SAN FRANCISCO (JTA) – The Frena bakery and café opened more than four years ago in this city and quickly became known for their hearty filled Sephardic baked goods like bourekas and sambusak, breads from challah to pita to bagels from Jerusalem and desserts like Kugelach and Babka.
Thanks to a popular podcast about prison life called Ear Hustle, the kosher bakery has now become famous for something else: the attitudes of those who were once incarcerated.
Frena had only been open for a few months when Carlos Flores, recently released from prison, came looking for a job and used the Hebrew he had taught himself to read the original of the Old Testament. He had no baking experience and little employment history after serving 23 years – he was 16 when he went in, 39 when he came out – for murder and robbery.
Given the central importance of the teshuvah, or repentance, in Judaism, Frena owner Isaac Yosef said he hadn’t thought twice about it. He told Flores to report to work that Sunday.
“I was impressed by his honesty,” said Josef. “I could see in his face that if I give him a chance, he will do anything to prove himself. He wanted to succeed, and if I don’t give him a chance, probably no one will. “
Little did Josef know that in making this decision he opened the door in a split second for many others to follow. It turned out that Flores lived in a temporary house a few blocks away. After he was hired, word quickly spread throughout the “community” – those serving murder sentences, typically 25 years old – that the bakery was ready to hire them. Formerly incarcerated people expect finding work to be challenging as many employers do not want to take any risk for a criminal.
In the past four years, Frena has made a name for itself in the community as a reliable employer of the formerly imprisoned people and specifically hired more than 20 residents of the nearby Halfway House. The turnover is high: the residents only have to live in temporary accommodation for six months.
In April, “Ear Hustle” dedicated an entire episode to Frena, dubbed “The Lifer Bakery” on the show. The numerous former employees interviewed thanked the bakery for taking a risk when few others did. In the following, Josef also explains how the word “kosher” does not just mean a way of eating – for him it is a way of life that is expressed in how you treat others and your employees.
Frena is located in San Francisco’s South of Market neighborhood on a block with a reputation for the local chapter of the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic Movement working to envision a “Jewish Corridor.” The bakery’s neighbors include a kosher kebab and falafel shop, which opened in 2020, and of course a Chabad house. Chabad and Frena have teamed up to distribute food to the many needy people in the neighborhood.
Joseph said there was some responsibility involved in being a Jewish business owner. He is always aware of how he treats the residents of the neighborhood and gives 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 that we give ourselves a good name.”
Joseph, 36, is originally from Beersheba, Israel, and did not grow up religious. After working in construction and retail, he opened Frena with a partner who has since moved on and Yanni, a fourth-generation master baker with just one name. Yanni’s great-grandfather came from Iraq and had a bakery in the Machane Yehuda market in Jerusalem. Frena opened in late 2016 and serves kosher food to a town with a celebrated food scene but few kosher options.
It’s a good game, said Josef about his establishment and the one who had previously been imprisoned. The work in the bakery is demanding and these employees are up to the task. And since they get a second chance, they are highly motivated to perform well.
“Their work ethic is very high,” said Josef, noting that they are used to a noisy atmosphere with a lot of shouting. “You feel at home.”
Flores worked at Frena for about three years before moving on. Today he has his own carpet cleaning business in Washington state. Having such a demanding job, especially one where he had to learn the kosher laws, “has helped me in so many ways in my daily life,” said Flores.
Brandie Talavera also came to Frena from temporary accommodation after serving three years on drug trafficking. She was hired as a cashier, but Josef quickly watched her drive and promoted her to his assistant. He taught her accounting, bookkeeping and sales management. Talavera was the bakery’s catering manager and sales grew exponentially with her.
“I hadn’t worked in over 10 years and then I was locked up,” she said. “This job brought my work ethic back and I took it from there.”
Josef did not become a social worker either, as these employees sometimes have special needs. One of the podcasts was required to wear an ankle monitor as a condition of parole, and he spent the first and last hours of each shift plugging it in to make sure it stayed charged throughout his long shift.
Josef speaks to his employees’ probation officers to give them special permission to work the night shift, as probation officers often have curfews. He lent his car to Flores so he could take a driving test. He also sometimes lends them money when their bills pile up, and was the one to alert Flores about a low-income housing lottery that eventually allowed him to move halfway into his first apartment.
“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. “
Josef never thought that his training would be so useful to the Israel Defense Forces.
“A good commander doesn’t have to be the fastest or the strongest or the bravest, he just has to set a good example,” said Josef. “If you do that, everyone will follow.”
Like almost every food company, Frena suffered during the pandemic. With the loss of food, the bakery has started offering deliveries and has moved its van outside synagogues and Jewish community centers across the Bay Area to bring its wares to more people. Yosef said there are currently no previously incarcerated people working for him, but once he can reinstate staff he will continue to employ them.
Frena has now found new popularity thanks to the release of a podcast with millions of listeners. “We have people all over the world who want to write to us and support us,” he said.