An emerging business hopes to fill a void in Cleveland’s bakery scene by training and employing men and women recently released from prison. ideastream intern Eve O'Connor reports.
Cleveland Baking Company is one of several start-ups operating out of the Cleveland Culinary Launch and Kitchen, a facility designed to help food entrepreneurs get off the ground. Baking assistant Mike Williams is mixing cookie dough.
MIKE WILLIAMS: “And right now I’m gonna move onto this second process here…add the eggs.”
They’ve been here since May making cookies, muffins, and other baked goods. But baking’s not their only mission.
JAMES LEVIN: “The idea was generated from two very different phenomenon.”
That’s James Levin, founder and CEO of Cleveland Baking Company.
JAMES LEVIN: “One is that, although I recognize there are some very fine artisan bakeries in Cleveland Heights, Little Italy, Lakewood. Between Cleveland Heights and Lakewood, there are really not so many.”
For Levin, the other trend hits close to home. For thirty years he worked as a criminal defense lawyer in Ohio City, and watched men and women released from prison.
JAMES LEVIN: “They come back and it’s just so hard for them to find work. And not even just my clients, but people from the neighborhood used to knock on my door saying is there anything that needs to be done in the house, do the windows need washing, does the garden need tending, is there anything they could do to make 20 bucks.”
For one Cleveland Baking Company employee, that’s personal. Before James Levin offered him a job, Steve (not his real name) says he struggled to find work.
STEVE: “Once you get a felony conviction, even the smallest one, you’re branded and nobody trusts you anymore.”
Steve says he had applied for jobs, but employers were unwilling to hire him.
STEVE: “They interview you, they like everything that you’ve done, right up until you’re about to be hired. And then ‘oh, I’m sorry, we can’t hire you.’”
Cleveland Baking Company, which touts the motto “Fresh Bread. Fresh Start.” aims to help fix that problem.
And Levin says the company’s downtown focus has real promise. He says in recent years few bakeries have served that part of the city.
JAMES LEVIN: “There used to be bakeries on every block, back in the old days. There used to be a Hough Bakery or a Davis Bakery truly in every neighborhood.
And now there are virtually none. Supermarkets now have their own bakeries.”
Levin hopes Cleveland Baking Company can resurrect that baking tradition—a tradition trainer Damir Hrastovic knows well. Hrastovic came to the U.S. from Croatia. He’s been an artisan baker for twenty years and says baking is his passion. He agrees it’s hard to find quality bakeries now.
DAMIR HRASTOVIC: “You cannot buy good bread around so often, just special stores have it. And flour used usually is not high quality. So baking is not easly; it’s not appreciated.
But he says he thinks things are looking up.
DAMIR HRASTOVIC: “My opinion is that baking industry will rise in the future. And people will appreciate it more—real bread—and skill will be more in demand so people who will get training in the baking industry will have a job easier than right now.”
Cleveland Baking Company currently sells at Maggie’s Farm in the Stockyards neighborhood and Food Peddler Farm Market in Old Brooklyn, both on the city’s West Side. And they show up at smaller farmer’s markets and food events around the city. They also take orders by phone.
And they’re busy reading up on similar social ventures in Los Angeles, Washington D.C., Detroit, and Providence.
JAMES LEVIN: “We’re now just trying to get some stakeholders, some investors, some ongoing customers to get us to a plateau where we can then secure some investors.”
James Levin says once that happens, they’ll look for a permanent location. He hopes to run bakeries on the east and west sides, training up to 25 reentering citizens per year at each location and then moving them into full-time jobs.
Though they say people in the community are supportive of their mission, Operations Director Rebecca Newbould says they’ve faced a big challenge. Their current facility doesn’t have the hearth oven they need to make artisan bread.
REBECCA NEWBOULD: “The focus of our company is bread and we’re not able to do bread right now, so we’ve had to kind of take a step back and focus on cookies, and muffins, and other desserts.”
But Levin says they’re dedicated to bringing fresh bread to downtown Cleveland, once they find their own place.
JAMES LEVIN: “People just love fresh bread. And I love the fact that it’s kind of iconic, and mythic. You know, bread is the staff of life. It’s something that can be a vehicle for recovery and meaningful livelihood to these men and women, and I think bread is the pony that we need to bet on.”
Levin says he’s confident the company will make that happen—the idea just needs a little more time in the oven.