The story behind Glasgow’s Freedom Bakery

Freedom Bakery’s sourdough bread and sweet treats are available across the city, but how did the social enterprise that supports ex offenders begin?

Matt Fountain is the man behind the Freedom Bakery, an enterprise that he has put his heart, body and soul into setting up.

Matt fundamentally believes society is broad enough to include people who have made mistakes, and compassionate enough to understand the complexity of an individual’s journey into criminality.

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He knows this from personal experience growing up in Gravesend, Kent.

He explains: "my mother had just divorced her husband and her new boyfriend moved in with us.

"She thought he was successful and earned lots of money but that suddenly became very unrealistic. They quickly got into debt, it was horrible and there was a lot of turmoil at home."

His new step-father then spent time in jail, so he is aware of the difficulty ex-convicts have in finding permanent work.

After a stressful time at school he headed to Manchester to study architecture, but he admits, "I flunked out really quickly, I just wasn't ready to go off to university."

He went to London and eventually enrolled in a degree in History of Art and Art-World Practice run by Christie's auction house.

At the time his domestic situation wasn't that great either, and without support he "just buckled."

His third year was spent in Glasgow, and he discovered an academic side of himself that I hadn't had before.

Subsequently he flourished well enough to gain a scholarship to University of Cambridge, which should have prepared him for a lofty career in academia.

However he explains, "I didn't think that far ahead. I saw it as a means to an end, I thought if I had an Oxbridge degree it would help me in life.

“I didn’t particularly enjoy my time there, by the end of it I was pretty worn out and because of my background, I felt like I was living a bit of a fake life. It always felt like such a juxtaposition.”

After studying at Cambridge he couldn’t get a job, was feeling depressed so moved to Dennistoun, until he figured himself out.

“I didn’t really know what to do. I came to the conclusion that I should be doing something useful and I set upon this idea to raise money for the charity Shelter by cycling around the UK.”

After completing that, he knew going on to Oxford to study for a Phd wasn’t for him.

Instead Freedom Bakery was formed, although it took him 18 months working full time to get it off the ground.

He was inspired by San Patrignano community near Bologna, who work with drug addicts and help them regain their lives.

“For some, the odds have been stacked against them from the beginning, so they never had a bloody chance.”

With that in mind, he knew Freedom Bakery would have to have financial stability, he said, “if I wanted to do good I believed the most responsible thing was to set up a company that would have some impactful objectives sewn into how it worked.”

He had witnessed his step father’s lack of employment opportunities after prison which led to a cycle of re-offending, with all the knock on ramifications on the rest of the family.

But he is realist and is not overly sympathetic about everyone that he has met in prison, which he explains are, “a microcosm of humanity with both good and evil.”

Although he adds, “for some, the odds have been stacked against them from the beginning, so they never had a bloody chance.”

Recently, he explained, “an individual contacted us, who has been in institutions from childhood.

“He is completely institutionalised but he wants to get out and can imagine a life he can have that will be healthy, normal and rewarding so that is what we are about.”

He set on the idea of a food business because of the emotional attachment people have with food.

“I am a comfort eater, and I enjoy nice food and finding a meal or a product that is really wonderful but completely understated.”

He knew the idea had to be simple, as around 80 per cent of prisoners have literacy and numeracy levels of an eleven year old.

Matt settled on bread making, and he admits, “it was a really high minded idea.

“The only ideal was to make sure it was really good so it would leave a lasting impression on the person eating it, so they would understand where it came from and maybe think more positively about who made that bread.”

Initially he worked on the project alone, eventually getting advice from a consultant for social enterprise and he joined a programme run by The School for Social Entrepreneurs in Scotland.

They gave him pointers on how to start up and he also managed to raise some money from private investors, “ they loaned me some money because I couldn’t get any grant funding.”

HMP Low Moss

Matt struck lucky in 2014 when HMP Low Moss wanted to become involved; they were looking for new community partners and they had a small kitchen which wasn’t being used.

It wasn’t the first prison he had ever visited, when he was twelve he had visited his step dad in jail, and he said, “ It was absolutely horrible. I was terrified and I asked to never go again and I never did.”

As a result he has an absolute desire to be honest and act with integrity.

The basic idea was to recruit prisoners, make and sell bread and at the same time put those prisoners through a recognised qualification for the baking industry, SVQ Level 2 in Craft Baking.

He also recruited some proper bakers who knew what they were doing to help teach.

As they were working with prisoners, they had to learn self defence and behavioural training.

He said, “I always liked the idea of working with a whole diverse range of people and this gave me that, it was an assemblage of Dickens characters.”

The next problem was how to sell their bread, he had a van but they were only allowed to collect bread from the prison at midday, and it had to go through security.

Their first customer was Milk cafe in Victoria Road.

They made £ 7.90 in the first week and £22 in the second. Matt said, “It felt amazing but at the same time we were losing money.”

HMP Barlinnie

By 2017 they had seventy customers but to become a really sustainable business, he decided to open a bakery outside the prison because, “we couldn’t make the quantity of bread with the prison time constraints.”

This meant they could now work with day release inmates from Barlinnie who are getting ready to be released.

There are currently sixteen employees and a third he explains, “are ones we met inside prison, a mixture of long term and short term sentences including, drugs related offences, fraud and I’m afraid to say manslaughter and murder.”

Although they can’t work with people who have committed offences against children or sexual offences.

The prison chooses who comes to The Freedom Bakery Matt said, “I really feel that it is important to help people but at the end of the day they have to want to help themselves. In terms of the help we can offer, that goes quite far with us.”

Picture: John Devlin

It is not a set programme so they have organised living accommodation, provided grants for people to buy clothes and loans for employees and Matt has even donated his spare bed when someone had no furniture.

As it is a long term relationship lasting on average three years, he said, “we get to know them very well and we know what they need at that crucial point when release comes up, perhaps better than anyone else.

“We buddy up people coming in from Barlinnie with our regular bakers and rotate them regularly.

“Prisoners are keen to go out on deliveries and see the city which they haven’t seen for a while, so it is like having a kid in the ca. They are so excited, our customers also like to meet who is making their bread.”

They now have two hundred businesses registered and supply seventy-five businesses on a weekly basis from cafes to high end restaurants and some independent retailers; including Ubiquitous Chip and Ox and Finch, Locavore.

Of course, the various lockdowns have had an effect on the business.

“I really feel that it is important to help people but at the end of the day they have to want to help themselves”

Matt said:”we were all really worried about what was going to happen, we initially lost 83 per cent of our customers, but we were very lucky in fact we increased our business overall by 12 per cent last year.”

When they first moved into the bakery they thought they had too much space (1500 sq feet) but they are expanding and moving to new premises in October, which is three times the size.

Matt explains, “we have a really strong team, who really care about this, and they are amazing.

“I am proud that they care so much they won’t let anything get in the way. This weekend we had two of the vans out of action on Saturday morning, our busiest day and they just sorted it out.”

He adds, “it is important our bread tastes great and for us to be really successful, our people need to be cared for and paid fairly and if those things combine it means the bread we make is really doing good.”

Unit E5 Rosemount Business Park 145 Charles Street Glasgow G21 2QA

A version of this article first appeared on our sister site, The Scotsman