This summer, JetBlue announced New York City-based Hot Bread Kitchen — a social enterprise that builds lasting economic security for foreign-born and low-income women by introducing them to professional opportunities in the culinary industry - as the first winner of its “BlueBud" business mentoring program.
JetBlue says the bakery will receive mentorship, special access to the airline’s business leaders, the airline’s unique product development culture, and valuable industry insights, along with a unique opportunity to get its bakery and products into the aviation space. Guided by the airline’s mission of inspiring humanity, BlueBud was designed as a way for JetBlue to connect with diverse suppliers, starting with environmentally and socially responsible food companies and startups. Applicants for the first BlueBud program included small food companies that are creating unique and novel concepts.
Hot Bread Kitchen works to create pathways to employment for women from diverse backgrounds. The partnership will ideally increase exposure for the bakery, ultimately impacting profits. JetBlue’s Head of Sustainability, Sophia Mendelsohn, caught up with founder Jessamyn Rodriguez to find out more about Hot Bread Kitchen’s mission and impacts.
Sophia Mendelsohn: Jessamyn, first of all, congratulations on being selected as our first BlueBud mentoring program participant! Can you tell us more about Hot Bread Kitchen and how you hope to benefit from the program?
Jessamyn Rodriguez Thank you! It has been a tremendous pleasure to partner with JetBlue. As a growing social enterprise, we are excited about the advising and access to market opportunities offered by the JetBlue partnership. We are hopeful that access to JetBlue’s audience will allow more people to hear the stories of the women we train, and increase awareness of all of the incredible multiethnic bread offerings that New Yorkers might miss out on if organizations like ours didn’t exist.
SM: How did Hot Bread Kitchen get started? What was your inspiration?
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JR: The idea for Hot Bread Kitchen came about almost by accident. I had interviewed for a position at Women’s World Banking and, when recapping the interview to a friend, he misheard it as Women’s World Baking. The notion of an immigrant women’s baking collective, a sort of ‘United Nations of Bread,’ was hard to shake, and it became the grain of inspiration for the organization. It has grown a lot since then, but that is the start of it.
SM: Economic security seems like a lofty goal for a bakery — why was it important to set up a social enterprise versus just a bakery?
JR: I never wanted to have a bakery in the conventional sense and I was never motivated to start a traditional non-profit that fundraises endlessly to support a mission. I learnt how to bake in order to start Hot Bread Kitchen. I worked in public policy for nearly a decade; it was my dream to find a way to bring women together to do what they’ve been doing well all over the world for centuries, and help them professionalize their skill and passion to break down barriers to entering the workforce, disrupt a traditionally male-dominated industry, and introduce really unique products to market.
SM: Through this program, we will share access to JetBlue’s business leaders and our unique product development culture, as well as provide valuable industry insights. What else can Hot Bread Kitchen to learn from us?
JR: JetBlue is such an iconic brand, synonymous with innovation in their industry — we are so excited to have the opportunity to work with JetBlue on our strategy and branding and have the access to their marketing, communications, product and sustainability teams for advice and support.
Another thing that really impressed me about JetBlue is the time and effort that is invested in team-building. From my experience with the team as a customer, it is obvious that JetBlue invests a lot in creating culture and community among staff. I am looking forward to learning more about how that is done and take some of those practices back to our team.
SM: Through the BlueBud program we are aligning with other New York-based companies to share our business insights. Hot Bread Kitchen also shares its knowledge with up-start companies via an incubator program — tell us about this initiative.
JR: In addition to our Bakers in Training program, we operate a culinary incubation program. HBK Incubates offers affordable kitchen rental and business coaching to support the development of fledgling food businesses. I hatched the idea of Hot Bread Kitchen in my home, started it in a shared kitchen space, and turned it into a thriving commercial bakery. Along the way, I made mistakes and built great relationships. We are excited to share our knowledge, access and resources with small food startups — just like ours once was. There are all sorts of companies that work out of the incubator — ice cream makers, bakers, caterers — and 30 percent of them are low-income entrepreneurs that we subsidize.
SM: Much like JetBlue’s supplier diversity initiative, you also seek to work with a network of diverse business partners and provide equal access to opportunities. How do you balance this passion with profit?
JR: We work very hard to marry market and mission: 67 percent of our operating costs are currently covered by sales of our bread and membership and kitchen rental fees in the incubator. Our trainees know that the breads they produce are being made for Whole Foods, Union Square Greenmarket, or Gramercy Tavern; knowing that they are responsible for producing a high-quality product helps ensure less waste and greater efficiency. We are working toward sustainability and, in the coming years, profit from bread sales will cover the costs of our training programs.
SM: In addition to your wholesale business, you’ve implemented a pay-what-you-can model at your Harlem bakery to ensure little to no waste — tell me more about this.
JR: Our retail storefront is located in La Marqueta in East Harlem, a neighborhood with high rates of poverty and joblessness. We offer our breads at a pay-what-you-can rate to ensure that our community has access to high-quality, nutritious bread, and to reduce waste. At the end of the day, whatever breads are left over at our storefront are donated to a local soup kitchen.
SM: JetBlue’s network in Latin America and the Caribbean now accounts for one third of our route map. Many of your bakers are from some of these countries. Why is important to bring these bakers’ unique culture (and delicious breads) to New York residents?
JR: The women we train come to us with the knowledge of baking traditions that have been passed down in the home. Many of the breads we’ve developed (like pan de guagua, an Ecuadorian bread to celebrate Dia de Los Muertos, and a really authentic tortilla from Nixtamal) are not being offered by other commercial bakeries. New York is a veritable melting pot of flavors and traditions, and without baking these traditions into the fabric of our local economy, these breads might not make it from those regions to the mouths of New Yorkers. Through our bread offerings, we br-educate New Yorkers about the contributions of the diverse immigrant communities around us.
SM: How can people learn more about Hot Bread Kitchen and become involved?
JR: Pick up a copy of our cookbook, The Hot Bread Kitchen Cookbook, which is as much a collection of recipes for our breads and delicious accompaniments to serve alongside them as it is the stories of the women we’ve trained and the ingredients needed to build a successful social enterprise. To support us in our mission to train more women and create more jobs, you can buy our breads online and in retail locations in the tristate area, or donate time, money or supplies to help us grow.