Breaking Bread: raising a social enterprise bakery
By April Clare Welsh
There’s nothing to be cynical about here though. A freshly-baked testament to the large-scale potential of Upcycling - set in Abbot Street Carpark, just behind the Maccy D's on Kingsland Road – the start-up bakery will be offering paid employment to the young, the vulnerable and the out-of-work. And there’s nothing gimmicky about their choice of venue either. “The reality is this; we’re in a container because we can’t afford to be anywhere else,” explains Max Tobias, co-owner of The Dusty Knuckle alongside chef Rebecca Oliver and her business partner Daisy Terry.
Not that the two-week old space wants for anything. It’s been souped-up with an industrial bread oven and a top-of-the-range dough mixer and is perfectly equipped to bring Max’s vision to life. “Our long-term aim is to function as a social enterprise that brings young people here to work in paid positions and who haven’t necessarily worked before,” he explains.
Up until a year and a half ago Max had never worked for a private company but now he’s embracing the promise that it potentially holds in helping to develop a more sustainable social enterprise. He’s been a social worker in London for nearly 12 years, working in roles with vulnerable youngsters, often those with behavioural issues.
“I think for the kind of young people I want to reach, charity is perhaps no longer the right way to be looking at the problem,” he says. “Actually maybe they don’t need charity but what they need is self-esteem and prestige and a feeling of self-sustainability. I think charity makes you feel the opposite of that."
He continues: “I’m very aware of a mindset amongst young people from certain areas where there’s no value held on their own sense of liberty and what it means to be part of mainstream society. Because if there’s no hope for employment, or no hope for the future – or at least if they consider it that way – then there’s nothing immediately compelling about the present and there’s no real sense of loss. So it’s a ‘nothing to lose’ mentality that when the risk taking comes into it they place value on quite perverse virtues that to most people seem really alien. People think they’re really fucking horrible kids but actually in some environments they have to develop this kind of coat of armour and that’s what leads to the troubles.”
Max wants the bakery to provide practical, on-the-job mentoring, so it’s a case of ‘learning by doing’. They currently have seven wholesale clients and hope to expand into more public facing retail in the future. “I want to develop a relationship but I also want there to be a transformation from the time they come to us to the time they leave,” he says. “Not just in the hard skills, so they’ve learnt how to make bread, but also in the way that they appraise their circumstances in their sense of confidence and ability to lead other people and to communicate in a team of people they may not like that much.”
He settled on the idea after hearing about a bakery in LA that employed gang members who wanted to leave gang life. “It kind of encouraged me that there was a model in there and it put a lot of wind in my sails,” explains Max. He learnt about the container through Ben Mackinnon who runs E5 Bakehouse, having previously done an internship for him. When Ben’s sister said she’d seen a container-based bakery in South Africa, at the same time Max felt like a career shake-up, it all started to made sense. “I wanted to carry on working with young people but I was becoming increasingly frustrated with working for charities because you get funding for a year or two, build up relationships with really damaged, difficult to reach people and then have to stop.”
Throw in a life-long obsession with bread and you’ve got a legitimate business. “I’ve baked it pretty much every weekend since I was about ten,” recalls Max. “My great-grandparents were bakers – although I actually only found that out like a year ago when I had already started this – which made me feel spiritually at home. When my old Jewish granddad died I made challah for his funeral and it was really disgusting; I felt a deep feeling of failure that I had made this really horrible bread for his funeral and I wanted to put it right. So my first obsession was with making challah and I still can’t fucking do it.” Thankfully, he's nailed a whole range of other baked goods instead, and the bakery now offers a multi-grain sourdough, a pure white sourdough, foccacias and a rye bread on its menu.
Max says he prefers to bake sourdough bread because it’s easier on the stomach and it’s a tastier product, needing much longer to ferment. “There’s something quite magical about it because it’s literally just flour and water and a bit of salt and then you get this amazing transformation. It’s almost a bit like alchemy.”