Ten years ago, Jessamyn Rodriguez flew to New York City from her native Toronto to interview with a microfinance organization called Women’s World Banking. She didn’t get the job, but a miscommunication with a friend–who thought she wanted to work in baking, not banking–conjured up an image in her head that she never forgot. Now 34, Rodriguez runs a 22-woman strong bakery non-profit for immigrant women in Harlem called Hot Bread Kitchen. And she’s leveraging her success to empower other entrepreneurs to do the same through a unique incubator program for food startups. Here’s her story.
Before my career had anything to do with baking, I spent 10 years working for different non-profit organizations doing high-level policy analysis on immigration and social justice. I spent some time in Costa Rica with the UNDP looking at how Nicaraguan migration to Costa Rica was affecting health care, education, and the social service structure. Nicaragua is one of the poorest countries in the region, and we were trying to justify additional foreign aid into Costa Rica, a middle income country. It taught me a lot about the real costs of immigration‑-the economic disparity between Costa Rica and Nicaragua is almost analogous to that between the U.S. and Mexico. The work was intellectually stimulating, but something about it wasn’t completely fulfilling. It was so theoretical, so far from the ground, so far from the nitty gritty day-to-day lives of the people affected. I wanted to work directly with individuals as opposed to writing papers that would hopefully, someday become policy.
I had the idea for Hot Bread Kitchen in my head for about ten years; after eight years of just thinking about it, I realized that unless I knew how to bake, I wouldn’t be able to successfully grow this company. So I did a master baking certificate at The New School and apprenticed under Mark Fiorentino, the chef boulanger at Restaurant Daniel. He hired me a year later. It’s a classic French bakery, and I was the first woman to be hired there. I got all the experience I needed, figured out how to bake, and decided to just go for it.
We initially launched with a small group of women out of my house in downtown Brooklyn in the summer of 2007. We sold a line of five multiethnic breads at the farmers market in Harlem. We quickly grew and moved into a commercial kitchen.
We don’t have a storefront, but we sell at farmers markets and at 30 grocery stores across the city. Our best-selling products are definitely the stone-ground corn tortillas, but we also do an Armenian style lavash and a Moroccan flatbread called msmen. We try to recruit women who are passionate about food and have food preparation skills. We provide paid on-the-job training focusing on efficiency, safe production, and teamwork. The women are all paid for their time in training; that’s important because it gives us access to low-income women who are also heads of households. There’s a high demand for both the product and the positions, so we’re trying to scale up on both ends.
We also have an on-site kitchen that we can rent out to small entrepreneurs, and that’s where we launched our incubator. For food startups, the hardest point of entry is access to a commercially licensed kitchen. We’re really fortunate to have one on-site that entrepreneurs can come in and rent. We brought in our first class of food startups in early January–we help them get the licenses they need, start their business, and learn packaging and marketing. The current team includes a gentleman and his wife who make delicious Dominican style cakes and a housewife who makes sexy novelty baked goods.
We’re like the United Nations of bread. When you come into our bakery, there are women from Bangladesh, Nepal, Mali, Haiti, Mexico, Morocco–we’ve had 22 women from 11 different countries. We’ve promoted two of our bakers internally to management positions, and two others have gone on to work as full-time bakers at Daniel.
Being a Canadian has factored a lot into where I ended up. I grew up in Toronto, a multicultural city with really good international food. In Canada, we really embrace and value our immigrant past. A lot of our national ethos comes from the merits of the strength of our immigrant communities. I always had a hunch that I would come to New York City, so when the opportunity arose, I took it. It just makes a lot of sense to me personally.
[Image via Hot Bread Kitchen]