In San Francisco, Israeli bakery makes waves as it hires formerly incarcerated staff
SAN FRANCISCO (JTA) – Frena Bakery and Cafe opened in this city over four years ago and quickly became known for its tasty stuffed Sephardic pastries such as bourekas and sambusak, challah breads in pita to Jerusalem bagels and desserts like rugelach and babka.
Thanks to a popular jail life podcast called “Ear Hustle,” the kosher bakery is now known for something else: hiring incarcerated people.
Frena had only been open for a few months when Carlos Flores, recently released from prison, came looking for a job, using the Hebrew he had learned himself inside to read the Old Testament in its original.. He had no baking experience and little work history after serving 23 – he was 16 when he walked in, 39 when he left – for murder and theft.
Given the centrality of teshuvah, or repentance, to Judaism, Frena’s owner Isaac Yosef said he didn’t think twice. He told Flores to report to work this Sunday.
“His honesty impressed me,” Yosef said. “I could see from his face that if I give him a chance he will do whatever he can to prove himself. He wanted to succeed, and if I don’t give him a chance, probably no one will.
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Yosef had no idea that in this split second decision he was opening the door for many more. It turned out that Flores was living in a halfway house a few blocks away. Once he was hired, the message quickly spread throughout the “lifers” community – those serving murder sentences, which typically last 25 years – that the bakery was willing to hire them. Formerly incarcerated people expect job hunting to be a challenge, as many employers don’t want to risk a criminal.
Over the past four years, Frena has built a reputation within the lifers community as a reliable employer of ex-inmates and has specifically hired over 20 residents from the nearby halfway house. Turnover is high: residents are only required to live in transitional housing for six months.
In April, “Ear Hustle” devoted an entire episode to Frena, which the show called “the Lifer Bakery”. The many former employees interviewed expressed their gratitude to the bakery for trying their luck when few others would. In the episode, Yosef also discusses how the word “kosher” doesn’t just mean a way of eating – that for him it’s a way of life expressed in the way you treat others and your employees.
Frena is located in the South of Market district of San Francisco on a block of the rough reputation that the local chapter of the Chabad-Lubavitcher movement is working to reinvent as a “Jewish corridor.” The bakery’s neighbors include a kosher shawarma and falafel spot that opened in 2020 and, naturally, a Chabad house. Chabad and Frena have teamed up to distribute food to the many needy people in the neighborhood.
Yosef said that being a Jewish business owner comes with a certain responsibility. He is always attentive to the way he treats the inhabitants of the neighborhood, giving food to those in need, “especially since there is a large kosher sign.”
“Everyone knows we are Jews,” he said, “and we have to make sure we give ourselves a good reputation.”
Yosef, 36, is from Beer Sheva, Israel, and did not grow up religious. After working in construction and retail, he opened Frena with a partner who has since evolved, and Yanni, a fourth generation master baker who bears a name. Yanni’s great-grandfather came from Iraq and had a bakery at the Machane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem. Frena opened at the end of 2016, providing kosher food to a city with a famous dining scene but few kosher options.
It’s a good game, Yosef said of his establishment and the former incarcerated. Bakery work is demanding and these workers are up to the task. And given that they have a second chance, they are very motivated to do well.
“Their work ethic is very high,” Yosef said, noting that they are used to a loud atmosphere with a lot of shouting. “They feel at home.”
Flores worked at Frena from time to time for about three years before moving on; today he has his own carpet cleaning business in Washington state. Having such a demanding job, especially the one where he had to learn kosher laws, “has helped me in so many ways in my day to day life,” said Flores.
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Brandie Talavera also came to Frena from transitional housing after serving three years on drug trafficking charges. She was hired as a cashier, but Yosef quickly observed her motivation and promoted her to the rank of assistant, teaching her billing, accounting and sales management. Talavera was the catering manager for the bakery and sales grew exponentially with her in charge.
“I hadn’t worked for over 10 years, then I was jailed,” she said. “This job allowed me to regain my work ethic, and I took it from there.”
Yosef is also not a social worker, as sometimes these employees have special needs. One of the podcast members was required to wear an ankle monitor as a condition of his parole, and he spent the first and last hours of each shift strapped to an electrical outlet to ensure he stayed charged while he was on parole. long shift.
Yosef talks to his employees’ parole officers to get them special permission to work the night shift, as parolees often have curfews. He loaned Flores his car so he could take a driving test. He also sometimes lends them money when their bills pile up, and it was he who informed Flores of a social housing lottery that finally allowed her to move into her first apartment after the halfway house. .
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“All Isaac wants to do is help,” Talavera said. “He taught me so much. Every day I went to work thinking I wanted to do better for him. They treated us like family.
It never occurred to him that his training in the Israel Defense Forces would be useful in the food industry.
“A good commander doesn’t have to be the fastest, the strongest or the bravest, he just has to set a good example,” Yosef said. “If you do this, everyone will follow.”
Like almost all food companies, Frena suffered during the pandemic. With the loss of catering, the bakery began offering deliveries, setting up its van outside synagogues and Jewish community centers throughout the Bay Area to bring its products to more people. To a Skeleton Team Now, Yosef said that no one formerly incarcerated is currently working for him, but as soon as he can rehire people, he will continue to employ them.
But now, thanks to the exposure of a podcast with millions of listeners, Frena has found a new level of popularity. “We have people from all over the world writing to us and wanting to support us,” he said.