Matt Fountain of
Freedom Bakery

"In here what I like about it is that we’re a pack of strays. Have you ever seen that Wes Anderson film ‘The Life Aquatic’? It’s sort of about a bunch of weirdos and it’s the same in here."

“It’s funny, I turned down a double page feature in the Observer but I said yes to you” were the words casually spoken as Matt poured me a coffee from his fancy machine. One small, reflective sentence which incited instant panic and self-doubt over my pedestrian interview style- since starting this project I have discovered I am incapable of speaking without uttering the word ‘like’ at least ten times in one sentence and also appear to struggle to ask any question without threading off on a tangent. I’m sure the Observer is quaking, but with this new information I became even more resolved to do justice to this piece. Matt is the founder and managing director of Freedom Bakery, an artisan bakery specialising in sourdough loaves which are supplied to local cafes, restaurants and retail outlets in the Glasgow area. The main difference to its competitors is that it’s also a social enterprise which receives inmates and ex-convicts from a local prison and trains them up to go on to employment either in the bakery itself, or elsewhere. I first became aware of Freedom Bakery when I interviewed Angela at Milk Cafe who was proud to be supplied by them. With another trip planned to Scotland earlier this year, I was thrilled when Matt agreed to let me visit the factory to meet him and some of his staff after the morning rush. Watching the bakers, weigh, knead and shape the dough was an almost meditative experience and being in that environment gave me a great insight as to why the bakery has success in all aspects of its inception.

Matt Fountain of Freedom Bakery

Tell us the background behind Freedom Bakery

Initially I didn’t think of this in terms of specifically helping people with criminal records. I believe that if someone doesn’t have an income they don’t really have the access to a certain standard of life. In my own experience for example, I was a really good student and I definitely could have had a decent academic career. I was offered a book deal in the first year of my PhD but I just didn’t want to do that, yet on paper, I couldn’t do anything else. I knew I was capable though. I remember going up to Chester for an auction house job which was for about £16,000 a year and after 5 years of studying, it wasn’t much of a promise for me. It was the only job interview I’d had in 6 months and in the end I wasn’t even offered it so I felt pretty hopeless at that time.

I got a bit disenfranchised and took a year out to do some charity work for Shelter. The selfish element of doing charitable work is that you get something back from it. To be quite Marxist, there is an exchange in everything and for me it was about getting some new insights and experiences, to get a sense of other things that are out there and learn new skills. I also got a nice overarching view of the charitable sector and how dysfunctional it all is, particularly in terms of communication, which should be at the forefront for a lot of these organisations. Also they don’t know how to handle and manage money properly, which in both cases means there’s an insecurity with a fluctuating degree of success in the service that they have been established to deliver. I just thought the whole world was completely fucked, so I gave up my PhD and moved to Glasgow where I had studied before and decided to set up my own thing. I thought that if I was shooting myself in the foot by shutting down my career, I might as well follow my passion which is food, not really bread – though it is now. I also thought it should be useful for some segment of society and the way I approached this was to look at certain groups that are at a complete disadvantage in the employment market. For those with convictions it’s really chronic and an awful lot stems from stereotyping. I thought that food would be a great way to work with a group of people who, even if you had nothing in common with them, you could identify with something, we all eat. People sharing that experience of making and eating, very high minded stuff but at the same time bread is one of those staples that everyone is familiar with, so you wouldn’t be disqualifying anyone and you could get them to achieve something quite quickly. You can teach someone to make a simple loaf of bread in about 3 hours so it’s a quick turnaround, which a lot of research suggests is important to capture people’s attention. Basically everything about the company in the way that it was set up [initially within HMP Low Moss], funded, invested and operated was about wedging out some sort of independence for these people within a system that controls every aspect of one’s life. When someone came into the bakery to learn and work that’s all it was about, it wasn’t about them rehabilitating or getting a box ticked for their parole, etc. In theory the idea was to help them get a job at the end of the day. It was really hard, we lost a lot of support from the prison very quickly and it was only moderately successful.

why did you lose the support?

It was sort of Kafka-esque. Like his novel ‘The Castle’, where new rules got imposed on us and we didn’t know why or who they were from, or when they had been issued, we were always the last to know. This happened every 6 weeks or so and with a few governor changes within the prison it basically eroded the ability to be successful. The other thing is that we realised very early on that we needed somewhere else outside, where we could actually provide some chance, something real and tangible to those people inside that might make an actual difference to them. So this [current premises] got planned in April/May 2016, it took 7 months to plan with a quarter of a million pounds investment raised in January 2017, and then opened in May 2017. Now we just keep going. The idea is not to expand too much as we want to keep it artisan and relatively small, but we want to start filtering more and more people through into employment here.

"I thought that food would be a great way to work with a group of people who, even if you had nothing in common with them, you could identify with something, we all eat."

Going forward what do you envisage as success for the bakery?

Success for the bakery is when we get to a point where we are making enough profit to start new businesses and to always have a third of the employees as people that we have trained.

This model could basically start up in any major city in the UK, we have deliberately gone down the wholesale route because its more anonymous. We are in a ‘shed’ in Glasgow so we don’t have people coming in to basically keep a watch. It’s all very intended that way and we have enough business here. Economics would suggest to expand the bakery and have a bigger supply distribution, but you would change the nature of what you’re doing. You could do one of these in Manchester, that would cover Manchester and Liverpool, you could do one for Birmingham, one for London. We definitely would be able to compete, I know we would, but it’s some years down the line. In fact we may not do that at all and instead just branch out into a different type of business. We might open a shop or a restaurant or something like that to diversify the types of jobs that are in the company, so that people have more choice of where they can go.

Do the people who you train have an interest in baking initially?

Yes, well more generally it’s cooking or something like that. It’s interesting though because some people will come in with a set idea or with perhaps the wrong expectation of what this is or what they are getting in to. Some just don’t necessarily think it’s right for them and yet they take to it like a duck to water. For example the guy that you saw in specs, Joe, was referred to us by one of his social workers in prison in 2015 and he was instantly ‘on it’ and now he is a full time baker, I won’t get rid of him because, well why would I? He is really good at what he does and he really believes in it, he is very loyal. Then we have people like a guy that had been an IFA- an investment guy that had done something naughty- and he had no real passion for bread, but it was just very useful to him to have some employment when he got out of prison which gave him a stepping stone. He has since moved on to full time work.

Is there a general amount of time that people stay with you, or is it just dependant on them and you on a case by case basis?

As a minimum it would be around 4 months but ultimately it’s probably on average more like 6 or 7 months. We also work with many different types of prisoners so we have guys who have committed very serious crimes that are considered extremely high risk- that might be a high risk in complications to themselves i.e. they might harm themselves- and there are guys who have minor offences and maybe this is their first sentence. We have some people who we are not allowed to talk about because it’s really, really serious. In February 2018 we are starting a programme in Polmont Prison which is Scotland’s only young offenders institution where, generally speaking, its minor offences which have been committed. We plan to start a course and find a young apprentice who on leaving, will come and work here for a year to get their trade and hopefully stay on, so there is a real spread.

Did you have to have any specific training in people management?

I’ve learnt it all the hard way and have found that actually the sort of ‘naughty ones’ in general have been people who I’ve just employed. I’ve had to fire a couple a of people in the past for all kinds of nonsense. The main difference between an employee that may have been in prison or have a criminal record and any other member of staff is usually nothing more than some mental health complications that they are battling through. In theory there isn’t a difference.

What are the biggest challenges going forward?

The biggest challenge is to keep growth steady and concurrent, that’s a big thing for me at the moment. The other side is to make it quite autonomous, which I want to do. I don’t really want to be here forever because there is a point when it will require someone new to come in with more experience in food, and it would be good to hand down to others some of the jobs I am doing, so they have more power.

"When someone came into the bakery to learn and work that’s all it was about, it wasn’t about them rehabilitating or getting a box ticked for their parole"

Then what would you do personally?

I would move on to the next thing, I think of this as a sort of university process. I have a couple of interests, I could start another food business which would be easier as I have more experience, but I am also very interested in the slightly less glamorous side of social enterprise which is in financing and investment. I do quite a lot of work exploring certain tax schemes for charities and social enterprises. I like it because it’s technical which appeals to me, but also the impact is really big, I can help others to raise hundreds of thousands of pounds for much, much bigger things than this. The Freedom Bakery has been quite an expensive project for a relatively small group of people, but in general it’s a group of people that no one wants to work with which I think was the opportunity as well as the challenge.

What characteristic do you admire most in others?

I had a very corporate psych test done to help understand the way in which I manage people. I discovered I am very value led and I think if I was to pin it down it would be truth and honesty, that’s 100% what I respect and require in people. I don’t mind if you say to me ‘I can’t be bothered to do this job’, I’d much rather that than to tell me ‘this happened and that happened’, because you can see straight through it and I don’t think we have got anything in this company if we don’t have honesty. I think a very large, defining brand value underpinning everything is honesty. The product is honest, the people are honest, the service is honest. Then the cherry on the cake is when people are very precise and quantify things for me because I make decisions based on evidential data. It sounds a bit convoluted but I like the clarity of that.

In some respects I think I am a bit against the grain, I did start this because I wanted to help people but I wouldn’t say I’m necessarily a hearts and minds type of person because I just want to break through all that to get to the root of the problem. I may have started more that way, but I think I have become different to the person who began this company, unrecognisable in some ways. It’s only been 3 years and it’s completely changed me. When I started this I fully admit that I was not happy with myself or the world around me and I was trying to find a place in it, I think that subconsciously I might have been quite selfish and I hate to say this of myself, but it may have been a slight ego booster. But I am very committed and I haven’t walked away yet, even though it’s turned my hair grey.

When you’re having a bad day what cheers you up?

Going home, lighting a fire, having a beer and reading a book.

"When I started this I wanted to be everyone’s best friend but now I just want to be the right person for the team which is a completely different mantra."

In your life what is the best piece of advice you have received?

Oh lord there is so much of it, I am quite open to advice. I look to the elders and they just give it to me, they pour it down. I think a lot of the advice that I need and get given is around relationships and people, learning how to sculpt that properly with responsibility and honesty. When I started this I wanted to be everyone’s best friend but now I just want to be the right person for the team which is a completely different mantra. I think a lot of the best advice was based around that, but I can’t sum it up in one motto.

Generally in life we tend to surround ourselves with like minded people but you must meet and work with people from very different backgrounds. How do you find that?

In here what I like about it is that we’re a pack of strays. Have you ever seen that Wes Anderson film ‘The Life Aquatic’? It’s sort of about a bunch of weirdos and it’s the same in here. No one would necessarily be a friend of each other outside of this. They are all very charismatic people and I think that’s something I really like because the bond between us is always the project, there isn’t a ‘them and us’. The other thing that I feel very strongly about is devolving down. Basically Scott who is our head baker runs all the operations, he’s been a baker for 13 or 14 years so why would I seek to control that guy? I don’t know better than him. I can have some influence but that’s it. It’s the same with the delivery guys who work out the quickest way to get around, you leave them to it, as soon as I feel like I am micro managing people then I have lost the relationship and the trust isn’t there, I try not to do that. The way I describe my job is that I started this thing up essentially to get rid of me so that if I am not there anymore it can still run properly on it’s own with a board supervising it. That way everyone is then moving up.

What advice would you give to your 21 year old self?

Not to take everything so seriously and to understand that you have a lot more time than you think. It’s funny because that is what I tell people right now. You have a lot more time than you think.

Is there anything you couldn’t live without?

Food. I need to eat. I probably eat 2 kilos of sourdough a week though it doesn’t show- I have too many nerves keeping my weight down.

"I think a very large, defining brand value underpinning everything is honesty. The product is honest, the people are honest, the service is honest."

Freedom Bakery 0141 328 7886
Freedom Bakery
Unit E5, Rosemount Business Park
145 Charles Street
Glasgow, G21 2QA
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