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Costeaux Bakery donating bread to families in need during coronavirus pandemic

With a dual mission to bake bread and support the community during the pandemic, Costeaux French Bakery recently launched an initiative to donate loaves of bread to two charities serving the needy, all while struggling to stay afloat itself as a small business.

Will Seppi, president and CEO of Costeaux, came up with the baking project a few weeks ago while homeschooling his three young children and running the business.

“Normally, the food banks have lots of bread,” he said. “But nowadays, you are not finding a ton of bread at the store.”

Seppi reached out to Rachel Manning, hunger relief worker and food resources manager of the Redwood Empire Food Bank, and Heather Irwin, who founded the nonprofit Sonoma Family Meal after the 2017 fires. Irwin is the dining editor for Sonoma Media Investments, which owns The Press Democrat.

“Bread is one of those household staple items that we hope to always have on hand for the community, but we have seen a drop in our usual bread donations,” Manning said. “Simultaneously, as the need is increasing, retail donations are decreasing.”

The partnership, called the Costeaux Crafts Knead Program, also allows Seppi to retain more of his employees, making it a win-win for the business with deep roots in the community.

Costeaux’s Santa Rosa production facility was shut for two full weeks during the Kincade fire in late October, but in February, the bakery was enjoying an uptick in business due to some unseasonably warm weather.

“We were making up for a tough fourth quarter,” said Seppi, whose family bought the historic Healdsburg bakery in 1981. “And we were gearing up for the busy summer season.”

Then, the COVID-19 virus hit in mid-March, bringing business to a near-halt.

Seppi said he had to act fast to position the business for the future, making the tough decision to furlough 80 of his 120 employees.

“We lost about 80% of the business during that time, between our own retail outlet closing in Healdsburg and the closure of Costeaux On the Go at the Sonoma County Airport and Tia Maria on Sebastopol Avenue,” he said. “Then we also lost our wholesale side with restaurants, caterers, hotels and B and Bs.”

With demand for bread increasing at retail outlets, Costeaux stepped up its production schedule to help supply the 40 North Bay markets that carry the bread and other baked goods.

But that wasn’t enough for Seppi. He wanted to do more.

For the Costeaux Crafts Knead Program, Seppi has an ambitious goal: to bake up to 20,000 loaves of bread a month for the needy. The bakery will cover the cost of first 2,500 loaves. To help fund the remainder, Seppi is seeking a $5 donation for each additional loaf, which the bakery will then match with another donated loaf.

The Redwood Empire Food Bank has started to include the bread in their donated boxes of food. Sonoma Family Meal, which works with a network of local restaurant chefs, is serving the bread with their free meals for the needy.

“Those organizations do what they do well, and we want to do what we do well, which is bake bread,” Seppi said. “Sadly, there are employees of mine who are dependent on what these two organizations are doing.”

Seppi has donated bread in the past to Sonoma Family Meal to feed fire evacuees and first responders, as well as to the Redwood Empire Food Bank.

“It’s so great to be able to collaborate with Costeaux now, supporting his bakery and sending tasty loaves of bread to thousands of food-insecure families and seniors in our county,” Irwin said.

Donations to the new Knead program are growing, Seppi said, from locals and from people outside Sonoma County who have come to know and love the area.

Seppi is optimistic the county will be able to provide a respite someday for pandemic-weary tourists who want to come to the region to relax.

“That will help the county heal,” he said. “I’m hopeful we will have a stronger appreciation for what it means to do business locally and have a greater appreciation for the region.”

To support the Knead Program, go to costeaux.shop.

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