Founded by Bourke Street Bakery’s Paul Allam and David McGuiness, The Bread and Butter Project doesn’t just bake some of the best bread in town, but also creates livelihoods and empowers refugees and asylum seekers who have struggled to find employment in Australia. Not just a wholesale artisan bakery, The Bread And Butter Project is also a TAFE accredited training programme.
Each trainee is paid a full time wage and spends 6-7 months learning the art of baking great bread, graduating as fully trained artisan bakers with a Certificate II in Hospitality. They are then placed in jobs in bakeries around Sydney.
We recently had an opportunity to tour the bakery in Marrickville and hear the inspiring story behind The Bread and Butter Project, the impact it is having in the community, and the unique challenges of running both a commercial business and an incredible social enterprise. As told by General Manager Philip Hoban.
"The Bread and Butter project was started by Paul Allam & David McGuinness, who own Bourke St Bakery. Paul went to visit a small village on the Thai-Burma border which was run by the sisters of mercy. There was an old broken down oven, so he got it working, developed a little bakery and trained them to run it themselves. This meant they could sell the bread to the hotels and cafes in the main cities all around their village.
That was his first endeavour and it was really successful. After setting it up, he handed it over to the Sisters of Mercy and it’s is still operational to this day. It has improved the lifespan and quality of life of all the people in that village.
When he came back to Australia, he wanted to do something similar here. As a baker, he knew all statistics were saying that in the next 15-20 years there’s going to be a massive shortage of bakers in Australia. So he decided that would be the best avenue to go down, and that he would focus on helping refugees and asylum seekers. So the Bread & Butter Project was born, almost 6 years ago.
In that 6 years, 26 refugees and asylum seekers, mainly refugees, have gone through our doors and they are all still in full time employment. Their children are all in education. So the next generation is being looked after, and that benefits Australia as much as the refugees themselves.
Those refugees and their stories go totally against the usual stories of refugees in Australia. We recently completed a social impact study to measure the social return on the investment and make sure we’re actually making a difference and we learned that 72% of refugees stay on Government income all their lives.
When our trainees graduate, we then find them placements with some of our partners in other bakeries. Some of them are our competitors, some of them are big commercial enterprises, the likes of Tip Top Bakery. They use us to hire their bakers, because we’ve done all the hard work for them and the training they get is really, really good. They understand ingredients, they understand machines. They understand the processes. So they’re not just machine operators but proper trained bakers. During that time we also have five volunteer retired teachers, who give them one-on-one English lessons to improve their language.
We currently have 9 trainees downstairs that are about to graduate. They finish this month, and we’ll have a graduation ceremony in July, to celebrate their success. It’s a huge achievement. For 7 of the 9, we’ve already found full time roles for them outside of here, and the other two we’re going to keep because we also struggle to find staff for our own bakery - so we always keep them when we need them!
We’ve just done another intake because we want to keep this ball rolling. We have 10 new trainees starting this week.
What’s amazing about the refugees is they are very talented and skilful people. In our current group we’ve got an electrical engineer, a project engineer, construction manager, construction engineers, a maths teacher. One girl speaks 5 languages! They’ve gone through the whole job hunting process in Australia and struggled to find work, hence they come to us. They might use their training here as a stepping stone to go somewhere else but that’s OK - it gives them that lift up that they need.
Our trainees have some incredible and harrowing stories. Our first trainee was born in a village in Thailand and her husband would be taken away for weeks on end, forced into slavery for the army. He’d come back and he’d be totally drained, totally energyless. Eventually, their house was burned down, their whole village was burned down. She spent 10 years in a refugee camp in Thailand. When she came to Australia she couldn’t get a job for 5 years because she’s over 50 and her English wasn’t good enough. When Bread & Butter opened up, she came here and she’s been working here since. She’s now second in charge to the pastry chef.
We’re profitable as a bakery, from a commercial point of view, but each trainee costs $55-60,000 per annum, because we’re paying them proper wages so they can actually live. So we’re spending about $660,000 each year on the training programme. That means we need to do better than just breaking even to sustain that kind of cost.
We have a fantastic board of volunteers, but we don’t have a marketing team and we only have one sales person. Our competitors are huge, our biggest one has 6 sales people, 6 merchandisers and lots of support staff working on marketing. Whereas we’ve got a team of 4 all up. So we really rely on word of mouth and people sharing our story.
The other challenge of running a social enterprise is that we’ll always be at a disadvantage compared to our competitors because as a team, only 80% of our time is spent on actually managing the commercial side of the business, the other 20% is on the social enterprise aspect. Whereas a commercial business, and your competitors, will be spending 100% of their time running the business.
We’re still reliant on philanthropists and grants and we have some great supporters like Westpac and Google. The benefit we have is our story, because its huge and our wholesale customers and their retail customers do love supporting the business.
We have 286 customers currently which is huge for one bakery. Our plan is to grow and get out to areas like South Sydney and Western Sydney where we have no footprint at all. We don’t go to Liverpool or beyond as we need to find some partners to help us get the bread delivered out there.
Our quality is second to none. Bourke Street Bakery gave us their recipes, but we do struggle with the myth that quality and consistency will be an issue when we have so many trainees. That’s why we do 1:1 training as we can’t afford to let standards drop. It’s actually amazing the amount of customers we’re getting because they are unhappy with the consistency of our much bigger, more commercial competitors.
Once customers come to us, they stay. A lot of our customers stay for two or three years, which is remarkable considering how much artisan bread there is on the market now. Running all our Orders through Ordermentum is another reason we have such happy customers. We’re getting great feedback because they have a system, instead of ringing orders in or emailing them in.
It’s very simple for our customers, and it has to be or else they would just go elsewhere.
We know it’s very hard for Australian companies to support refugees and asylum seekers in this way, because they are terrified of safety, they are terrified of quality. They are also very focussed on profit. It’s understandable, but we’ve got to figure out how we help these people out more, we can’t just dump them in the country and say ‘well we did our bit.’ Because we didn’t. We just put them in a refugee centre.
We want to get to a stage where we have 30 trainees going through the programme every 12-14 months. Considering it took us 5 years to train 26, it’s a huge ask. And the only way we can do that is through increased sales. Government grants are tiny, so we rely on philanthropists but the thing that will make us self sustaining is if we continue to increase our bread sales."
To find out more about how The Bread & Butter Project are using Ordermentum to support their small team and grow their business whilst keeping costs down, read our customer story here.