SAN FRANCISCO (JTA) – Frena Bakery and Cafe opened in this city more than four years ago and quickly became known for its hearty filled Sephardic pastries like Bourekas and Sambusak, breads from Challah to Pita to Jerusalem Bagels and desserts like Rugelach and Babka.
Thanks to a popular podcast about prison life called “Ear Hustle”, the kosher bakery is now known for something else: the attitudes of the former prisoners.
Frena had only been open a few months when Carlos Flores, just out of prison, got job hunting and used the Hebrew he had taught himself to read the original Old Testament. He had no baking experience and little employment after serving for 23 years – he was 16 when he came in, 39 when he came out – for murder and robbery.
Given the central importance of teshuvah, or repentance, in Judaism, Isaac Yosef, owner of Frena, said he didn’t think twice. He told Flores to report to work that Sunday.
“I was impressed by his honesty,” said Yosef. “I could see in his face that if I give him a chance, he will do anything to prove himself. He wanted to be successful and if I don’t give him a chance, probably no one will. “
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Little did Yosef know that with this one decision he opened the door for many others in a split second. It turned out that Flores lived in a temporary house a few blocks away. When he was hired, word quickly spread to the “Lifer” community – those convicted of murder who typically have life sentences of 25 years – that the bakery was ready to close it. Former prisoners expect a job search challenge as many employers do not want to risk a felon.
In the past four years, Frena has built a reputation as a reliable employer for the former prisoners and has 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 than few others would. Subsequently, Yosef also explains that the word “kosher” does not just mean a way of eating – that for him it is a way of life that is expressed in the way you treat others and your employees.
Yosef, foreground, with his employees. He says the “work ethic” of the former detainees he hires is very high. (Courtesy Yosef / via JTA)
Frena is located in San Francisco’s South of Market neighborhood on a block with a rough reputation that the Chabad-Lubavitch Movement’s local chapter seeks to reinvent as the “Jewish Corridor.” The bakery’s neighbors include a kosher shawarma 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 in being a Jewish business owner. He always pays attention to how he treats the residents of the neighborhood, distributes food to the needy, “especially since there is a large kosher sign”.
“Everyone knows that we are Jews,” he said, “and we have to make sure that we give ourselves a good name.”
Yosef, 36, is originally from Beersheba, Israel, and did not grow up religious. After working in construction and retail, he opened Frena together with a partner who had since passed away and Yanni, a fourth generation master baker who operates under one name. Yanni’s great-grandfather came from Iraq and had a bakery in the Machane Yehuda market in Jerusalem. Opened in late 2016, Frena caters to a city with a celebrated food scene but few kosher options with kosher food.
It goes well together, said Yosef about his establishment and the former prisoners. Bakery work is demanding and these workers are up to the job. And since they get a second chance, they are highly motivated to perform well.
“Their work ethic is very high,” said Yosef, noting that they were used to a noisy atmosphere with a lot of shouting. “You feel at home.”
Flores worked intermittently 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 so much in my everyday life,” said Flores.
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Brandie Talavera also came to Frena from temporary accommodation after serving three years on drug trafficking. She was hired as a cashier, but Yosef quickly watched her drive and promoted her to his assistant, where he taught her billing, bookkeeping, and sales. Talavera was the bakery’s catering manager and sales grew exponentially under her leadership.
“I hadn’t worked for over 10 years and then I was locked up,” she said. “This job brought my work ethic back and I took it over from there.”
Yosef didn’t become a social worker at all, as these employees sometimes have special needs. One featured on the podcast was required to wear an ankle monitor as a condition of parole, and he spent the first and last hours of each shift plugging in an outlet to make sure it stayed charged throughout his long shift.
Yosef speaks to his employees’ probation officers to get them special permission to work the night shift, as the 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 who got Flores up to speed on a low-income housing lottery that eventually allowed him to move into his first apartment after the halfway house.
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“Isaac just wants to help,” said Talavera. “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 Yosef 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 or the strongest or the bravest, he just has to set a good example,” said Yosef. “If you do that, everyone will follow.”
Like almost every food company, Frena has suffered from the pandemic. With the loss of food service, the bakery has begun offering deliveries and is setting up its delivery truck in front of synagogues and Jewish community centers across the Bay Area to bring its wares to more people. Yosef said there are currently no ex-inmates working for him, but as soon as he can get people back on, he’ll keep hiring them.
But now, thanks to the notoriety of a podcast with millions of listeners, Frena has found new popularity. “We have people all over the world who want to write to us and support us,” he said.