Borrower Spotlight: Firebrand Breads Shares their Recipe for Success

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Things at Firebrand Artisan Breads are heating up! With the recent closing of a $500k working capital loan from REDF Impact Investing Fund, our largest investment to-date, this beloved Bay Area bakery is poised to grow its business in an expanded production facility while strengthening its social mission through a new Family Resource Center (FRC). 

Since 2008, Firebrand has been committed to serving the community both as an employer and as a bakery, providing full health benefits, PTO, open book management training, and professional development to all employees. Following the lead of companies they admire, like Greyston Bakery, they actively recruit individuals with gaps in their work history, including those who’ve experienced homelessness or incarceration. With their slated expansion, RIIF will help Firebrand formalize wraparound services for its employees with barriers.

We sat down with Matt Kreutz, CEO, and Sherry Akioka, Head of People & Culture, to learn more about the bakery’s ethos, expansion plans, and vision for the future

What made you decide to pursue a loan opportunity with REDF Impact Investing Fund? 

Matt: We really wanted a lender who could help us grow and further our social mission, and RIIF was ready to step into that role and help us own that piece. Whereas, everyone else had different interests, RIIF was really focused on providing a framework for how we could measure our impact and hit our goals.


What excites you most about Firebrand Bread’s Expansion? 

Sherry: I think being able to build something we’re super proud of and provide job opportunities for the community is very interesting and exciting.  It would be really awesome, with this expansion, to be an even more sought after employer where people seek us out and want to work. I’m also excited about our teams receiving more recognition for how hard they work, and with the new production facility we can get even more creative with our desserts, cakes, and the products we sell.


What sparked your desire to formalize the wraparound services and social enterprise side of the business? 

Matt: We were going through a fundraising round and wanted this next phase of Firebrand to mark a very clear, big change in the company with a step-up in our capabilities and our capacity.  We wanted to draw a really solid line where it’s clear and direct, and we’re held accountable. 


What are some of the ways Firebrand plans to expand the support it offers employees through the Family Resource Center?

Sherry: We have a family atmosphere, and we have people who work here in all life stages. As a bakery, we’re a 24-hour operation. Each of our team members have lives outside of work, so it’s about taking care of them, and their home, and their situations at home, so that they can be more grounded and present at Firebrand. As the business grew, we saw the need for the Family Resource Center, where we can support our employees holistically. It’s a place for people to go where they can learn more about how computers work and get comfortable with things like Word or Excel. They can also strengthen their English skills if it’s not their primary language, receive parenting classes, access housing assistance, or get connected to trauma counseling. It’s these types of resources that we’d like to be able to provide at the center, hoping it opens the door to more possibilities for employees.


Firebrand is known for being a great place to work in the Bay Area. Why is that a priority for you?

Sherry: We take care of each other. Our goal is to try to be as supportive of our team as possible. Living in the Bay area is not easy. Everything’s so expensive. The first thing that we can offer is a higher minimum wage than usual and benefits. That’s one way we can help our teams and take care of them, and we always know in the end they’re going to come back and want to take care of us. 


How would you describe the culture of Firebrand?

Sherry: We recently did an employee satisfaction survey, and part of it touched on the culture aspect. One of the anonymous employee quotes we received was, “One thing I find such a breath of fresh air is being able to look around and see such a diverse staff. Not only is it diverse but it’s a place where difference isn’t treated as a disability, nor is it something that has any part to play in your work ethic. There’s a heartwarming culture that I’m very happy to be a part of. And I would welcome anyone to join our bakery.”

After I received the feedback I thought about who would have written that and then realized that there are multiple people that could have written it. That’s how I feel about Firebrand and that’s exactly how I want other people to feel. If we can just grow from that and have people come in and trust us, and know that we can trust them so that we can continue to build this type of environment and culture, I think we’re definitely heading somewhere great.


Can you pinpoint what’s contributing to that amazing culture?

Matt: Everything at Firebrand is very “one foot in front of the other”. We all have a growth mentality of always trying to get better and better, and that mentality compounded after 12 years, combined with having really great people who all are naturally inclined to care about others, contributes to our culture. Everyone across the organization makes mistakes, and we leave room for that. It’s about being able to learn, grow and get better from those mistakes. We also give a lot of space for people to be themselves, to try to bring out the best in everybody. When you do that, you get really great people who want to work for you. 


You have dedicated employees who have been impacted by the criminal justice system or who have experienced homelessness. What would you say to another employer who is considering fair-chance hiring?

Sherry: I like to approach every situation or new experience with an empty cup. I think you always have past experiences but you never want that to determine what the future’s going to be. I would let other employers know to approach hiring with an empty cup, in a way that you aren’t judging a job candidate based on what you know. You’re giving them a chance, because why wouldn’t you want to give someone a chance? 


Beyond giving someone a chance, we know there’s a real business case for fair-chance hiring. Can you speak more to that?

Matt:If you intend to hire people who have higher barriers to employment you do risk losing some people because those barriers can sometimes prevent them from being able to show up and be present. The reward is you get better retention with people who are really loyal and who want to learn. Our approach to hiring has challenged us to be a better employer, and that’s translated into having more success with employees. 

We’ve found such strong employees through our hiring practices that we’ve changed the job ads we put out and actively look for gaps in resumes due to experiencing homelessness or incarceration, as opposed to wanting people to hide those things. As an employer we make it known that it’s not a problem for us. 


Looking ahead to the next five years, what would success for Firebrand look like to you?

Sherry: We’ve seen that when we take care of our workforce and team, it shows in the quality of the delicious products we create. Five years from now I’d like to see a full and diverse staff, where we’ve got jobs to offer and we’re able to provide for employees. I want to keep going down that diversity road. It’s a great reflection of what we see in our local community. I want to make sure that we’re thoughtfully taking care of our team, so rather than throwing out HR buzzwords, success would be providing them with great benefits that are actually useful.

Matt: Success looks like producing high-quality products while growing and elevating the social mission of the company and making a deeper impact on the extended community. We want to build a new model of looking at and serving our employees holistically. In five years, if we’re further down that path, I’d consider it a win.