At Rubicon Bakers, Empathy Breeds Success

Meet the California bakery that intentionally hires people with backgrounds of crime, addiction, and homelessness—and is wildly successful because of it.
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Rubicon Bakers

If you’d asked Tamica Spearman six months ago what her favorite part of the day was, she probably would have said the end. She was struggling with addiction, had lost custody of her daughter, and spent her days whiling away the hours at home or counting down the minutes until her shift at a local market ended. Each day was spent waiting for—and dreading—the next.

Ask her now and you might envy her response. Waking up, going to work, clocking in—“that’s the best part of my day,” Spearman says.

Her co-worker, Sheila Young-Eberhart, says the same. “I wake up in the morning, and I’m like, ‘Whoo, I’m on my way to work!’” says Young-Eberhart, whose drug addiction landed her in jail a little over a decade ago. “I enjoy coming here.”

“Here” is Rubicon Bakers in Richmond, California, and it's staffed almost entirely by employees who, like Spearman and Young-Eberhart, have backgrounds of addiction, crime, homelessness, or chronic financial distress. The bakery's mission is to "rebuild lives by employing, training, and supporting people who need a second chance"—or, more simply, to "bake a better world."

Rubicon Bakers began in 1993 under the nonprofit Rubicon Programs, which aims to break the cycle of poverty. The bakery fulfilled this mission by offering training to people whose backgrounds would otherwise make it difficult to get hired. This training gave them the experience they needed to get jobs later on. 

However, in 2008, the bakery's growth had halted, and Rubicon Programs was searching for ways to remedy the problem. A member of the nonprofit's board asked Andrew Stoloff, friend and successful restaurateur, if he could offer advice. Stoloff looked over the bakery's financials and advised cuts to labor and ingredient costs. When, a year later, Rubicon Programs decided the best step forward was to sell the bakery, Stoloff agreed to help find a buyer. 

He started spending a lot of time at the bakery, getting to know the employees. "Right away you could understand that you were talking to really good people that maybe at some point in their lives made a bad decision," he says.

Unfortunately, others didn't see it that way. The bakery was already an unattractive package with a mishmash of donated equipment and a mere 14 part-time employees. When potential buyers found out the employees were former felons, they lost any sliver of interest, Stoloff says.

In November 2009, after struggling to find interested buyers, CEO Andrew Stoloff decided to buy Rubicon Bakers himself. 

In November 2009, after struggling to find interested buyers, CEO Andrew Stoloff decided to buy Rubicon Bakers himself. 

"I think it was that, seeing how people reacted to the employees—the same employees that I was so impressed with, that had really touched my heart—that made it all the more attractive to me," he says. "I was like, 'Why aren't they interested? There's a great thing going on here.'"

So Stoloff bought the bakery. Nearly 10 years since then, he's transformed it into a booming for-profit business. There are nearly 200 employees making 170,000 units of product each week. The baked goods sell in over 2,500 stores nationwide, including Whole Foods, Sprouts Farmer's Market, and Safeway. They recently started selling in Northern California Target stores. 

A lot of factors contributed to that success, but much of it comes down to Stoloff's leadership style. 

"Andrew's just the right person to run a company like this," Young-Eberhart says. "He's compassionate. He's understanding. He listens to you. He works with you to work through your issues so you can stay employed." 

That means employees who come to Rubicon through drug treatment programs can leave work for two hours in the middle of their shifts to go to their methadone clinic. It means managers are unendingly patient with employees as they learn their roles. It means, when Stoloff first started at the bakery and noticed employees going down the street to a check-cashing store to get a $100 loan at a 35 percent interest rate and getting themselves into a mess of debt, he decided to start loaning employees money at zero percent interest. 

It's that empathy that's led to employees sticking around. It's not uncommon to walk into Rubicon and talk to an employee who's been there five or eight years. You'll even find people who've been there over a decade—an anomaly in the food industry. 

But Stoloff is quick to note the employees, themselves, drive success. 

"It makes business sense to hire people who are looking for a second chance, looking to turn their lives around," he says. "When someone has made a very conscious decision to change their life, they are coming to work for way more than a paycheck. They're coming to work to prove themselves, to prove to their family, to show their friends that they can do this. So they turn into, in our experience, more reliable employees, more loyal employees, and they stick around for way longer. I want other businesses to know that." 

It does make business sense, as Rubicon's success proves. But it also just makes sense. 

Sheila Young-Eberhart Rubicon Bakers

Sheila Young-Eberhart has worked at Rubicon Bakers since 2008. "I plan on working till I can't no more," she says. "I don't have any plans of leaving here." 

"Do you know how many talented people come from where I come from?" Young-Eberhart asks. "Drug addiction, homelessness, incarceration doesn't discriminate. It affects numerous people from numerous walks of life." 

Young-Eberhart is living proof of that. In her 10-plus years at Rubicon, she's climbed the ranks to become a supervisor. In that time, she's become a go-to for many employees who just need someone to talk to. That's inspired her to go to school and earn certificates in case management and drug, alcohol, and social rehabilitation. Down the line, she'd like to become a counselor, maybe at Rubicon. "My professor told me if you see a need for something and you don't see it, create it," she says. "I really love this company so much, and there's a lot of people here who need counseling. So maybe there might be a field in the future." 

Spearman, similarly, wants to go back to school eventually and become a social worker—but she, like Young-Eberhart, wants to stay at Rubicon.

"I'm very satisfied with what's going on here," she says. "I love the job. Getting to come somewhere where you like to work—that's a good thing."