For The Bread & Butter Project article on The Sydney Morning Herald, September 27, 2013, please click here or read below.
There's a new, Sydney artisan bakery enterprise with an altruistic point of difference - providing career paths to those who need them most.
When Ma Du was seven, she gave up school to help look after her family. Her father had been taken by the brutal Burmese military as a "porter", a local term for villagers used as forced labourers to carry the military's supplies and often walk ahead of the soldiers in case of landmines. Sometimes they would be gone for months, sometimes they wouldn't come home. The eldest of seven children in the tiny Burmese village of Naboo, Du tended the family's rice paddies and cooked meals for her younger brothers and sisters - rice, curries and traditional fish paste - until at 15, she, too was taken by the military, along with her mother.
The next time the army arrived to round up villagers, Du hid in the forest and watched them burn their village to the ground. "After that we don't have food or a house," she explains. "We walked as a small group to the Thai-Burma border - seven days up and down the mountains - and to the refugee camp. We were there for 10 years before we came to Australia."
Now, Du's cooking is being eaten by far more people than just her family. Cafe-goers and diners across Sydney are sinking their teeth into bread that she's baked as one of the first four trainee bakers at the Bread & Butter Project (BBP), a wholesale bakery set up to turn refugees into certified bakers. As the tag line puts it, they're "makers of bakers".
"I was so excited when they called to tell me I had the job that I was jumping up and down, saying, 'I got a job, I got a job!'," says Du, who could only previously find cleaning work. "I rang everyone and even my sister back in Burma. Everyone was crying for me."
The Bread & Butter Project is the brainchild of Paul Allam, one of the founders of the successful Bourke Street Bakery outfit. Beckoned by a friend of Allam's uncle to the Mae Sot refugee camp on the Thai-Burma border in 2011, Allam and his wife, Jess Grynberg, help set up an oven and taught basic baking at an orphanage in the camp run by Dominican nuns. The pair returned inspired.
"A while ago, we travelled to Mali and people were asking for medical supplies or advice and we thought, if we were doctors or nurses we could help," says Grynberg. "So when we were invited to Mae Sot we realised, 'Wow, we have this skill that we can finally use.' You don't need to be a doctor - we can be bakers and help."
But being bakers and wanting to help was like having flour and water without the yeast. The project also needed more than a pinch of business acumen, determination and perseverance. Now, after two long years of planning, fundraising and site preparation, they and co-founder David McGuinness are making bread, bakers and lives. The first four trainee bakers are clad in white aprons and BBP T-shirts, punching down dough, mixing, shaping, dividing and baking rye boules, sourdough batards and muesli loaves for customers at David Jones, Salt Meats Cheese, Queen Street Deli and the Eveleigh Farmers' Market.
Deep in Marrickville's industrial zone, nestled among importers of religious figurines, graphic designers and printed circuit-board manufacturers, the red-brick premises under the flight path is a world away from the former lives of the trainees, all of whom are refugees - from civil war in Burma to conflict-ravaged Afghanistan - who have settled in Sydney's western suburbs. At BBP, they will work for 12 months while completing a Certificate II in baking through the Western Sydney Institute of TAFE. As demand and production increase, the aim is for BBP to be training 12 bakers at any one time.
While the traineeship is capped at 12 months, Sydney's chronic shortage of bakers means the prospects for the Bread and Butter Project trainees' future employment are bright. "When we advertise for bakers, such as the night baker," says BBP's trainee support manager, Suzanne Kuntz, "we might get one response a week and all the bakers are advertising. The wonderful thing is that, yes, we have trouble getting bakers, but we know that there are jobs for the trainees when they've finished."
Allam makes it clear that the project isn't all about the bread. Or, metaphorically speaking, the dough. "We're all doing this for the singular mission of training and employment while baking great bread," he says. "One hundred per cent of the profits are being reinvested and everyone is working for each other so no one's making a financial dividend from this."
Without realising it, the BBP had entered the realm of social enterprises, businesses underpinned by a social purpose. But unlike a lot social enterprises that are started by people from the community sector, Allam, Grynberg and the board they assembled from their group of friends came from business, social and professional backgrounds - a doctor, lawyer, financier, not-for-profit worker and, of course, bakers.
The team spent evenings endlessly forming and reforming the BBP business plan in each other's kitchens for two years before they even considered a bricks-and-mortar reality. According to Cheryl Kernot, Social Business Fellow at the UNSW Centre for Social Impact, the final business plan was top shelf. "I was very impressed with the clear explanation of their social purpose," says Kernot. "They'd identified a gap in the employment and training market and had a really good grip on costings."
Now, with the help of two volunteer graduates from the Centre, the BBP is conducting a Social Return on Investment report. "The SROI shows the social return we believe they're getting on the monetary investment from the start-up capital the funders gave with goodwill," says Kernot. "They're pioneering a model that's probably replicable in other parts of the country."
Allam and Grynberg also had a secret weapon they could deploy in meetings with prospective funders, many of whom had heard of or eaten at Bourke Street Bakery. "Our business opened a lot of doors," says Grynberg. "And we really leveraged that." But as a sweetener, they'd also arrive at meetings with bags of the product. "We'd give them bread and tarts to take home," says Allam, "and you can't under-estimate the value of a tart!"
The bureaucrats and private funders must have had a sweet tooth, because BBP raised almost one million dollars spectacularly quickly. They received one of the largest social-enterprise grants from the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations. Private funders such as Goodman gave capital, Macquarie Bank matched employee donations and Ashurst lawyers donated pro bono time and capital. "You start with the craziness," says Grynberg, "and then people started signing cheques so we had to keep going. But, really, when Paul gets an idea he just goes for it." Says Allam, "I'd like to think that it'll get bigger than Bourke Street Bakery in the end."
In the heady, initial stage, Allam and Grynberg envisaged a bakery in Sydney that would send profits to Mae Sot, but this was quickly scotched by the complicated international legal and tax arrangements, not to mention the reality of juggling an overseas arm to the business while raising their three kids. They then narrowed the trainee placements to come from those who had recently arrived in the country as refugees rather than socially disadvantaged groups. "There were already people working with the long-term unemployed, people with disabilities and so on," explains Grynberg. "And," says Allam, "when we began to speak to people it was obvious there was this huge lack of opportunities for refugees and asylum seekers. People were just saying, 'Please, do something.' "
Still, finding trainees wasn't as easy as putting an ad online and waiting for applications to roll in. Kuntz, who had previously worked at a drop-in centre for the homeless, made contact with refugee-support centres from Auburn to the Blue Mountains and sent information packs for interested applicants. Twenty-five turned up to the initial information session, from which 12 were selected for a day-long trial with the final six passing the speaking, reading and numeracy tests necessary for the workplace as well as the often complex TAFE component.
"The thing that really strikes me about working with trainees is that they are so, so motivated," says Kuntz, who also organises the weekly volunteer English tutors for each trainee. "They're incredibly hard workers and they've had to show real resilience just to get here in the first place."
That said, some of the applicants absented themselves from the program because of concerns over a late-night commute. "One young African fellow said that the shift work finishing at 8pm worried him," says Kuntz, "because he'd been bashed at night coming home on the trains."
Kuntz is also responsible for ensuring that the most critical month, "month 13" as she puts it, is a success. Somewhat unusually, this success is measured by how quickly the baking trainees leave the business to find work elsewhere - they're constantly drilling into the trainees that they're only at BBP for 12 months and that they should be thinking about future opportunities.
"It is very hard to make a better life for yourself if you don't have stable, long-term employment," says Kuntz. "None of the trainees want to be on government benefits for a long time and the huge thrill for them is getting off Centrelink." For her, the perfect success story, she says, would be a trainee going through the program, getting work experience then coming back as a trainer baker.
But as the founders and staff at BBP acknowledge, the social mission brings an added, intangible dimension of accountability to the business: the balance between the mission and making money. "If it doesn't work then people will lose money and we'll lose face," says Allam. "But really, the trainees are the ones who will lose the most. That's pretty heavy."
For McGuinness and Allam, it's a long way from the beginnings of Bourke Street Bakery, where they rented a corner shop, put a little oven in and baked some bread, hoping to generate enough money to cover the expenses. "We'll know Bread & Butter's been a success when the trainees get a job at the end of their year here," says McGuinness. "If they're a fantastic baker but we can't get them a job, it hasn't been a success."
When the trainees began, Alexandra Alewood, a trainer baker who has moved across from Bourke Street Bakery, admits the nerves jangled a little. Not knowing what the trainees had been through, the former ABC commercial manager was careful not to probe. She started by showing them what to do and talking about what kind of bread they ate in their country. They'd talk about their weekends, what they ate for dinner the night before or traditional Burmese customs.
Like all the employees at BBP, Alewood has completed a course on working with refugees provided by the NSW Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors. "You have to be bit careful because you don't know what these people have been through," she says.
"But then you think that they've been through so much more than you can ever throw at them."
Eventually, standing around a table filled with dough and tins, face-to-face, the trainers and trainees have become a little unit. "It's not like you're sitting in your own cubicle in an office doing your own thing," says Alewood. "You can't help but become close. You can read their faces and their body language. It's like the bread - it's very telling when something isn't right. When they arrive at work with a smile on their face that's all it takes to make me feel good."
In the lunchroom on the mezzanine floor of the bakery, there are photos of sandwiches at Ampersand Cafe in Paddington. Tacked beneath is a note saying that this is bread baked by [trainees] Ma, Kyi, Ali and Somprasong. "I'd never made bread before," says Du. "Each day I'm even happier because, yes, I've got a job. I remember the first loaves coming out of the oven. Paul called me over and it was very beautiful. I thought, 'I can make bread.' I was very proud."