By Colleen Cross
Stone Hearth Bakery has a dual personality. To some people, that description might mean an identity crisis.
Stone Hearth Bakery has a dual personality. To some people, that description might mean an identity crisis. But for this kosher commercial bakery in Halifax, it simply means “two complementary halves of a community-spirited whole.”
|The Stone Hearth Bakery helps people who have barriers to employment develop good work habits, gain employment experience and build self-confidence. |
Photo: Brandon Laufenberg
On one half, Stone Hearth is a bakery that provides a wide array of kosher, European-style breads, bagels and specialty baked goods that are all baked without using animal fats, preservatives or dairy products.
On the other half, Stone Hearth is a training ground for people who have barriers to employment. The bakery helps them develop good work habits, gain employment experience and build self-confidence.
Stone Hearth Bakery is a social enterprise operated by a non-profit company called MetroWorks that helps people who have experienced various life difficulties, including mental health issues, a lack of economic resources and other disadvantages. The program teaches workers baking skills, but the emphasis is on vocational skills.
Health and education professionals sometimes recommend work adjustment training, which focuses on developing the personal skills required for success in the labour market, for people with a past history of unsuccessful employment. Participants are trained in work behaviours needed to effectively function in the workplace, including responding to change, attendance, accepting supervision and being a productive worker.
Stone Hearth pulls candidates for the program from recommendations by doctors, teachers, social workers and counsellors.
Participants typically stay at the bakery for nine months, but the length of their participation depends on individuals’ needs. The system is tailored to each person’s situation, says president and CEO of MetroWorks Dave Rideout, who has run the program for the last four years. Rideout’s background is in running community programs, not as an employee of the bakery industry by trade.
Stone Hearth takes on 20 participants at a time and employs eight paid bakers; participants and staff work side by side, with participants shadowing the more experienced, paid workers.
When he hires staff, Rideout says he makes it clear the emphasis is on the program over the bakery. This approach helps him retain sensitive, high-quality people who tend to stay in the job long term.
The paid staff are all qualified bakers, most of whom were trained at Nova Scotia Community College baking program.
Stone Hearth receives some provincial funding for its program, but most of its revenue comes from sales of the bread and specialty products to grocery stores, restaurants and specialty stores in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. Customers include Atlantic Superstores, Sobeys, Costco, Pete’s Frootique, Ace Burger Co. and Brooklyn Warehouse.
The enterprise works well because there is no owner and because all bakery proceeds feed the program, says Rideout. The bakery and community program work in tandem and there is a balance between what is good for the production and what is good for the workers.
The bakery is located in a Halifax strip mall near the Bayers Road Centre along with other businesses and organizations. At the 2,500-square-foot facility, staff make several rye loaves: light, dark, caraway, flax and marble. It also offers a variety of bagels, Challah, sandwich and pullman loaves, focaccia slabs and ciabatta bricks. They sell most of the bread directly to outlets such as grocery stores but some through a small kiosk at the centre.
They tried running a bistro for about nine months. It was an interesting but ultimately unsustainable experiment, as staffing challenges were too difficult to overcome.
Staff are always experimenting and trying to come up with viable new products that meet their strict limitations, says Rideout, adding that among them are a number of new Canadians who bring innovative ideas from around the world to the product development process.
“We’re always looking at new things we can make, especially given the kosher status because that limits what we can do. So we have to be a bit more creative.” Everybody is involved in that process. They encounter many with new Canadians originally from the Middle East or African countries, he says, which sometimes leads to interesting solutions based on various cultural traditions.
Is there anything customers request?
“Chocolate,” he says, adding that it’s very difficult to find affordable pareve (kosher suitable) chocolate chips, so they can’t bake with it. They do exist but they are incredibly expensive. Also, they can’t do any kind of pastry because it requires butter. It’s a challenge to find pareve products, he says.
Advertising is a challenge for the non-profit, with the limited budget split between product and program (and program generally winning out). For example, last year they had brochures printed to educate people about what they do. That used up that year’s advertising budget.
The biggest challenge to running the hybrid company is maintaining a balance between the two entities and their requirements. “For example,” he says, “we could buy a machine, which is good from a production point of view but doesn’t make sense from a program point of view. Staff would not have enough
“Stone Hearth’s products tend to reflect in their appearance that hands-on, less mechanized process,” says Rideout, but he believes its customers appreciate that quality in the bread.
“Our product is not cookie cutter,” he says. “There can be a little bit of variability because it’s done by hand. But some people like that kind of ‘homey’ feel.”
Unpaid and paid staff tend to partner up and move around in the bakery to learn every aspect of the operation. One job everyone does, he says, is roll bagels. Their bagels are hand-formed, he says, so there is always rolling to be done. He attributes a lot of the program’s success to patient, caring and dedicated staff that help the participants.
“The broader we can make their experience, the better it will be for workers,” he says. “Everything revolves around benefiting the program.”
When asked if being a kosher bakery is a help or a hindrance, he calls it a draw. “Everybody needs their own niche and being kosher is one we’ve been doing for a long time and people are aware of that status, so I think that helps us. It also limits us.”
Some graduates of the program go on to work full time in other bakeries; some don’t, says Rideout. The program is rewarding for participants as well as for staff. He recalls one young man in the program who had never worked and had long struggled with mental health issues. After 11 months in the program, he was able to work full time with no reported problems.
“It changed his life. And that happens to us four or five times a year,” says Rideout.