The goal of Bridge Bread is not to eradicate homelessness in St. Louis. Instead, it aims to impact the lives of a small number of men and women who are homeless by providing them with stable, permanent employment and assistance in accessing the services necessary to end the cycle of poverty.
Husband and wife Fred and Sharon Domke founded Bridge Bread in 2011 after Fred Domke had a dream about baking bread with people who are homeless. The couple had been volunteering with Bridge Outreach and participating in conversations with fellow church members about how to make a difference in their city. The Bridge Outreach was a homeless service agency in St. Louis that closed on June 30, 2016.
Now in its sixth year, Bridge Bread has a commercial bakery and two stores, one in St. Louis and one in St. Charles.
On Tuesday's St. Louis on the Air, Domke and baker Daryl Pitchford joined host Don Marsh to discuss the history of Bridge Bread and its small business approach to reducing homelessness.
What Bridge Bread aims to accomplish
Fred Domke explained that the mission of Bridge Bread is twofold: In addition to helping people who were homeless get back on track through employment, the organization also exists to engage with the community and change the stigma surrounding homelessness.
“People who’ve experienced homelessness are not ‘throw-away’ people,” he said. “They can be valuable, contributing members to our community and our society.”
Bridge Bread started as what Domke termed a “rogue” program that operated temporarily in the kitchen of a homeless service agency without official support. It eventually became an official program of that nonprofit, then an LLC owned by Bridge Outreach and finally an independent nonprofit.
While there is a job training component to the program, employment at Bridge Bread is not necessarily transitional. Bakers can work there for as long as they wish.
“We want to teach them a skill, but we also want them to stick with us while they get a lot of other things settled in their lives,” Domke said. “When a person’s forced into homelessness, they leave behind quite a trail.”
The challenges of homelessness
He explained that while the most pressing issue is usually finding suitable housing, homelessness often brings with it a host of other challenges that people may not consider.
“Overdrawn checking accounts, utility bills that are unpaid, child support payments, quite possibly there have been … crimes of necessity, things like getting on MetroLink when you’re cold, and warrants … many things,” Domke said.
Bridge Bread employs six bakers at a time (there is currently one vacancy), and when new trainees arrive, the first person they meet is Daryl Pitchford.
Pitchford has worked at Bridge Bread for the past five years, and Domke emphasized the importance of having him act as a mentor to new arrivals.
“Daryl’s doing pretty well and they can relate to that,” Domke said. “He has instant credibility with them.”
Pitchford explained that he was in a bad place before he came to Bridge Bread. He had recently become homeless when he happened upon the organization and became one of its first bakers.
“Upon finding them, my situation changed dramatically,” Pitchford said. “I was able to learn a skill, put that with employment, and ultimately that got me housing.”
How Bridge Bread does its business
For the first several years of its existence, Bridge Bread relied solely on a network of churches to sell its product. Today, that network has grown to include 60 such institutions, and two dedicated Bridge Bread stores have opened in St. Louis, on Cherokee Street, and St. Charles, on Main Street.
The signature loaves of bread, flavored cinnamon rolls, dinner rolls, brownies and baguettes sold at these locations are all made by hand, and Domke said their sales account for 76 percent of Bridge Bread’s annual income. About 88 percent of that income goes to bakers’ wages and ingredients, but paying for things like rent and utilities is only possible because of donations.
In 2017, he hopes to expand the business to include a “mobile sales strategy” by creating a Bridge Bread food truck.
“I think it’s really important to understand that the experience of homelessness is really traumatic,” Domke said. “They struggle with their own self-image, and the experience of baking is just a wonderful experience. When you come in in the morning and there’s a sack of flour and a tub of butter, and at the end of the day there’s cinnamon rolls … it gives a great sense of accomplishment. It lets people know that they can do something really good.”
St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.