By Vickie Lewis
Many of you have likely driven by the large brick corner building located on South 23rd Street in Richmond many times over the years—the one with a baker man perched high above the entrance that appears to be running with a cake in his extended hands. I assumed that the building had one time been a bakery, but thought that it was out of business, as I’d never seen any people around when I passed by. In actuality, this 18,000 square-foot building houses a thriving natural wholesale baking company that is very much in business, and which serves a dual purpose—it produces a large variety of delectable sweets and baked goods, and it provides employment opportunities to locals seeking a second chance to rebuild their lives and overcome unfortunate circumstances.
The bakery was originally founded in in 1993 by Rubicon Programs, a non-profit organization based in Richmond that has a mission to transform local communities by equipping people to break the cycle of poverty. Rubicon Programs started the bakery to provide employment and job training skills to hard-to-employ individuals, due to afflictions such as addiction, homelessness, or criminal records. After 16 years, the bakery was struggling to stay afloat, and Rubicon Programs decided to sell it to allow them to place more focus on managing the non-profit. They launched a search for a buyer, with a stipulation that the new owner must maintain Rubicon’s social mission. At the time, the bakery was losing money and had only 14 part-time employees, and finding a buyer seemed improbable. Fortunately, a member of the Rubicon Board of Directors knew someone with a finance background and restaurant experience who might be willing to consult on the sale of the failing bakery.
Enter Andrew Stoloff—an MBA graduate of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School who formerly worked as a financier on Wall Street. Years later, he moved to Berkeley and opened restaurants in three bay area locations. Although two of these are now closed, the Red Tractor Café in Dublin is still going strong after over twenty years. Andrew assessed the state of the business and agreed to help shepherd the sale. As the search for a buyer ensued, Andrew spent a considerable amount of time at the bakery listening to the employees’ stories about how important it was that they had been given a second chance, and how working at Rubicon Bakery had literally changed their lives. As he listened to their stories, he fell in love with the mission of the bakery and ultimately decided to buy the bakery himself! And that was the beginning of a beautiful relationship!
Rubicon Bakery—re-branded in 2016 as Rubicon Bakers—is now a Certified B Corporation, which is a for profit business dedicated to social and environmental issues. Under Andrew’s leadership, the staff has grown to just over 100 full-time employees who keep the bakery running from 6 AM to 10 PM Monday through Friday in three separate shifts. Ninety percent of the employees are Richmond residents, and half of the original fourteen who were employed when Andrew purchased the bakery still work there today. They receive living wages, health benefits, paid vacation, and sick leave, and even have access to no-interest employee loans for unforeseen and/or emergency situations. As stipulated as part of the sale, Rubicon Bakers has stayed true to the social mission of the original bakery, hiring those who are looking to turn around lives that have been derailed by addiction, incarceration, unemployment, or other afflictions. Anyone who comes through the door of Rubicon Bakers and demonstrates a true desire to work may be given a chance to do so, regardless of their circumstances. The bakery refers individuals to Rubicon Programs who are in need of job training, and also hires referrals from the program who have completed training. To retain the Rubicon name, Stoloff agreed to pay a percentage of the bakery’s annual sales in royalties to Rubicon Programs, which greatly benefits the non-profit and furthers its work in the community.
My guest and I had the good fortune to visit the bakery, and we met with Marketing representative, Frankie Whitman, who was happy to share with us the history of Rubicon Bakers and tell us about the many products made there. After our chat, Frankie graciously offered to take us on a tour of the facility. We donned white jackets and hair coverings before entering the bakery floor, where we were immediately immersed in wonderful sweet smells. Since purchasing the bakery, Andrew has invested over $500,000 in upgrades and new, state-of-the art equipment which has enhanced the operation of the bakery and enabled increased production levels. During the tour, we saw many of the new pieces of equipment in operation, each of them measuring and weighing ingredients precisely to ensure product consistency. We made a brief stop to watch employees packaging Salted Caramel Brownie bites in clear plastic containers, and then moved to the production line where several employees were making blackberry and blueberry crostatas. Flat pastry rounds with scalloped edges were placed under a machine from which an employee dispensed equal amounts of berry mixture directly into the middles of the dough. The pastries then moved along via conveyor belt where other employees expertly folded the edges toward the middles, leaving small openings on the top. The crostatas are made in three different fruit flavors, and are packaged, frozen, and shipped to stores where they are available as “ready-to-bake” purchases. At our next stop, we observed a huge container of prepared chocolate cake batter and watched as another employee operated a machine that filled eight-inch cake pans with equal amounts of batter before moving them down a conveyor where other employees placed them on baking trays. Trays of cupcakes were filled a dozen at a time with just the pull of a lever, and we also saw giant sheets of chocolate brownies being placed into a cutting machine which cut an entire sheet into equal portions at once. In the finishing room, we observed baked carrot cakes being expertly hand frosted and finished with delicious cream cheese frosting and garnish. Each process appeared to be very efficient and the employees seemed to work together very well, taking pride in the quality of their work.
During the tour, Frankie also pointed out the huge ovens that sit near the center of the bakery, and the store rooms where huge lots of pre-mixed ingredients had been manually combined, bagged, and weighed to make the overall production process more efficient. We also saw the refrigeration units, and finally, the large dishwashing rooms where all of the baking pans and utensils are washed and sterilized. The entire bakery production and dishwashing areas were neat, clean, and well-organized, and the employees were friendly and welcoming and seemed to be enjoying their work. Before ending the tour, Frankie gave me and my guest free samples in the form of 8-inch finished carrot cakes and containers of salted caramel brownies. What a treat!
Rubicon Bakers makes so many wonderful products that it would be hard to list them all. Some of the core branded Rubicon items include Mom’s Chocolate Cake and Carrot Cake; a wide variety of cupcakes, including their best-selling Chocolate Cream; and an assortment of muffins, including Fruit and Bran, Blueberry and Greek Yogurt, and Chocolate Streusel, just to name a few. Certain flavors of cakes and cupcakes are sold to retailers as “blanks”, meaning that they are ready to be iced/frosted by the stores to which they are shipped. Retail ready cakes and cupcakes are already iced and filled, and each item is finished by hand by a Rubicon employee. Rubicon Bakers uses only high quality, all-natural ingredients, and never uses artificial flavors or colors, preservatives, high fructose corn syrup or hydrogenated fats. All items are made completely from scratch with hand-finished touches.
Rubicon’s baked goods can be found in a variety of retail stores in select geographical locations across the nation, with a higher concentration in the west and northwestern United States. Locally, their products are found in many Whole Foods stores, as well as in well-known supermarkets such as Lunardi’s, Safeway, and Mollie Stones. They also sell to many independent markets and locations. The Rubicon Bakers website includes an interactive map showing locations where their products are typically sold.
Seeking additional samples for the review, I was fortunate to find a beautiful display of Rubicon baked goods at a local Whole Foods Market. It was difficult to choose from the array of products and flavors available, but ultimately, I chose the following items: Triple Lemon and Strawberries and Cream cupcakes; an 8-inch Double Chocolate Cake; and Chocolate Streusel Muffins. Needless to say, my family and I had plenty of sweets to keep us satisfied for a while—but not as long as I expected! That’s because every single item we ate that was produced by Rubicon Bakers was pure indulgence! So, our supply of “samples” were eaten up very quickly!
My guest raved about the salted caramel brownies, which she found to be moist with a rich chocolate flavor, accented by hints of sea salt bits that provided an addictive sweet/salty effect. I totally agree with her assessment, and would emphasize the addictive effect, as it’s really hard to stop eating these tasty brownies once you start! (Hint: Keep a glass of milk nearby!) We both also enjoyed the carrot cake, which was dense, yet moist, and was filled with raisins, carrots, and yummy spices. The cream cheese frosting was not overly thick or intensely sweet—basically, it was just melt-in-your mouth perfection!
The items I’d purchased from Whole Foods were also absolutely delicious. My favorite was the Triple Lemon cupcakes, which had a true lemony flavor and a lemon gel-like center filling, topped with a light white frosting and a small garnish of lemon gel on top. These cupcakes were extremely moist and delicious, and reasonably priced at only $3.99 for a package of four–much more reasonably priced than custom cupcakes that cost between $3 – $5 each. In my opinion, Rubicon’s cupcakes are among the best I’ve ever eaten! The Strawberries and Cream cupcakes were my family’s favorite–moist white cake with strawberry flavoring and a creamy white center, topped with light pink strawberry flavored frosting. The Chocolate Streusel Muffins were similar in size to the cupcakes but had a denser texture, although they too were moist and flavorful. There was no topping or glaze on the muffins, but the chocolaty swirl that ran through them gave them a rich and delicious flavor. Finally, if you are a chocolate lover, the Double Chocolate Cake is not to be bypassed! We refrigerated the cake, and when eaten cold, the cake had the consistency of a moist, chewy brownie, with a deep, rich chocolate flavor. The frosting had an equally rich, deep chocolaty decadence that was reminiscent of a thin fudge topping. It was better than excellent! I can only imagine how much more delicious this chocolate cake would be with multiple layers separated by and topped with that deep chocolate fudge-like frosting! Suffice to say, I’m a fan of Rubicon’s baked goods based on the items I’ve tried, and will be on the lookout for their products in local stores so that I can sample more items made by this local bakery.
Rubicon Bakers is truly an amazing place not only for the high quality, all-natural baked goods they produce, but more importantly, for the social values they embrace. Andrew Stoloff did a wonderful thing when he bought the bakery in 2009, and the continued growth and expansion of the business has provided more second chances for individuals who express the desire to turn their lives around. In return for the opportunities provided, Rubicon Bakers gets very loyal employees and people who want to work hard. People like Fred Earl, formerly a drug user who worked odd jobs to earn enough money for his next fix, until he became involved with Rubicon Programs in 1989. Fred started working at Rubicon Bakery when it opened in 1993 and still works there today. And then there’s Sheila Young-Eberhart, whose drug habit led her to time in prison, after which she decided to turn her life around. She, too, received support through Rubicon Programs, and started working at the bakery putting labels on packaging. She quickly moved up the ladder and is now the Quality Assurance Manager for Rubicon Bakers—the first employee to move from the floor into an office job. These are just two stories of the many people who have walked through the doors of Rubicon Bakers looking for a chance, and who have emerged enriched with job skills, a life purpose, and a new start. They are contributing members of a successful and thriving business, and they are a part of the Rubicon Bakers family. I encourage you to purchase Rubicon products when you see them in your local grocers. You will not only be purchasing high quality, delicious desserts, but you will also be supporting a local enterprise with an admirable social mission that is helping members of our communities turn their lives around. Kudos to Andrew and the team for making Richmond proud!
154 South 23rd Street, Richmond | (510) 779-3010 | rubiconbakers.com
Not Open to the Public | Bakery Hours: 6:00 AM – 10:00 PM (M-F) | Closed Saturday & Sunday