55, who has an MBA from the Wharton business school.

Growing up in Philadelphia in a family of secular Jews, food was one of the ways he connected to his culture. “I grew up watching my grandmother Rose cook beef barley soup and blintzes,” Stoloff said. “Food is such an integral part of being Jewish, that it put meals front and center and made eating and cooking important events. My grandparents always set a formal table and each meal was taken seriously. It seems my being Jewish all revolved around food.”

He went to a Quaker high school and then Oberlin College, where he regularly cooked for his fellow students living in the university’s co-operative housing.

His Jewish roots emerged again years later after he and his wife, Leslie Crary, had children and decided to send them to Tehiyah Day School. “I quickly realized out here [in the Bay Area] that it could be very easy to grow up without any sort of Jewish identity, and I didn’t want that to happen,” he said. Tehiyah was Crary’s idea, even though she isn’t Jewish.

“I didn’t even want to look at it,” Stoloff admitted. “But we did and it was such a warm place in a Berkeley kind of way.”

It was the combination of his Jewish background combined with a mix of Quaker and Oberlin values, Stoloff said, that led him to buy Rubicon Bakery in 2009, then a struggling enterprise with a social mission. It wasn’t something he had been looking to do — he was simply giving a hand to a friend who had asked for help readying it for sale.

At the time, the Richmond bakery had around 14 employees — many had once been addicted to drugs and had served time — and was a nonprofit, in a relationship with Rubicon Programs, which has long helped low-income residents of the Bay Area with job training. But the bakery was failing, and something needed to change.

Andrew Stoloff bought Rubicon Bakery six years ago. photo/clara rice

When Stoloff came to help prepare Rubicon for sale, he spent time getting to know the employees, and something happened: He heard firsthand how the bakery had touched their lives.

“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, as no one wanted to give them a chance. But here they did, and I saw what people did with that chance.”

So instead of preparing the bakery for another buyer, Stoloff bought it himself. Under his ownership, Rubicon has grown tremendously, at a rate of about 30 percent a year, he said. The repertoire includes cinnamon bread, frosted cream-filled cupcakes, cakes, cookies, brownies, blondies and other bars. No artificial ingredients are used. Its products can be found in local Whole Foods, Andronico’s and New Leaf (for which they develop new products).

Six years later, the bakery has grown to over 100 employees. Crary is among them, having left her career as a lawyer to head the human resources department.

It used to be that Rubicon employees would be trained so they could eventually go to work elsewhere with newly acquired skills and a good job record. Now the emphasis is on retention.

“Our retention rate is considerably higher than the industry as a whole. We treat our employees right,” Stoloff said, by offering a living wage as well as benefits, paid vacation and sick leave.

Additionally, a loan program was put into place after he learned that employees were borrowing money from a local check-cashing outfit. Stoloff’s program charges no interest; three months is the average time it takes for an employee to pay a loan back. The default rate is relatively low, he said.

Sheila Young-Eberhart has been at the bakery for eight years, after starting on a packaging assembly line, and now she works in quality assurance. “I don’t know what would have happened to us if it closed,” she said. “I don’t know who else would have hired me. I tell Andrew that he saved my life.”

 

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."