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Neman: How a nonprofit deals with the coronavirus one loaf of bread at a time
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Neman: How a nonprofit deals with the coronavirus one loaf of bread at a time

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If you give a man a loaf of bread, you will feed him for a day. But if you teach a man how to bake bread, you will give him a job, teach him a trade and get him off the streets and back to an independent life.

Bridge Bread hires homeless people to bake their breads, cinnamon rolls, bagels and more, and pays them a good wage: $10.15 an hour to start, with raises possible when they become proficient at what they are doing. That’s a little more than the median wage for bakers in this area.

Until recently, Bridge sold its bread to area churches, which sold it to their parishioners. They also sold their bread at a small storefront in the Cherokee Street business district, from a food truck and at farmers markets. They also baked all the dinner rolls for all the catered events at the Chase Park Plaza Hotel as well as made breads for catered events at St. Louis University.

And then the coronavirus hit.

Suddenly, everything stopped. The churches weren’t holding services in their own buildings, the store and food trucks had to cease business and catered events everywhere came to a halt.

Bridge Bread adjusts to coronavirus to survive and serve

Kevin Brefford, a baker at Bridge Bread, rolls dough for New York-style bagels on Thursday, April 23, 2020, as Robert Browning, left, cuts it into to portions at the Cherokee Street bakery in St. Louis. Bridge is staying in business throughout the coronavirus crisis by getting donations to pay its bakers to bake bread; which it then gives to food pantries. Photo by Christian Gooden, cgooden@post-dispatch.com

But the workers needed their jobs. They needed the sense of self-worth that came with employment as much the money that got them into housing that is first subsidized and then paid for entirely from their wages.

That’s when Fred Domke, who founded Bridge with his wife, Sharon, had an idea.

“’I’m not going to let this collapse,” he said. “We were supporting six bakers working for us, six people we got off the streets.”

Bridge Bread had already been providing some of its goods to area food pantries, Domke said. When the pandemic hit, and with it a spike in unemployment, the pantries’ needs dramatically escalated.

fred domke

Fred Domke, founder of Bridge Bread, started the nonprofit in 2011. 

So Domke turned to his donors for more money. With funding in hand, Bridge Bread pays the bakers their full wages to make bread to give to area food pantries.

Meanwhile, Domke has also started delivering bread to residential customers in their homes throughout St. Louis city and county, and St. Charles County (interstate commerce regulations keep him on the Missouri side of the river, he said).

Bridge Bread adjusts to coronavirus to survive and serve

Jerry Cates, right, and Kevin Brefford, bakers at Bridge Bread, prepare bread dough for New York-style bagels on Thursday, April 23, 2020, as Robert Browning, left, shapes it at the Cherokee Street bakery in St. Louis. Bridge is staying in business throughout the coronavirus crisis by getting donations to pay its bakers to bake bread; which it then gives to food pantries. Photo by Christian Gooden, cgooden@post-dispatch.com

“We’re actually delivering about as much bread as we did through church sales. Food pantries is about as much business as through the Chase, and a little bit of what we would do at farmers markets.

“Right now, we’re at the point where we need to build up our workforce and hire (one more person). We believe that demand is going to continue to increase,” Domke said.

Now 70, Domke has not always been in the altruism business. At 17, he was already an entrepreneur, selling ice cream out of the back of a 1960 Rambler American station wagon (he had a St. Louis hawkers and peddlers license, and he duly paid his taxes to the IRS, he said).

He worked in computers, beginning in a time of punch cards and now-minuscule 8K of computer memory. Over the decades he was in IT as a medical informatition, he was chief technology officer for a division of Union Pacific Railroad called Transentric, he built cardiac catheter computing systems and he founded his own IT firm called Business Integration Technology.

A devout Christian with an interest in social justice, he and his wife also volunteered their time feeding the homeless at the Bridge Outreach.

In the same week his pastor preached a sermon on the Bible verse “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me,” Domke handed a tray of food to a homeless man with memorably green eyes. The man thanked him by saying “Bless you.”

Bridge Bread adjusts to coronavirus to survive and serve

Kevin Turnbull, a baker at Bridge Bread, checks the remaining loaves after unloading some from the oven on Thursday, April 23, 2020, at the Cherokee Street bakery in St. Louis. Bridge is staying in business throughout the coronavirus crisis by getting donations to pay its bakers to bake bread; which it then gives to food pantries. Photo by Christian Gooden, cgooden@post-dispatch.com

Domke said, “I looked at his sweatshirt, and it said ‘Here I am.’ I grabbed Sharon and I said, ‘That’s him. I just served Jesus.’”

That is how they became motivated “to try to make it possible for people to be not homeless,” he said. But he did not know how to do that.

Then, one night when he was home alone, he decided to bake bread. Though he is the cook in the family, he had never baked bread before. So he looked up how to do it on Google, and he baked two loaves.

“They were not good. They were fat pretzels. But I slathered them with butter and ate them for my dinner.

“I dreamed that night that we were in the kitchen at the shelter, working with the clients or guests, and we were making bread together. And it was fun,” he said.

“I would say this was not my idea I would say this idea was given to me.”

That was in 2011. The next day, he asked the people receiving the free meals if any of them wanted to learn how to bake bread. Several agreed, and they spent the next two days in the Bridge Outreach kitchen turning out 16 loaves. Domke paid them for their efforts, took the loaves to his church and sold them there.

They did not recover their costs, but the business had begun, with help from donors. And the employees who help themselves out of homelessness apparently enjoy the work. In eight years, they’ve had fewer than 50 employees. Their average tenure is three years, Domke said, a remarkable number in an industry known for its transience.

“When people come to us, they’re bruised. They have been beaten up by losing everything. When bakers come to us they feel like they’re going to fail like they have always done in their lives,” Domke said.

“When you think that nothing goes right in my life and then you make a cherry pie cinnamon roll and it turns out, they say, ‘I did this. I can do something good.’ It makes them value themselves, value their work. They get their dignity. They get their pride.”

To order home delivery (Missouri only) or donate to Bridge Bread, visit bridgebread.org.

“When people come to us, they’re bruised. They have been beaten up by losing everything. When bakers come to us they feel like they’re going to fail like they have always done in their lives.”

Fred Domke 

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