Freedom!
An Interview with Matt Fountain
20.04.17

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Above photo: Baking out at Freedom Bakery...

It’s one thing to work for a social enterprise that uses bread as a rehabilitating force – I go to work, I feel good about what I’m doing then I go home. It’s easy for me to romanticise about my job because I see the nice sides to it. But when you’re the person running an enterprise like this, I suppose things are very different. Things are hard. You don’t get to see the rehabilitating bits because your head’s in the books and you’re pushing the thing onwards. It was interesting for me to hear about this side of operations from Matt Fountain, the very inspiring founder of Freedom Bakery in Glasgow. I have heard rumblings of Freedom for the last few years – a bakery inside a prison that teachers ex offenders how to bake. And so I caught up with him over the phone whilst he was stuck in traffic one early Spring evening to ask him a few questions about what it’s been like to get a thing this good off the ground…

TBC: Thanks for interviewing with me, Matt. I suppose the first thing I would like to ask you is, how did you end up in the business of baking and how did you come to run a charity?

MF: I’d never baked. I’d picked Emmanuel Hadjiandreou’s book (How to Make Bread) but I was rubbish at it - I’m not a master baker at all. I had a post graduate degree and was going to do a Phd at the end of 2012 at Oxford but I’d never wanted to be an academic and wanted to do something with food and people, but didn’t have any way of knowing how to get there. So I ended up deferring my Phd for a year and did some charity work - I got a feel of how the charity sector work and, also, an impression of how bad things were for small charities – so I decided that there was a lot in it. I was always very interested in how the 3rd sector funds itself – there are huge inconsistencies in funding. Quite often for the people relying on charities, the thing that goes wrong is lack of continuity. So I thought the only way consistency could come about was if people had the space to take charge of their own destiny (without relying on funding). I’d heard about something called San Patriagno – a charity in Italy that owns loads of co-ops where people who have lost their way train up in a trade like baking, so those in recovery get an opportunity to learn skills and build self-esteem. I actually read about them in a food review about their bread and thought, ‘that’s flipping amazing because it’s all about the food at heart,’ not the fact that it was a charity.

TBC: So why team bread and prisons together?

MF: A prisoner is someone in prison. But a group of prisoners embody a lot of other social problems that are treated individually but not as a group. 80% of people in Scottish prisons are of low-level education, 80% have had addiction problem in the last year and 80% are suffering from mental health problems. Baking is a good activity for general wellbeing - the every day quality of bread transcends all these social boundaries and problems and unifies people. If I was going to be working with people who might not have experience of work or education I knew that they would know what bread is. And it would be quick to teach them and to get early success means they’re more vested in carrying on and moving forward. Aside from the start up costs, bread is also quite cheap – for example, last week we lost 75 kg of sourdough because the guys over salted it but it’s ok, it doesn’t cost that much.

TBC: What was the beginning like?

MF: It took me a while to get Freedom set up - we didn’t have funding but the difference is that we sell what we produce and so our business is a cushioned business. But at first, I couldn’t get anyone to believe in me because there wasn’t anything like it. I put the idea forward and it didn’t work out and I left the country for a while, but when I was away, a Scottish prison got in touch with me and said ‘we have this small prison kitchen – could we work together?’ Once we got going, having a kitchen in a prison helped me convince funders that I had something tangible – all I needed to do was to prove that I could survive. We didn’t make any money and we were at capacity within one year, but with more capacity we could do bigger things and eventually I got quarter of a million pounds of investment and have just opened a second bakery. This allows me to offer more jobs to people as they leave prison and at the same time we can focus on wholesale demands and build enough work and money.

TBC: Have there been any stand out moments or success stories with the ex offenders going through your programme?

MF: So what’s been quite interesting for me is that I don’t get too hung up on the romance of all this. Though we’ve probably had 15 people through the programme, most of my day is working on my own or attending meetings so I don’t necessarily see the process… We did have a guy who was around 40 years old and had been in prison since 15 – he gets out with no job prospects and is put up in a halfway house for people in recovery and he starts baking croissants for everyone at the hostel because that’s the thing that makes him happy – he’s not just taking what he learned as a skill that’s going to help him get work, it's also about contributing and doing something productive. We’ve had 5 people on the programme who have left prison and 4 of them have jobs. The thing for me is to make people feel like people – there’s a fine line at Freedom in the distinction between prisoner and bakers because they’re all bakers really.

TBC: What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced so far and how have you worked through them?

MF:My biggest challenge is that we exist within a prison, which makes it really labour intensive and costly and adds a level of complexity. It’s hard to be an entrepreneur – I’d never really had staff before, I’d never really had a proper job before! That’s baking though, there are a lot of people who come into it from other careers. Artisan baking is also not sustainable financially, so we’ve had to think outside the box. We’ve looked at bakeries in Australia and the US – how do we create a model that’s bigger and can survive better? We already do some wholesale now – we have 18 customers on the books and we’re going to expand to about 80 which we feel confident that we can do. With more space we can do more variety and build our rep, but it’s quite difficult because though what we do is really good, we don’t get exposure – we’re all the way up in Scotland! It’s difficult for us to generate social and media and photos because of the nature of working in a prison and the press do see us as a bit novelty. We want to show what we can do and the creativity of what we do – it’s not just that we work with prisoners, we want to be a well respected bakery for its bread and what I’d like to do is let Freedom get seen as reviving Scottish bread making traditions - I’d love to get a cookbook deal.

TBC: Scottish bread making traditions sound wonderful - that leads me to the question, tell us a bit about your bread, then!

MF: We do a standard rye, a white sourdough, bloomers, rolls, baguettes BUT we’ve been looking at Scottish bread. Struan, for example, which is like a seeded wholemeal with heather honey to help the yeast – it’s quite a dense bread. People go nuts for it. We also do something like a bear bannock – bear is a grain that is a grandfather of barley but with six chambers. It’s an incredibly earthy flavoured, deep ochre coloured bread - incredibly healthy and, again, quite dense like a soda bread. No one’s ever heard of it and we have to get the flour sent from Orkney but when we get someone who likes it they’re hooked!

Mega thanks to Matt for chatting to me! If you want to find out more about Freedom, who are based in the wonderful Glasgow, you can visit their website: www.freedombakery.org

Photographs courtesy of Freedom Bakery