It’s not often you hear some cite inequality—social, racial, gender, economic—as reasons to live in a city, but for Jessamyn Rodriguez, that’s exactly what fostered her decision to start New York’s Hot Bread Kitchen, a non-profit social enterprise that provides low-income immigrant women the opportunity to learn bread-baking and professional skills to prepare them for the workforce. In a city struggling with poverty and particularly high female unemployment, starting Hot Bread in New York just made sense. But with incredible success behind her, Rodriguez now has her sights set elsewhere.
“There’s a deep need here [in New York] for the programs we offer,” she says, all of which have been across-the-board successful—which is why, she figured, it’s time to bring the model to another city by 2017. Where that city will be, she has yet to decide, but considering how far Hot Bread Kitchen has come since it launched in 2008, she thinks far more cities than New York could benefit from “the United Nations of bread.”
Raised in a Jewish family in Toronto, Rodriguez grew up kneading and rolling challah braids with her family every Friday night as a young girl—a ritual that, her mother would later suggest, planted the seed of Hot Bread Kitchen in her three-year-old daughter. “Challah for me was symbolically very powerful,” she says, and she built a relationship to bread at an early age. But after moving to New York to get her master’s in public administration at Columbia University, another bread became the object of her fascination: the bialy. Bialys are particularly New York product, and as she’ll remind you, Rodriguez is a Canadian Jew, not a New York one.
“I was like, ‘what is this bialy thing?’ and started doing more research,” she says. “To me, it’s one of the quintessential ethnic breads in New York.”
So when Rodriguez started Hot Bread Kitchen out of her Brooklyn apartment in 2008, bialys were one of the first products she started baking. Today, she and the women in the Bakers in Training program bake over 75 breads from across the world in their commercial bakery in East Harlem’s La Marqueta. While some women grind and nixtamalize the local yellow maize that goes into corn tortillas, others hand-stretch the buttery, top-selling Moroccan m’smen flatbread. The breads are then sold at the bakery’s storefront and to restaurants but also at Greenmarkets around the city. Some even show up in Blue Apron meal kits.
With a current roster of 14 women (though admission is rolling), Bakers in Training is the program Hot Bread Kitchen is best known for. For nine months, women get the opportunity to bake in the kitchen, as well as spend three hours each week taking classes in English, kitchen math, bakery science, professional skills, and management—and they get paid during all of it. Once they graduate from the program, Hot Bread helps place women into bakeries and restaurants where they get paid at least $12.75 an hour and receive benefits. Since the start of the program in 2008, 126 women from 31 countries have graduated Rodriguez’s program and gone on to work at Amy’s Bread, Zaro’s, and even Daniel. Some go on to work at Hot Bread Kitchen at the managerial level.
“One of the most impactful things about our program is that we bring women together from around the world,” Rodriguez says. While not everyone enters the program knowing hot to speak English, every woman comes in with a love of baking bread—whether that bread is chewy, sesame seed-topped Persian nan-e barbari or crispy Armenian lavash crackers.
But the kitchen, which operates around the clock, churns for more than just the Bakers in Training. There’s also the HBK Incubates program, which rents commercial kitchen space to small business owners (female and male), where they can avoid financial instabilities, get financial and marketing assistance, and make their product alongside other passionate bakers. Among the most well-known graduated businesses are Pipcorn, Tipsy Scoop, and My Sweet Brigadeiro, but more than 120 businesses have come through since the program started in 2011. Today, 70% of the businesses are women-run and 50% are owned by minorities.
With so much success in New York, the next step is to expand, and Rodriguez won’t choose her next target lightly. She currently has a model that factors in 22 variables like transportation, cultural diversity, and population density. By 2017 she aims to get a whole new population of women baking, learning, and telling their stories through bread.
“In the beginning of it all, I was the baker and the delivery man and the dish person and the head grant writer,” she says. “Now it’s a very different kind of organization, but the shared language is [always] around food and bread.”