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Making It Work: Social enterprise bakery adapts to keep refugees in jobs

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Australians have had to adapt after their livelihoods took a hit from government restrictions introduced to curb the spread of coronavirus. In this series called Making It Work, we look at how individuals and businesses have pivoted to stay afloat during the crisis.

The Bread & Butter Project

The Bread & Butter Project is a social enterprise set up by Bourke Street Bakery owners Paul Allam and David McGuinness. The wholesale artisan bakery provides training and employment for around 30 refugee and asylum seekers a year.

making it work the bread and butter project a man and his fish
The Bread & Butter Project supplied baked goods to cafes such as A Man and His Monkey (pictured) before coronavirus restrictions hit the hospitality industry. Photo: Supplied.

Trainees receive hands-on teaching in the company's Marrickville bakery and intensive tutoring in English and numeracy. They come away with a TAFE Certificate II in Food Processing, and so far about 45 bakers and 30 kitchen hands have graduated into jobs in Sydney.

As a social enterprise, the bakery's profits are reinvested back into the business as well as into community training initiatives to ensure the project is sustainable and has a long-lasting impact.

Until the COVID restrictions were imposed, The Bread & Butter Project had 260 wholesale customer accounts, with 5500 units of bread coming out of its factory in Marrickville, in Sydney's inner west, each day.

At that time, its biggest customers were the Westpac corporate cafe, Toby's Estate, the University of Sydney, and the cafe A Man and His Monkey. These companies made up 70% of the project's business, with the other 30% made up by Harris Farm's in-store bakeries in Bondi Junction and Leichhardt.

Under pressure

In the second half of March, cafe and restaurant sales fell by more than half, as COVID-19 hit the hospitality industry hard.

Some big decisions had to be made quickly to ensure the business could remain operational.

"Within two weeks we shifted from being a largely wholesale enterprise to becoming much more consumer-facing via online retailers and supermarkets," says chairperson Cindy Carpenter.

Woolworths came to the rescue, stocking The Bread & Butter Project's bread in 14 of their Metro stores.

"They've worked extremely hard on our behalf to provide us with a good shelf presence because we aren't a well-known consumer brand, as yet," Carpenter says.

"Once consumers have tried our bread they're loyal but until they try it they don't know."

Learning to adapt

Carpenter says there were other changes the business had to make to adapt their sales from wholesale to retail.

"We had to make sure we made smaller loaves - we'd made jumbo loaves to cut up for cafes and now we had to make a lot more of the smaller loaves - and we had plain plastic packaging that worked for wholesale but for artisan bread we had to accelerate our retail packaging of paper with a window," she says.

Packaging providers Detpak helped the organisation revamp its packaging in just weeks.

"It usually takes three months and they've been able to do it in four or five weeks," Carpenter says.

"We also had to price the wholesale to retail consumers - we have some experience but we had to figure our pricing for Woolies Metro and had to ramp up relationships with online retailers like Ooooby and Doorstep Organics, who have stepped up their own business and suddenly started ordering a lot from us.

"They were able to pick up the business that overflowed from Woolies and Coles Online when they could no longer deliver."

The Bread & Butter Project is a public company with a voluntary board of directors. As a social enterprise, they operate as a commercial business, but at the same time they are also a registered charity with DGR status.

Bread and pastry sales fund 90% of their training and operational costs, with donations funding the remaining 10%. Volunteers and pro bono assistance also help.

The Bread & Butter Project provides participants with immediate paid employment, as well as pathways to future employment in the baking and hospitality industries.

The project is currently housing four refugees who have left their homes in Burma, Thailand and Afghanistan to start anew in Sydney.

"The social impact is incredible. In 2018 we had it measured independently and they found 100% of our graduates were sustainably employed from the launch; all their kids were at school, or at uni or employed and that is totally different from typical outcomes for refugees.

"Ma is our first trainee; she was from Burma and was a victim of human trafficking. She spent 10 years in a refugee camp in Thailand and was then unemployed for five years with poor English.

"We trained her to be a pastry chef and she's still with us as a pastry chef.  All her kids have gone through university or TAFE in that time and are all now working.

"By keeping our doors open, we are keeping people employed who may be on Temporary Protection Visas or other visas, and who are not eligible for the government's JobKeeper support program and would struggle to find alternative work in the current circumstances."

The future

"Metro is really happy with how we're going, Harris Farm will also grow, and the online retailers won't lose all their business. People will get used to ordering through them, and our wholesale business will come back," Carpenter says.

"Our challenge is that we're outgrowing our facility in Marrickville and we're going to have to find Government help, philanthropy or somewhere else to help us find larger premises.

"We need to manage for expansion - it's a nice problem to have.

"We need $2.7million to acquire and fit out a new facility and we're hoping to do it closer to western Sydney where most of the refugees live."

We're cutting through the confusion to help you manage your money during the coronavirus outbreak. Click here for more on how COVID-19 could affect your job, budget, super and investments.

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Julia Newbould is a financial writer and commentator with a background in journalism. She was previously editor of Financial Planning and Super Review magazines; managing editor at InvestorInfo and at Morningstar Australia. Julia co-authored The Joy of Money, a book on women and personal finance. She holds a Bachelor of Economics from the University of Sydney where she serves on the alumni council.
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