Karen Bornarth

Karen Bornarth

Executive Director of The Bread Bakers Guild of America

Throughout my career, I’ve learned to embrace and live with change as well as ambiguity, to ask a lot of questions, and know when to say “I don’t know.”

A supervisor once told me that I shouldn’t always respond with “no.” I had a tendency to see a problem or a challenge and immediately carry that scenario out in my head to what I felt was the inevitable, often negative, conclusion. I’ve worked hard to change that tendency, and my approach now is: “let’s try it, and see what happens.” It’s a fail-fast mentality, and it’s taught me to be less scared of failure and be more open to innovation and new ideas. At Hot Bread Kitchen, we’ve been changing and growing our culinary training program over the last two years. It’s been incredible to see the impact and what happens when you open yourself up to new solutions.
I read widely. Currently, I’m reading 'Fear City' by Kim Phillips-Fein, an account of the NYC budget crisis in the ’70s that led us to the city of wealth and privilege we know now. And, in preparation for the Hot Bread Kitchen’s first conference this Fall, I am reading 'The Art of Gathering,' by Priya Parker, a guide to cultivating meaningful and successful gatherings.
One of my favorite quotes is “a professional is someone who can do her best work even when she doesn’t feel like it.” We all have days when we’re not feeling it, but those of us who are in the business of making and selling products are not allowed to let those days determine the quality of our work.
I am most excited to see job quality on the menu at all NYC food businesses next year! The food industry is struggling as never before to find and retain talent, and if we don’t start to offer better jobs, then we’re sunk. At Hot Bread Kitchen, we are planning a conference (The Kitchen Conference, November 4, 2019) on the subject of equity and inclusivity in food, and a big part of the day’s focus will be on the question of creating quality jobs for all.
I find inspiration in the women whom we serve through our workforce program. They have traveled great literal and figurative distances to get to where they are. They are fearless, hardworking, and driven to succeed, and getting to know them is the best part of my job.
I couldn’t do this job without an unlimited MetroCard and a good pair of shoes for walking around the city. I spend a lot of time in different locations all around NYC. And, a sense of humor -- I say, the more serious the work, the more comic relief you have to bring each day.
I listen carefully and continuously. If there is someone in the room who knows more than me on any given subject, I’m going to tune into that person.
I am inspired by the excellent work we see in our hiring partners at Hot Bread Kitchen -– folks are increasingly looking for ways to improve their operations by better supporting their employees and creating a more inclusive, functional environment.
I am lucky to have an excellent team of super-smart, highly motivated people who are dedicated to our mission and our work. It is easy to trust them to do their jobs, and I don’t micromanage. I allow for a lot of flexibility in where, how, and when they do their jobs so that they can feel that they have agency over their work and can form a reasonable work-life balance.
I’m not a foodie, but I am fascinated by food production and operations. A well-run operation, when everything is humming, is a joy to be a part of and a wonder to see.
Communication skills are crucial, both written and verbal. I communicate with clients, funders, team members, and other stakeholders regularly about our work and our mission. An essential part of communication is listening and being attuned to how others are receiving my message.
When hiring, I look for people who have a track record of staying at a job for more than one year. It suggests to me a commitment, as well as the recognition that it takes at least one year to get to know a job and to learn to do it well. I also look for curiosity, humility, self-awareness, and stamina.
Over the many years, I have spent in this industry, my interests have shifted from the food and bakery products to the people who make these products and the systemic barriers to their professional success and economic well-being that they often face. My experience at Amy’s Bread put me firmly on the path to the work I do now at Hot Bread Kitchen, creating opportunities for people who might struggle otherwise to find them and fostering a more equitable and inclusive culinary industry.
Creating a balance between work and life is tough. I am learning to be present and allow myself to compartmentalize. For instance, when I’m at work, I allow myself not to worry about my seven-year-old son. When I’m with my son, I allow myself to shut off the part of my brain (and my phone) that would attend to work. Granted, some days, I am better at this compartmentalization than others; being present is a practice, and I have certainly not perfected it.
My career has allowed me to team with people with whom I wouldn’t have otherwise worked with or met. I can’t say that it was always easy; I often wasn’t accepted into the team very graciously. Eventually, the teams accepted me when they saw that I could work hard and that I wasn’t going to go anywhere. Over time I became increasingly interested and invested in the lives and the lack of opportunities for this talented group of people.
My work at Amy’s Bread as a production baker had a significant impact on me professionally. I was part of a team working on a fairly large scale production, doing physically and mentally demanding work, night after night. I realized that it takes enormous discipline to do a job like that well, and make a consistent product every shift under all sorts of complicated and unpredictable circumstances.

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