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The Story of ‘America’s Solar Bakery’

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Petaluma, California sits amid the verdant hills of Northern California’s Sonoma County – a region now known for its world-class wine production, sprawling acreage of vineyards, and nutrient-rich soil.

This hillside town has always been a haven for artisans, too; whether they be ale brewers, grape growers, chicken farmers, artists, or bread makers.

Since the early twentieth century, the town has been deeply tied to agriculture due to its fertile lands and favorable climate within the valley. 

The founders of Alvarado Street Bakery, who are now the board of directors, in front of a delivery van in 1977, prior to launch. // Photo courtesy of Alvarado Street Bakery

In 1978, one group of these artisans began a small bread bakery that would eventually become one of the country’s best-known, eco-friendly businesses: Alvarado Street Bakery. Alvarado’s products can be found across the U.S., and the brand has become a household name for organic, small business-produced bread. The freshly baked, pillowy loaves are only half of what the bakery’s reputation is based on. Beyond its product, the company has become known for its commitment to clean energy and has been dubbed the “Solar Powered Bakery.” Alvarado’s use of renewable energy goes back to the founding ethos of what is now a great institution continuing to rise.  

The solar panel array on top of the bakery includes over 1,700 panels // Photo courtesy of Alvarado Street Bakery

Alvarado is a big operation, and their manufacturing facility is a whopping 1.5 acres.

Atop the gargantuan bakery, though, is a solar array of 1,722 photovoltaic solar panels, generating enough power to aid in the production of the bakery’s famous bread. 40% of all energy used by the bakery comes from the solar array. 

“All of the 116 workers of Alvarado Street Bakery are very much focused on making the company a sustainable “green” bakery to reduce its footprint on our precious environment,” the company writes in a statement. 

In addition to its solar panels, the company’s workers-owners also undergo training for water conservation, waste reduction and recycling, and overarching pollution prevention, in true Petaluma fashion. 

An archival photo of one of the bakery’s 1980s vans // Photo courtesy of Alvarado Street Bakery

In the days of its founding, 1978 Northern California was a hub for forward-thinking Americans who were reevaluating the ways that Americans can help other Americans. Specifically, a movement called “Food For People, Not For Profit” was becoming prevalent in the region – a fluid but recognized social initiative encompassing food manufacturers, nonprofit organizations, and distributors that were striving to limit mass hunger and provide basic nutrition to as many people as possible. Alvarado Street Bakery was deeply involved in moving that forward, and its mission to make America a more inclusive, equitable, and healthy place for everyone has not faded, but it has picked up steam.

With an unwavering dedication to organic and transparent ingredients, Alvarado Street’s focus on sustainability is no surprise. According to its website, its mission is “to provide whole grain [sic] baked goods that promote sustainable agriculture.” For this organization, sustainability has taken multiple forms. 

Two workers-owners in the manufacturing facility // Photo courtesy of Alvarado Street Bakery

In 1981, just three years after its founding, the bakery became a cooperative, a business structure sometimes also referred to as a “co-op.” A cooperative is defined by the International Cooperative Alliance as “an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly-owned and democratically-controlled enterprise.” In other words, the workers who help it run are also the ones who collectively own it.

The bakery “​​has grown from its original 5 members to its present-day level of 116 members,” its owners wrote in a statement about their structure and its impact. “We are proud of the service we provide to the community, to our membership, and to our valued workers.”

Photo courtesy of Alvarado Street Bakery

For Alvarado Street, embracing its identity as a co-op ties directly into its sustainability efforts. Owned by those rooted in the community, the development of the company and its impact on the surrounding area achieve a level of cohesion absent from many mega-corporation owned businesses, whose manufacturing facilities in some cases may just drop into communities, blindly unaware of how it touches the surrounding population and resources. The policies, initiatives, and advancements that Alvarado Street Bakery makes are proposed and approved by its members – citizens of Petaluma – and focus on sustainable development and growth. 

For Alvarado, sustainability means the environment and the endurance of its community, and an ability to work together as humans. Its premier founding principle, “Voluntary and Open Membership,” reaffirms that “[co-ops] are voluntary organizations, open to all persons able to use their services and willing to accept the responsibilities of membership, without gender, social, racial, political or religious discrimination.” 

“We aim to prove that any dedicated business can be green, profitable, and successful just like ours.”


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