In March 2013, Virtuous Bread received funding from Ex Cell and the Hope Foundation to give the Bread Angel course 6 ex offenders, teaching them the essentials of setting up a micro bakery. Here we catch up with one of them, Francesca Barker, The Barker Baker.
In one word, how would you describe your life before you got an 18 month suspended sentence for fraud?
What do you do now?
I am a baker. I am the Barker Baker. It’s my business, it’s my life and I love it. I also work as a catering assistant at the University of Manchester and just got a promotion there, and that’s great.
When did you start baking bread?
I am a qualified chef and had had a few hideous failed attempts at baking bread, taking rustic to a whole new level! I did the Bread Angel course, learning how to set up a micro bakery with Virtuous Bread in March 2013 and met Rosie Clark, our fantastic instructor who is so knowledgable and so positive…it was the beginning of the rest of my life.
Why did you start baking bread?
I am an ex-offender and the probation service offered to send me on the bread baking course as part of my “rehabilitation”.
How do you feel about being a baker?
I had no expectation that I would love baking bread. None. But I do, and since I completed the course, things have just gone up and up in all parts of my life. When I am baking I feel completely free – I can be in the kitchen or teach my girl friend, or feed my friends, and I feel no pressure.
Baking and chefing are two different things. Being a chef was great but when I put my loaves together for the first time and they came out so well I thought, “I missed it, this is what I was meant to do.” For me, bread requires more discipline and it is the discipline of it that helps keep me focused and so I feel free. I have to work hard to create these beautiful things. Also, getting praise for bread is different from getting praise for any other kind of food – it’s much better! I think it is because people think it is hard to do, is long drawn out, that you need special equipment and lots of ingredients, when in fact it’s flexible and you can make it suit your life and your time frame.
The reaction to bread is incredible. When I meet people they are 100 % positive 100% of the time. It is like they are overwhelmed by the bread. Selling my bread at the market is the most amazing way to spend the week end. I get out into the community and I meet and speak with people. I have lived in Manchester my whole life but have never made connections the way I have done since I started selling bread. I have met more people in five months since I have been baking than I knew in the previous 26 years of living here. People talk over the bread. They get sentimental, experiment, and swap recipes with me. I have had elderly people buy bread to take home and have for their tea and once an 8 year old girl came and spent her pocket money on a loaf of bread for her mum.
You are an ex offender and you received an 18 month suspended sentence. Can you tell me about that?
I was lucky. Really really lucky. The most likely outcome was for me to go to prison. I had a packed bag at the court and everything – I was expecting to go. And that would have been the end for me. Truly. I had been a good girl with an ordinary, normal background. I did politics at uni and had very conservative views on offenders and offending and in spite of that, one bad decision led to a series of bad situations that got worse and worse and nearly ruined me. Facing prison and then having a suspended sentence was an epiphany for me. A horrible, rude awakening that, in fact, I am very happy about. WHile being on probation I have met some very frightening people – people who may not take the second chance or the third, people who may actually belong in prison. I don’t know…
I was given alternatives and a second chance. I lost everything and I made a choice. Before this incident I blamed everyone for my problems and it was that behaviour, that mind set that landed me in court. I could have gone back to my old ways, wallowed, blamed, and felt sorry for myself but I realised I had the choice to think and act differently. It was my girlfriend: I knew I would lose my girlfriend and I would have destroyed the best thing in my life. So when I heard the sentence was suspended, I left the court room, hugged her and made a decision. I will never do anything like that again. My girlfriend is my life line and I am proud of myself because I do things for both of us now – for the first time in my life I am doing things for the both of us.
What are your future plans for The Barker Baker and what are you doing to realise them?
I am building a bread empire! I try to think small but I cannot do that! I know that I will be big. I do markets every week. I have some delis lined up to buy from me. I want to teach people to bake. I want to involve ex offenders and people with mental health problems. I am in conversation with Manchester Mind and looking at getting a premises and opening up a bakery. With the promotion I have free reign of the kitchen in the day time and I work in the night. I could not be more grateful to the university for giving me a chance. My boss is amazing. She appreciates hard work and I work hard. And I am so happy.
In one word, how would you describe your life now?
You can follow the bread inspired journey of Bread Angel Francesca Barker on her blog.