(From left) Lee Sanders, American Bakers Association, speaks to Genevieve Martin, Dave’s Killer Bread Foundation, and Jeff Anderson, Eli’s Cheesecake Co., about their unique hiring practices.

CHICAGO — As the wholesale baking industry navigates the workforce gap, more and more companies are coming up with creative staffing and seeking out workers from some unlikely places. At the American Society of Baking (A.S.B.)’s BakingTech conference, Genevieve Martin, executive director, Dave’s Killer Bread (D.K.B.) Foundation, Milwaukie, Ore., and Jeff Anderson, vice-president of purchasing and operations for Chicago-based Eli’s Cheesecake Co., shared their best practices in hiring non-traditional workers.

D.K.B.’s model for hiring ex-convicts originated with the company’s founder’s brother, Dave Dahl, who after four stints in prison, went to work at the family bakery and was tasked with making bread cool again.

A few years later, in looking for capable people who were willing to show up on time and put in a hard day’s work, the bakery collaborated with local groups that helped people returning from incarceration gain employment in the community.

“We decided we needed to partner more meaningfully and help figure out how we can play a role in helping these individuals be more successful,” Ms. Martin said.

Dave's Killer Bread used local resources to help people returning from incarceration gain employment.

Today, of more than 250 employees, almost 40% have a felony conviction in their past.

“They perform remarkably well, so I’d like to debunk some of the misconceptions about hiring them as part of the workforce,” Ms. Martin said. “In general, these employees just want to come to work; they want to do the job, make a paycheck and return home to their families, just like everyone else.”

Likewise, Eli’s Cheesecake also looked to alternative resources to fill many positions at the bakery.

“We pride ourselves on being an inclusive manufacturer,” Mr. Anderson said. “Being located in Chicago, we have access to a very diverse workforce, and we believe very strongly in tapping into that, particularly in terms of non-traditional pathways.”

About 10% of Eli’s staff consists of refugees and individuals with cognitive disabilities and hearing impairments through partnerships with organizations such as Refugee One. 

Ms. Martin noted that the first step is shift in mindset over the readiness of non-traditional potential employees.

“We don’t have a special program for these candidates,” she said. “What we have is a special commitment and a special dedication to making sure anyone on our team, regardless of background, is successful. It starts with finding the best fit for the job, and sometimes that means the person is going to come from a non-traditional background, whether that’s a felony conviction or coming to our country as a refugee or even a military veteran.”

The D.K.B. hiring process is the same for all candidates, but within the pipeline of workers with felony convictions, the company looks for two specific criteria: ownership and accountability for the actions that were taken that led to the conviction and what the candidate has been doing since.

“We don’t need to know the details of your background, but we need to know who you were then and how you’ve changed,” Ms. Martin said. “If a person can hit those two nails on the head, you’re a good bet for us, and we’ll take you in.”

Neither company has had to work hard to publicize their programs; through word of mouth and partnering with agencies, D.K.B. and Eli’s have had access to a whole new talent pool.

“Once you place that first person and it goes well, it’s amazing how the communication starts going back and forth,” Mr. Anderson said. “It’s almost like it’s a gateway for hiring more associates.”

In fact, Mr. Anderson noted that a large portion of employees in leadership roles at Eli’s — ones who have been with the company 15 or 20 years — are those with a refugee background.

While open mindedness is key to developing a non-traditional workforce, it’s also important to be cognizant of how much of their stories employees are comfortable sharing.

Eli's Cheesecake partners with Refugee One to hire employees.

“We don’t share that information at all,” Ms. Martin said. “It’s not our business or the business of anyone on our team, but if individuals want to share their story, they’re more than welcome to.”

D.K.B. offers those with felony backgrounds opportunities to share their story through platforms such as speaker panels, but those are strictly optional. In terms of privacy, the information is treated in a similar manner to a medical condition.

Many of the refugee associates at Eli’s have lived through such trauma that they are less inclined to share what they’d been through. According to Refugee One, only 1% of refugees are settled, and that’s after an average 17-year wait. By the time they reach Chicago — and Eli’s — they have been through so much that the company only wants to know what the associates are comfortable sharing.

“Some of them don’t want to talk about it at all; others are more open,” Mr. Anderson said. “Because it’s such a part of our culture at Eli’s that no one is treated differently.”