Rubicon Bakery in Richmond has recipe to turn lives around
By Lou Fancher Correspondent Contra Costa Times
Meet ideal Rubicon Bakery employee Adam Rhines, 25, a native of Richmond. "I was bad," he says. "Heroin and hard drugs. A youth criminal record. From age 11 to 18, I did home invasions, stole cars, any quick robbery to make money. I stopped going to school in ninth grade."
Remarkably, Rhines' story isn't unusual at Rubicon, an 18,000-square-foot manufacturing facility where almost all of the 80 full-time employees are either ex-cons, recently homeless or recovering substance abusers.
Rhines said he never knew his mother, and after his father was injured at his job and submerged his depression in drugs, his five older brothers taught him everything they knew.
"They led me into the life," Rhines says. "My oldest brother's been in prison as long as I can remember, but two of the others are finally becoming men."
It took a boy and a baseball bat to pivot Rhines' "career trajectory" from perennial criminal to lead mixer in formulation, the position he holds after three years at Rubicon's in Richmond. The birth of his son six years ago and a near-fatal beating, when he wound up on a Richmond street with a head injury and a knife in his back, flipped his switch. "I had a son: I got a push to be a better person for him," he says.
Rhines prepares the mix for chocolate cakes and other high-end baked goods flying off Rubicon clients' shelves. It's the first steady job he's had since his son was born, and the fair wages, health benefits and employee emergency loan fund are like gifts. "I thought I'd be digging construction holes my whole life," he says.
"When I came in, I told them straight up: 'I'm not a good person on paper, but I'm a good worker,' " he explains. "They let me show them that and trained me. My future is making cakes, and Rubicon helped me do that."
When Berkeley resident and retail food expert Andrew Stoloff was brought on in 2009 by nonprofit Rubicon Programs to assist in the failing bakery's sale, he thought the business model was crazy. A few months later, when he bought the bakery and agreed to terms dictating that he continue Rubicon's social purpose of giving people a second chance, his friends thought he was crazy.
Stoloff converted Rubicon to a for-profit business, spending close to $500,000 on upgrades and new equipment but not changing the employee pool.
He agreed to contribute 1.5 percent of gross annual sales to Rubicon Programs.
Whole Foods has partnered with Rubicon and carries a line of private label products from all-natural marshmallows to 6-inch cakes to four-pack cupcakes. Its cakes now sell in 42 Northern California and 32 Colorado Whole Foods supermarkets.
Sure, Stoloff has found ways to save money through less ingredient waste and says the bottom line is always quality and price point, but he calls Rubicon employees the "icing on the cake."
"I was stuck with the terms of the sale, but what's interesting is that it's better for everybody," Stoloff insists. "Now, I question why more for-profit businesses haven't figured out there's a great work force of loyal employees out there."
Stoloff says he doesn't have a particular method for identifying good employees. The application form is standard, even the question "Have you ever been convicted of a crime?"
"Almost every application I flipped through had the answer 'yes' to that question," he recalls. "All my years in food retail before 2009, I'd never seen that answer."
Stoloff admits the program has made a half-dozen hiring mistakes since he came aboard but suggests there's "a look of determination" and, often, an explanation of "how a person is coming out of a bad situation" from the best prospective workers.
Starting employees at $9 an hour allows people to prove their work ethic.
"We say show us what you can do and earn more money," he says. "Raises don't fall out of the sky. I want them to understand basic business economics: good product, delivered on time."
Employees also contribute the first $100 of their health benefit, which Stoloff says teaches them the value and expense of health care.
Realizing how a car accident, unanticipated utility bill or a kid in need of braces could undermine his efforts to create a stable employee base, Stoloff began a company loan program. "For people living paycheck to paycheck, $50 can be the difference between having a home or living on the street," he says.
Rubicon Bakery is cooperating with the Alameda County Jail's "Serve Safe" food training program and hopes to convince other businesses to partner with inmate release programs. "We don't turn these employees' lives around for them: They do that," Stoloff says. "What we get are very loyal employees and people who want to work hard."