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Conversations with Fred Domke

Today we’d like to introduce you to Fred Domke.

Hi Fred, so excited to have you on the platform. So before we get into questions about your work-life, maybe you can bring our readers up to speed on your story and how you got to where you are today.
My wife, Sharon, and I had been volunteering in a daytime shelter for people experiencing homelessness for several months. We had some really good experiences with the guests (clients) and found it quite rewarding. One week, after our pastor had told the story of Jesus telling the disciples how they had cared for him when they cared for ‘the least of these’ (Matthew 25:35-40), I was serving the guests and saw a handsome Black man with blue-green eyes. He smiled, and when he received his tray, he blessed me. That happens from time to time. But this was different. As he walked away, I noticed his t-shirt had a printed message that said, “Here I Am.” I grabbed Sharon’s arm and said, “That’s Him. We just served Jesus.” That day we deepened our commitment to those experiencing homelessness. We thought about the good work that places like the shelter did. Still, we wondered whether, instead of making it a little easier for people experiencing homelessness, we could do something to make it easier for people to not be homeless. We decided that meant jobs – jobs that met them where they were and walked with them on the path of homelessness and into wholeness.

After examining several possible small business ideas, we were stuck. Nothing would work. Either it required a lot of funding and skills, or it simply wouldn’t be viable on the scale we could manage. Then Sharon went away for a ‘girls’ weekend’ with her sorority sisters from college. I was bored and decided to make bread for the first time. It didn’t turn out great, but warm from the oven with lots of butter; I ate it for dinner. That night I dreamt of being in the shelter’s kitchen making bread with the guests. When I woke up, I thought, “I have my instructions. Thank you, Lord.” When Sharon got home, I explained the dream, and she said, “I’m in!” The next weekend, a group of volunteers from our church went to the shelter and asked the chef if we could borrow the kitchen. He said okay, but we better clean it up when we finished. We went into the dining room and asked if anyone wanted to learn how to make bread, and we got a couple of volunteers. We made 16 loaves of bread. And then we paid them. They weren’t expecting that. We took the bread to our church and sold it to the congregation. The next week we came back and did it again. And we have been doing it for nearly 11 years, from that first week with no plan, permission, license, and very little money. We have grown to be a sustainable social enterprise with our bakery filled with artisan breadmaking equipment and employing only people experiencing homelessness. Our baked goods are sold through churches, in our bake shop, at farmers’ markets, retail grocers, restaurants, schools, and businesses.

Bridge Bread Bakery does not receive funding from any governmental agency. The United Way does not fund us, nor do we receive ongoing pledged support from any organization or person. We have been blessed with recurring financial support from churches, individuals, and other organizations, enabling our growth.

I’m sure you wouldn’t say it’s been obstacle-free, but so far would you say the journey has been smooth?
Bridge Bread operated as a subsidiary of the shelter for several years, and it was a bumpy road. Several people running the shelter seemed to think a $5 purchase of cinnamon rolls took away $5 from the shelter’s financial support. Anyone who has tried sharing a kitchen knows it’s challenging. The pandemic shut down all our sales channels, and we had to reinvent ourselves by doing home delivery and making bread for food pantries. It’s challenging to present a successful business face and then turn around and ask for financial support. We make enough money from selling our products to cover all the Bakers’ wages and the cost of ingredients, but not nearly enough to cover the cost of the building, insurance, utilities, and admin staff.

Appreciate you sharing that. What else should we know about what you do?
Although I spent most of my career in IT as a medical informatician and a chief technology officer, I was always drawn to business and even sales. I knew nothing about baking, but I had a passion for helping those experiencing homelessness, and I have been able to find my way and lead Bridge Bread to success. I love seeing a Baker getting the keys to their apartment. By the way, I am a volunteer and receive no compensation from Bridge Bread – but it’s the best job I’ve ever had!

Where do you see things going in the next 5-10 years?
Artisan and small business bakeries have had a rough go for several decades. But so did artisan beers and small breweries. Artisan bakeries are making a resurgence, and many are committed to making the world a better place – one loaf at a time.

Pricing:

  • We sell our products at prices a bit above the price for mass-produced goods
  • But we have very competitive prices compared to other artisan bakeries

Contact Info:

Image Credits
All our photos. No copyright.

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