Good morning, do you want to tell us a bit about yourself?
Hello there, I’m Chernise, originally from Singapore. I came to Coventry in 2006 to do a degree in Politics and Sociology at Warwick Uni, and made great friends, so I ended up staying and working for my church for a few years.
Proof Bakery is such an amazing project, how did it start?
In 2017 I was looking for a career change and found myself really moved by the news footage of Syrian families fleeing the civil war in their country. A friend who knew that I was a keen baker asked if I would teach a bread-making workshop to some refugees locally. So I went, and saw that lots of the women I met were confident bakers, who had been learning from their mums since childhood. Many had been widowed, and were lone parents. And they all really wanted to rebuild their lives through working, and to provide for their families. That was the beginning of Proof Bakery.
We started by selling the sourdough bread made on our baker training programmes through a network of partner churches, for people to collect on Sundays all across Coventry. Over time, more and more community buildings wanted to become bread hubs, so we added cafes, shops and offices too. And we gradually expanded our range to include Italian ciabatta, sourdough focaccia, sweet swirl buns and cakes. Each product is carefully curated and tested, and we consult the bakers and incorporate flavours from their home countries. By March 2020 we had a wonderful group of 13 bread hubs in the city, and were employing 2 refugee women as bakers.
How has COVID-19 impacted you?
COVID-19 has actually been the making of us in some ways. Overnight, all of our bread hubs were shut, and we could not teach any more baking classes, or cater for events, or supply restaurants or cafes. We had to really think fast and work as a team, in order to keep everyone, especially our bakers, in the jobs that they had worked so hard to attain.
We very quickly set up a home delivery service, so that instead of going to community buildings, customers could receive our bread and sweet treats direct to their doorsteps. People responded very well to this, so it is still continuing. All orders are placed online, through proofbakery.co.uk/boxes, and they arrive at your home in time for the weekend.
And we saw quite early on that the economic impact of the pandemic would be huge – the Foodbank that shares our building had tripled its weekly visitor numbers. So we started asking existing customers if they might donate their weekly loaf subscription so that we would bake it for Coventry Foodbanks, instead of them collecting it for themselves. Many of our amazing supporters said yes, and slowly, over the last 12 months, grant funders have also given us funding to bake bread donations as Foodbank demand has remained high. We now bake about 500 loaves a week for 9 Foodbanks, Grub Hubs, Social Supermarkets and other feeding projects in Coventry, and are likely to make this a permanent feature of the way that Proof Bakery operates.
When restrictions eased up last summer, we were also able to enrol, and train, another cohort of refugee bakers. I’m pleased to say that one of them is now employed with us, along with 4 other bakers. So over the past year, through the generosity of our customers and a lot of blooming hard work, we’ve actually retained all of our pre-pandemic team, and gained another 3 bakers as well.
Where do you see your business in the next 5 years?
In the short term, we are massively looking forward to hospitality opening up again, and being able to supply some wonderful restaurants and cafes locally. We would also love to bring back our in-person baking classes, as teaching people in person, being able to taste a delicious loaf together, is our absolute favourite.
Further down the line, we’d like to look at other hospitality-related training that might be able to help refugees into work, for instance menu planning, catering or front of house in a café. So perhaps there’ll be a Proof Bakery café in Coventry soon? Who knows!
We are also exploring how the Proof concept can be replicated to other cities, to support refugees and other groups that need help to get into work.
What do you think about City of Culture 2021?
We are massively excited for City of Culture 2021. We think it’s a real acknowledgement of the vibrancy of Coventry, the multi-cultural pulse of the city, and its unique history that has been shaped by enterprise and industry as well as peace and reconciliation. We have a couple of very special plans in the pipeline to celebrate, but can’t quite tell you about them yet… all we can say is, follow us on social media and watch this space!
What is your message to the people of Coventry for this 2021?
We hope you feel really, really proud and have a great year celebrating all that our city has to offer – after all, it’s you, the people, who make Coventry.
(Photo is taken by John Carlon at the Coventry Telegraph)