Baking the World a Better Place
Scarlet’s Bakery Maintaining Its Mission Despite Coronavirus
Rachelle Starr is not a lifetime Louisvillian, but through her efforts over the years, she has had a profound impact on many of the city’s residents. One way is through her store, Scarlet’s Bakery.
The individuals who have personally benefited from Starr’s work are not the wealthy or the well-connected. Many of them have been hidden in a world of trauma and trafficking. Starr’s work to create Scarlet Hope and Scarlet’s Bakery has provided a new start for numerous Kentuckiana women who have determined that adult entertainment is not where they want to spend their lives.
When Rachelle’s husband, Josh, transitioned from the corporate world to nonprofit work in 2006, they moved to Southern Indiana from Clearwater, Florida (and eventually crossed the bridge to live in the Clifton neighborhood in 2011). Starr’s background was in advertising and marketing, not social work.
“When I moved up here, I wanted a purpose for my life,” she says. “I really wanted to help people.”
She grew up in a Christian home with a pastor for a father, so acts of service and compassion had been instilled in her from a young age.
She began visiting adult entertainment venues in 2007 and bringing a meal to share.
“I didn’t know how they were going to receive us, how they were going to perceive what we were doing,” she says. “We didn’t want to be like we pitied anybody or felt like they were charity. We were truly coming to share the love of Christ and provide opportunities if anyone wanted that.
She says she realized how much a meal to the women was both physical and relational nourishment. Many of them rarely sat and ate a home-cooked meal in friendship.
Starr says that within six months of visiting the first adult entertainment establishment, she was invited to bring a meal to another one.
“Honestly, we’ve been invited to all of them over the course of 12 years,” she says.
Rachelle and Josh created Scarlet Hope as an official nonprofit in 2009. While they wanted to continue providing meals, Rachelle also dreamed of creating a business that offered second-chance employment for women, particularly for those who had legal troubles.
“When somebody has a criminal background, it is very difficult to get a job that they’re going to be able to support their family at. I wanted to be able to provide a transitional job opportunity for them,” she says.
While making a meal was helpful, Rachelle felt there was more that could be done.
Getting Scarlet’s Bakery to come to fruition was not a quick-and-easy accomplishment. Rachelle unsuccessfully went to the Scarlet Hope board in 2010 and 2012, but she says the timing, people and money didn’t line up until 2014. In December 2015, the first Scarlet’s Bakery location in the Shelby Park neighborhood opened.
How COVID-19 Changed Scarlet’s Bakery
Because the Shelby Park venture was going so well, in March 2019 the bakery opened a retail outlet in St. Matthews, which included a coffee and dessert bar. While it was exciting to launch this new space, it meant more stress and logistical challenges since everything that was sold at the St. Matthews shop was made at the Shelby Park location where the program is housed. Rachelle says breaking into the St. Matthews market was difficult due to the high level of competition.
When COVID-19 hit in March 2020, “We were still trying to break even [in St. Matthews]. We were still not where we needed to be,” Rachelle says.
The overhead was high, and the cafe didn’t have the infrastructure to offer drive-thru service. Even though Rachelle created a bakery task force to help her utilize all of the nonprofit’s resources in the most efficient and responsible way, as the quarantine lasted longer, she and her team realized the St. Matthews location would have to close.
Eventually, it became necessary to also close the Shelby Park location’s cafe.
“We’re a nonprofit business, and we’re going to figure out a way, but in this current season, it’s not going to be in retail,” Rachelle says.
Prior to the pandemic, Rachelle and her team had looked into e-commerce, which has now become the way to carry on after the retail closings. Scarlet’s Bakery is currently selling three kinds of cookie mixes, which individuals can order online and bake in their own kitchens. Even without the pandemic, there are a couple benefits to e-commerce.
“It cuts down on a lot of waste, and you can extend your market,” Rachelle says.
Customers can now go to scarletsbakery.org to purchase either chocolate chip cookie mix, Keto pancake mix or lactation cookie mix. Rachelle says they have offered these options in three distinct niches to see what sells well and what doesn’t. They are offering free shipping and buy one, get one free to encourage sales.
Even though the offerings of Scarlet’s Bakery have changed as a result of COVID-19, the mission hasn’t.
“We don’t just provide jobs. We provide what I call holistic, trauma-informed programming,” Rachelle says, which includes life, job and soft skills, as well as case management. Fitness, financial and parenting classes are part of what Scarlet’s Bakery provides to its employees in the program. Since the bakery opened and programming began, it has been able to provide a job to 36 women. While retail and bakery associates were laid off as a result of the COVID-19 cafe closings, the participants in the program are still taking online classes and being paid.
Scarlet’s Bakery gets referrals from agencies and has an intake process for women who are interested in second-chance employment. Rachelle says there is an interview process as well as job-readiness assessments.
“If they are not a good fit for our program or aren’t ready, we refer them to another program. We serve anyone and everyone who comes to us,” she says but notes that there are only 20 spots a year for the bakery positions. The program is a 12-month commitment for the women who are hired. Under normal circumstances, Scarlet’s Bakery would be preparing to interview its next round of applicants but due to social distancing, the application process is being postponed.
“In October, we hope to bring in 10 new women,” Rachelle says.
While COVID-19 has been immensely stressful for Rachelle, keeping the mission in mind has helped her stay focused. One of the things she has lost sleep over is feeling like she is letting down the bakery’s beloved customers who have been sad to see the retail spaces go.
“I love our customers, and I’m thankful for their support, but we just can’t keep doing the same thing,” she says.
In spite of the stress, Rachelle says one of her favorite things to talk about is the women who have successfully completed the Scarlet’s Bakery program and moved onto greater opportunities.
“The very first woman to ever graduate our program got a scholarship to go to Sullivan University, and she graduated with a culinary arts degree,” she says.
Another graduate got her radiology certificate from the University of Louisville. Another has started nursing school. Numerous local companies have partnered with Scarlet’s Bakery to offer internships to women who have completed the program.
In an effort that is as grassroots as it gets, Scarlet Hope is now a national organization with locations in Cincinnati, Ohio, Nashville, Tennessee, Reno, Nevada and Las Vegas, Nevada. The executive directors in these cities are former volunteers with Louisville’s Scarlet Hope who moved away.
“Each one of them wanted to start similar work,” Rachelle says.
While there are other Scarlet Hope locations, Louisville is the only one with a certified kitchen and bakery. Despite having legs in other cities, Rachelle is the primary fundraiser for the organization so she continues to spread the word about its mission both near and far.
“About 30% of our bakery is supported through donations,” she says.
COVID-19 has changed so much of what is normal for so many people, including Rachelle Star and her Scarlet’s Bakery colleagues, but what hasn’t changed is the motto behind the baked goods. “When people choose Scarlet’s Bakery, they are purchasing for a cause. We like to say we’re baking the world a better place,” she says.