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‘It’s an idea that’s very Canadian at heart,’ Jessamyn Rodriguez says of Hot Bread Kitchen, a New York bakery that employs immigrant women to bake their traditional breads. The venture not only gives the women a chance at financial independence but it keeps alive family recipes and gives bread lovers variety. (Francisco Marin)
‘It’s an idea that’s very Canadian at heart,’ Jessamyn Rodriguez says of Hot Bread Kitchen, a New York bakery that employs immigrant women to bake their traditional breads. The venture not only gives the women a chance at financial independence but it keeps alive family recipes and gives bread lovers variety. (Francisco Marin)

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Jessamyn Rodriguez puts a social experiment in the oven Add to ...

Every morning at Hot Bread Kitchen in New York’s East Harlem neighborhood, women from around the world come together to bake. They make tortillas, lavash, m’smen, challah, nan-e barbari, ciabatta and more. And with each loaf, they take another step toward financial independence.

Hot Bread Kitchen is the brainchild of Jessamyn Rodriguez, a 36-year-old dual citizen of Canada and the United States who lives in New York. She launched Hot Bread Kitchen, a non-profit “social enterprise,” in 2008 to help low-income, foreign-born women utilize their baking skills to achieve economic security. “It was this realization that in most parts of the world, women bake the bread for their families and their communities, but somehow in the North American and European context, good jobs in bakeries are going to men,” she says.

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In addition to this industry inequity, Rodriguez saw that there was a gap in the market when it came to interesting ethnic breads, and she decided to fill it with Hot Bread Kitchen. “I think that’s what makes us unique and makes us a social enterprise,” she says. “It’s a marriage of the market opportunity with the social need.”

Hot Bread Kitchen hires immigrant women and trains them in the fine art of baking. (currently, there are 19 women enrolled in the program). At the same time, it’s a two-way street: Many of the breads in the bakery’s product line came from traditional recipes that the women brought to the table. The bread products are then sold at farmer’s markets and retail stores, with the proceeds going back into the training program.

Rodriguez says they find their bakers through community partners who refer qualified candidates, as well as by word of mouth.

“Some of our best bakers have come through word of mouth,” she says, “So we incentivize women enrolled in the program to bring us sisters and friends and aunts and cousins because those women tend to have the skills that we need.”

The goal, Rodriguez says, is to graduate the women from the bakery program into management-track positions in other bakeries or food manufacturing institutions across the city, or within Hot Bread Kitchen itself.

“And the third track, which we’re really getting excited about now, is graduating women into their own entrepreneurial venture,” Rodriguez says. “In 2010, we built a kitchen incubator as a way to help women in the program to start businesses if they didn’t have a lot of capital.”

The HBK Incubates program offers start-up businesses commercial kitchen rental space at below market rates, as well as other modes of support, such as accounting advice, culinary advice and marketing workshops. Though the program is open to anyone, it puts priority on minority-owned businesses, graduates of the bakery program and residents of Harlem and the surrounding area.

“There are 39 businesses enrolled in HBK Incubates, everything from a Senegalese caterer to a cake pop maker, pickling, ice cream, we have someone who does artisanal bitters,” Rodriguez says. “Our kitchen is designed to be multipurpose and can accommodate all sorts of food businesses.”

Despite her entrepreneurial success, Rodriguez says she didn’t set out to be a small business owner. Born in Kingston and raised in Toronto, she was living in Toronto when she had the idea for the bakery program in 2001. “It’s an idea that’s very Canadian at heart,” she says. But she didn’t seriously consider doing it until years later, after she had moved to New York to work for the United Nations and go to graduate school.

“Before, I was quite young and I didn’t have the social capital and connections to make it work, but then later, after years of having worked [in New York], the timing just made better sense,” she says. “The idea continued to nag at me and it was kind of a point in my professional life where I was in the position to give it a try.”

In order to get experience in the field, Rodriguez moonlighted as an apprentice for two years in one of New York’s top bakeries. To fund the start-up costs, Hot Bread Kitchen was able to get philanthropic support, and is still partly funded by public foundations, city government and individual donors.

With five successful years under her belt (including the recent opening of a Hot Bread Kitchen retail location in Harlem), Rodriguez has some objectives in mind. She hopes to get 80 women a year in the Hot Bread Kitchen bakery program and help the 39 businesses in their Incubates program to mature and graduate. “And we’re currently starting to think about expanding to other cities,” she says.

Despite her ambitious goals, Rodriguez acknowledges that this kind of social enterprise can be extremely challenging.

“I am cautious about downplaying the challenges and fortitude it’s taken to get here, but I do think it is the way of the future and I am extremely motivated to get to break even, to get to the point where we don’t need philanthropic support,” she says.

“At that point,I think it says something very important about the women that we serve and the contribution of immigrant communities, and I hope it will become a model for other social enterprises.”

An important element of the program is to preserve baking traditions, Rodriguez says, and highlight the contribution of immigrant communities.

“Women come to us and it isn’t until they join this community of chefs that they realize that the passion and skill that they have in baking and cooking is a valuable asset,” she says. “[Selling their products] is a tangible way to see this is a city that values their contribution.”

On a personal level, Rodriguez says that she’s “created her dream job.”

“I love going to work every day,” she says. “I have a two-year-old daughter and another one on the way, and it’s been the best environment to bring my daughter into because she’s got 30 moms looking over her shoulder.

“I so value the support and input I’ve gotten from all these moms and sisters on my staff.”

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