Unique Culinary Careers: Robin Burger

When ICE President Rick Smilow and Anne E. McBride wrote "Culinary Careers: How to Get Your Dream Job in Food," they discovered a plethora of food jobs they had never heard of before. Since the book's release, they have been discovering even more interesting culinary career paths. DICED shares some of them with you in a reoccurring feature: “Unique Culinary Careers.”

Hot Bread Kitchen is a unique organization. The non-profit social enterprise focuses on creating better lives for low-income women by paying them while they learn the skills necessary to launch food business and work in food. To fund their mission, they sell delicious, multi-ethnic breads that are inspired by the bakers and the countries that they come from using local and organic ingredients. Robin Burger is Hot Bread Kitchen’s business development manager.

The organization is incredibly supportive and recently began HBK Incubates, a program to give new businesses access to a kitchen incubator so they can grow without the expense of building and equipping their own commercial kitchens. We asked her about life in such a unique food organization and how she got started in food activism.

How would you describe your job?

My current position with Hot Bread Kitchen is Business Development Manager. In addition to overseeing the day-to-day operations of Hot Bread Kitchen's wholesale and retail bread sales, my goal is to grow the organization's revenue stream and develop a business strategy that enables us to eliminate our dependence on philanthropic funding and sustain the organization by bread sales alone.

What has your career path been like?

I started working with Hot Bread Kitchen a little over two years ago as an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer, a position I happened upon through the food justice and activism world. Previously I worked as an educator for an urban agriculture-based youth development program in Poughkeepsie, NY. It was this experience that really sparked my interest in the power of food combined with hands-on leadership and job training to empower individuals and connect diverse groups of people. I also have a degree in economics, so the fact that the organization had a revenue-generating component really compelled me, too.

What inspires you and the team Hot Bread Kitchen?

Knowing that we are all a part of something bigger.  I really believe that everyone who works for Hot Bread Kitchen, from our maintenance staff to our baking trainees to our CEO, is driven by the fact that they are not only developing their own career path, but that they are helping to build an organization that will create opportunities for their sisters, cousins, friends, and neighbors

How did you get the idea for HBK Incubates?

Being able to offer micro-enterprise development support to our graduates was always a goal for Hot Bread Kitchen, but a difficult one to realize without the kitchen space for businesses to produce. When the opportunity arose to move into La Marqueta and build out a kitchen incubator in addition to a training and production facility, it seemed like a perfect opportunity to launch a new program that complemented the training we were already doing.

Where do your bread recipes come from?

Our recipes are developed by our head baker. Many are inspired by our trainees. The kind of production we are doing is on such a different scale than what our bakers have done at home that it isn't really possible to use their original recipes. We do often work with our bakers to develop recipes that incorporate traditional techniques and that yield the same authentic bread that they make at home, but that can be produced on a commercial scale.

What is a typical day like?

Very busy and always surprising. Working at a startup requires everyone to wear multiple hats, and while my role is in sales, I often find myself throwing on an apron and helping in the kitchen, doing a delivery, or picking up a drill and doing some impromptu carpentry

What is the most satisfying thing about your job?

Definitely watching bakers that I've hired gain confidence and be promoted to higher positions within the organization. The kinds of transformations I have seen in many of the women I work with has been extremely rewarding and inspiring

What has been the most challenging aspect of your job?

Working in a social enterprise is inherently challenging. There is constant tension between prioritizing the organization's social mission and prioritizing the business side so that the organization has the resources necessary to fulfill its mission. At the same time, I think a social enterprise is an ideal structure for a workforce-training program. The harder we push to become more efficient with our production and operations, the better equipped our bakers will be to run their own profitable businesses when they graduate from our training. I think it is really exciting to be proving that we can be a compassionate employer while holding our entire team to extremely high standards and remaining competitive with other bakeries in the industry.

Anything exciting coming up soon?

We are in the process of doubling our current product line with some really interesting new breads, which we will be offering at Whole Foods stores throughout the city and in the Greenmarkets. Look for our corn tortillas and some new surprises in Whole Foods Union Square and the markets toward the end of this month!

What is your advice for anyone looking for a similar career?

If you are looking to work with a startup or a small organization like Hot Bread Kitchen that has very few administrative or executive-level job openings, I would recommend getting involved through volunteering and being open to starting in a position that you may feel underqualified for. Many of Hot Bread Kitchen's management-level staff started as interns, volunteers or baking trainees. From my perspective, it is almost always preferable to promote internally and give new positions to people who understand our mission, have proven their commitment to the organization and already know the ins and outs of our operations. Beyond that, I would say be ready to be flexible and take on a diverse range of job descriptions.

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