Rise Bakery

The social enterprise serving 
up opportunity for the homeless

Move over Mary Berry, social enterprises like Rise bakery are tackling homelessness and making a difference to people's lives. Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood take note: the nation’s brightest bakers aren’t to be found in a fancy marquee with Mel and Sue poking their fingers into freshly baked treats while coming out with naughty innuendos. Instead, the most dedicated cooks can be located just off London’s Brick Lane, where they’re keeping a cool head whipping up sugary delights like raspberry and beetroot brownies, and lemon and courgette polenta cake.

In Rise bakery’s small yet functional kitchen – reminiscent of one found in your typical primary school – bakers are tying on their striped aprons and kicking off a day’s work on the hottest day of the year so far. But this isn’t your ordinary bakery. Producing the goods are people who have experienced homelessness. Trainee bakers come into the kitchen and spend 10 weeks learning a wide range of recipes, with the help of an experienced chef, and are encouraged to study for their level 2 food hygiene exam.

Once they've completed the course, they’re tackling the big job of fulfilling orders for Rise Bakery’s customers, which are a mix of online, wholesale and corporate. The aim of the social enterprise, part ofProvidence Row, a charity helping homeless people in east London, is to build confidence and the skills to help find employment – in or out of the food industry.

One of the recipients of the course is Jason, 29, who is hard at work in the kitchen fulfilling customers' orders. It’s clear from the grin on his face that he’s enjoying baking after spending three months with Rise Bakery and completing his hygiene certificate. With one eye on the Kenwood mixer, as it blends the eggs, sugar and butter for the double chocolate brownies he’s making, he tells me he was spurred on to join the baking course by fellow trainee and friend Will, who he lives with at a nearby hostel. Now he’s learnt to knock up everything from carrot cake to banana bread, and the weekly sessions of beating, binding and mixing have added zest to his life.

"It’s really meditative and relaxing," he says. “Before, I was going to prison, I had issues with my partner. But now, through the hostel, I’m cooking, shopping, going to football. Things are going really well.

Jason says Rise Bakery has helped him gain confidence both inside and outside the kitchen. “Maybe this will help me get work in the food industry,” he says. “I’m hoping for a placement in a nice hotel.”

There is a really strong team effort in the kitchen. On the counter, Will, 42, is chopping blocks of chocolate. After also spending three months on the baking training scheme, he creates the recipe without any instructions. “It’s really helped my confidence,” he says. “I’ve learnt how to cook and developed my skills. In the long term I’d really like to find a part-time job.”

This is the ultimate goal, says Dominic Gates, enterprise and training manager at Rise Bakery, as we sit on a bench on the rooftop garden surrounded by herbs and fruits, such as strawberries, black-berries and gooseberries, which are picked and used for the recipes. "The primary outcome is to get someone into a job. Another is to improve their well-being or decrease their dependency on substances. But at the same time, it's important to manage the business side; ultimately we are a business and we want high-quality goods coming out of the bakery."

But why baking? “It’s very therapeutic,” says Gates. “Trainees get to see the end result, get a product out of it and they’re taught to be creative. We’re selling brownies online that go for £12 a box, so it’s important it’s a high-end product. They’re creating a product they’re really proud of.”

Since its relaunch in April Rise Bakery has attracted 21 trainees, with five completing the scheme and two moving into employment.

Running Rise Bakery isn’t without its challenges but it’s rewarding, says head baker Simon Wilcox. “We have trainees with wide-ranging abilities,” he says. “Some are dream bakers like Jason and Will, others might have learning difficulties; we have deaf people, people who can’t stand for very long. Everyone has their own different challenges but what’s great about that is watching people work together. One person might be struggling with a dish but another will come over and help them out, and cooking in a restaurant is about working together. The great thing is just watching people come in, have a go at something new and, yeah, it has its challenges and dishes sometimes go wrong but we just start it again.

The chef and trainees have to be determined because Rise Bakery is a business, selling around 40 boxes of brownies via its website every month and sending orders to nearby businesses, including five wholesale customers such as Café from Crisis, Close-Up and Second Shot Coffee.

As we wrap up the interview, Will and Jason are working together to spread the gooey double chocolate brownie mixture into the baking tray and put it in the oven. Several days later, their batch of brownies arrives for me. They're heavenly. Who needs The Great British Bake Off when these brownies taste so good and create such sweet results for those affected by homelessness? Warning: just don’t count the calories.

The above article by Suzanne Bearne first published on bigissue.com in Aug, 2016.