For over 25 years, Rubicon Bakery has been helping rebuild lives by employing, training, and supporting people who need a fresh start — all while crafting delicious cookies, muffins, and cupcakes. Founder Andrew Stoloff’s gamble has paid off. From humble beginnings, and putting up his own money and taking out a loan, the wholesale baker is now featured in 2,500 stores across the country and employs 200 men and women. But this is no last-chance bakery; it’s a gateway filled with opportunity and new beginnings. Whether employees come to Rubicon from life on the streets, from prison, or after recovery from substance abuse, this social enterprise is committed to seeing them succeed and turning their lives around. We sat down with Stoloff to learn more about the company and his leadership philosophy.
Describe how you got here.
I had been in the restaurant business for years and was unhappy with the wages, benefits, and support that we were able to provide to our employees, given the economics of the restaurant business. When the opportunity to purchase a bakery with a social mission was presented to me, I understood that the economics of the wholesale bakery business would allow us to provide employment opportunities and support for those in need and still turn a profit.
Your motto is, “Bake a better world.” What inspired this phrase? How does it impact the way you operate?
Our desserts are more than products; they are vehicles for change. We believe that everyone deserves a second chance, and we strive to provide that second chance when other businesses may not. We’ve discovered that compassion is good for business, really. For us, baking is not only about crafting a wonderful, all-natural, honest dessert, it’s about making the world a little better with each cake, cupcake, cookie, and muffin. With your support, we change lives… one at a time.
Tell us about your initiative to create jobs for people who have been previously incarcerated or who are recovering from substance abuse.
We have a guiding principle about this: don’t ask about people’s past. Our program is simple. We understand that people can make bad choices without being a bad person. Everyone deserves a clean slate. That’s why we simply provide an opportunity — a second chance, if you will — for people to restart their lives. Employment is a primary key to success, and reintegrating the community as a contributing member. We all need that. We provide that opportunity for folks who are ready to accept responsibility for their own success. Mostly, we provide a job opportunity. But there’s more, too. We have a special program that provides 0 percent loans to employees who need a little extra help due to life’s circumstances. Over the years we have loaned out over $500,000. We think of it as an investment in the lives of our employees, and in our greater community.
How have you faced (and overcome) your greatest challenge to date?
The greatest challenge we have faced thus far is managing our growth. I know that might not sound like much of a challenge, but growth improperly managed can kill a business. At each stage of our growth we all thought, “How in the world are we going to accomplish that?” We rely on our employees to adapt to daily changes in our business. This allows us to focus on our customers and spread the delight of our cupcakes, cakes, cookies, and muffins. For example, customers started asking for vegan products and we took that opportunity to develop the best vegan products out there. Our company culture is to never say no to our customers!
“Growth improperly managed can kill a business.”
Share your top three pieces of advice to entrepreneurs looking to build companies that are socially conscious and interested in positively impacting their community?
1. Know the business that you are getting into better than anyone else.
2. Don’t expect your customers to cut you a break because your company is doing good things for the community.
3. Remember that your business has to be profitable if it is going to have impact. (It’s about the triple bottom line, not only about doing good.)
“Don’t expect your customers to cut you a break because your company is doing good things for the community.”
Describe your leadership style and how it has developed through your work.
For me, impact is the accumulation of lots of tiny decisions and tiny contributions. It is cumulative; big wins are extremely rare and frequently short-lived. Every day, I focus on best practices to grow the business, so that I can hire more employees and help more folks start a new chapter in their lives. With that in mind, as a leader:
- I listen.
- I am continually in awe of [each of] our employee’s wisdom, strength, and resilience.
- I let employees make mistakes. I just try to steer them away from making really big mistakes.
- I try to be a conductor and make sure that everyone is talking to everyone else.
- I try to make sure that everyone understands that our customers sign their paychecks.
SJ Murray, Ph.D., is a story designer, EMMY®-nominated writer and producer and award-winning researcher and educator. She is the author of two books, including Basics of Story Design, and a sought-after speaker on story and creativity. Since 2014, her purpose-driven story strategies for entrepreneurs and non-profits have been awarded more than a dozen international awards for branding and marketing, including the Silver Telly and Communicator Award of Excellence.