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Rubicon Bakery Thrives with Help From Formerly Incarcerated

Grant Whittington headshotWords by Grant Whittington
Investment & Markets
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Rubicon Bakery wasn’t the most appealing business to buy when it was put on the market in 2009. The bakery, located in the heart of Richmond, California, a city consistently ranked among the most dangerous in the U.S. year in and year out, had antiquated equipment, negative profits and ex-cons, addicts and homeless workers operating the business.

Yet, when former Wall Street analyst Andrew Stoloff was asked to consult the failing bakery, he fell in love with the business’ mission to create second chances for people who have made poor decisions. The bakery entered the market on the condition that the building remains standing and that the new owner continues to hire employees with darker pasts.

With the less-than-sexy offer for a business with so many restrictions, the bakery lingered on the market. But as Rubicon’s time on the market grew, so did Stoloff’s attachment to the bakery’s mission of offering second chances to the down-and-out employees. As the owner of the Red Tractor Cafe, a lunch and breakfast join in nearby Dublin, California, and former Wall Street worker, Stoloff knew a thing or two about turning an unsuccessful business into a money-making company.

Stoloff took a chance on Rubicon Bakery, and today, the business takes in about $6 million each year, a dramatic improvement from the tens of thousands of dollars a month it was losing just six years prior. The popular wholesale bakery sends its privatized cakes, cookies, brownies, cupcakes and marshmallows to big time grocery stores, including Whole Foods Markets.

It didn’t take long for Stoloff to realize the high ingredient and labor costs were driving the business’ profits down. Before the new owner purchased a nearly $100,000 industrial dishwasher, workers spent hours and hours a day scrubbing hundreds of cake pans by hand. Eliminating such costs also eliminated the labor involved and created an opportunity to work on making more products.

Rubicon Bakery, a certified B Corp, has expanded into a business with more than 100 full-time employees, most of whom have come from rough pasts. On a typical job application, it asks whether the applicant has been arrested or involved in a crime. Stoloff said he chooses employers that check “yes.” In an area illuminated by the basketball movie Coach Carter, Richmond is not a very forgiving city for people looking to turn their lives around.

With murders, drugs, rape and carjackings infesting the city, it’s easy for ex-convicts and recently released prisoners to return to the streets and commit the same crimes that landed them in jail. Business owners and employers hesitate to hire former convicts and drug addicts, but without job opportunity or a stable income, it’s easy to go back to their old ways. Rubicon Bakery simply ignores its employees past and honor the mission of giving capable people who’ve made mistakes a second chance. Stoloff also provides medical insurance and three weeks paid vacation and sick time for all of his employees.

Rubicon Bakery doesn’t only provide jobs to those in need, it provides careers. Some employees have found salvage in the inner-city bakery for more than 20 years, and have climbed the ladder into important, decision-making positions.

Seventeen states and Washington, D.C., have eliminated the box on applications asking whether or not the applicant has committed a misdemeanor or felony. Target, Wal-Mart and Koch Industries followed suit and also ignore applicants past on the application. “Ban the Box” is now a nationwide push to urge employers to give second chances to those who have made mistakes by removing the criminal question on applications.

Photo by Jeremy Brooks/Flickr

Grant Whittington headshotGrant Whittington

Based in Washington, DC, Grant works as a program assistant at SEEP Network, an international development nonprofit. A proud graduate of the University of Maryland, Grant spent four months post-grad living in Armenia where he worked for Habitat for Humanity and the World Food Programme. Grant is passionate about humanitarianism and finding sustainable approaches to international development. He enjoys playing trivia with friends but is still seeking his first victory - he ceaselessly blames his friends lack of preparation.

Read more stories by Grant Whittington