Thoughts, stories and events to share

Companions Real Bread CIC

Sophie O'Sullivan, about 4 years ago

Companions Real Bread CIC was founded by Maggie Rich in Bedford. The commercial wholesale bakery specialises in quality Sourdough bread made from three natural ingredients.

-Film produced by Armstrong Production Ltd. 2019

Maggie's vision was to create a realistic work environment to support ex-offenders with on-the-job training, which is why she opted to start a community interest company as opposed to a charity. Prior to developing Companions Real Bread in March 2016, she managed the Community Resettlement Support Project (CRSP) at the Visitors' Centre at Bedford Prison. This project trained volunteers to befriend people coming out of the prison and people who were on probation in Bedford and Bedfordshire. She felt that a few hours of support a week was not sufficient enough to assist individuals undergoing a massive transition in their lives. Frustrated by this, she thought creatively about how to engage with this community in a different way. For Maggie, offering structured support in a not-for-profit business environment made sense:

I decided that if we set up a business, people could get support between 9:00 and 5:00, five or six days a week, and could have somewhere to go that would give them a reason to get up in the morning. Somewhere to go where they would have the support of a positive social network, a positive group of people, and somewhere where they could learn work skills and move forward in their lives.

-Maggie Rich, Founder, Companions Real Bread

Candidates for support are usually recommended to Companions Real Bread from local agencies. They interview all referred candidates but ex-offenders need to have reached a certain point of 'readiness' in their journey of change if they are to benefit from volunteering. To ensure a gentle transition into the work place, candidates start on a half day which they can gradually increase to one or more days a week (depending on the number of volunteers at any one time), This is a really great way for candidates to get familiar with operations and to re-build confidence. The team are a close-knit family unit who all actively encourage each other and so the volunteer workers come and go in a positive way. Voluntary placements usually last up to 6 months. The placement is intended to be a preparatory form of training, giving people the chance to develop generic work skills (stamina, focus, resilience etc.) as well as specific ones if they are keen to enter the food industry. As an employer they are much more understanding of the underlying issues and various needs of the candidates.

Their time here is valued and establishes a work ethic. A lot of guys have a rocky start. In a normal workplace, they just let them go. We have a nurturing environment which encourages volunteers to stick with it , develop a work ethic and feel valued as part of the team.

-Sue Flynn, Managing Director, Companions Real Bread

Nigel, an ex-offender, serves on the Board and is employed as Companions' very well-respected Support Worker, giving guidance in bakery craft but also in a range of key through-the-gate issues, such as housing, mental health self-referrals, probation enquiries and drug and alcohol recovery. His work with Companions Real Bread is especially important as he is able to link individuals to local services that provide the care they need. Three ex-offenders, previous volunteers, are part of their core team. Thanks to a grant from a local trust, they have one full-time baker and two bakers on a part-time contract of 15 hours a week. Companions Real Bread note their amazing work ethic and believe that they have high retention rate due to the outstanding talent of the candidates. The part-time bakers often come into work early and regularly commit to voluntary hours outside of their paid contracts.

It is clear to see that Companions Real Bread fosters a close business community where employees and volunteers feel an immense sense of belonging, take pride in their work, resulting in increased sense of wellbeing and self-esteem. The placements act as a stepping stone into future paid employment and are chance to show potential employers that volunteers are dedicated workers and have a lot to give to our society.

We focus on helping people to get ready for employment, empower them and give them work-based skills, like time keeping, which are key for building a skills base for moving onto paid employment. During the application process, we are able to offer them support with a professional reference.

-Sue Flynn, Managing Director, Companions Real Bread

After a six-month placement, volunteers may move onto other forms of voluntary work or paid employment. Companions Real Bread work in partnership with the local ReUse Centre, a registered charity and social enterprise, where candidates may go onto aid the recycling initiatives. Alternatively, they might progress onto working in local café Bake., based in nearby town Kempston, a social enterprise that trains local unemployed people in the community, gaining more retail and barista skills.

Companions Real Bread have recently moved to a larger location to increase output, facilitating a growing demand. This has created a much more professional working environment, which they hope will attract and impress more potential employers. So far, they have given training and work experience to 38 ex-offenders and 12 of these have progressed onto some level of paid employment.

For other businesses looking to open up their recruitment to include those with a conviction, Companions Real Bread highlight the importance of networking and securing funding.

Have a good network of agencies around you. We are very supportive of each other in Bedford and it's really helpful.

-Sue Flynn, Managing Director, Companions Real Bread

If you are a business in the Bedfordshire area who is looking to expand their recruitment pool, please do get in touch with Companions Real Bread via our directory or on their website.

Companions Real Bread are hosting a fundraising evening on 19th September with musician Rebecca De Winter. See event details here.