San Francisco’s Rize Up Bakery serving up sourdough with a call to action

Azikiwee Anderson wakes up most mornings just before dawn to start cooking sourdough bread, each loaf handmade with creative flavor...

Azikiwee Anderson wakes up most mornings just before dawn to start cooking sourdough bread, each loaf handmade with creative flavor combinations, locally sourced ingredients and love.

Whipping up about 24 batches per hour, Anderson, whose friends call him “Z,” spends the early hours preparing bread for coffee shops and small grocers that buy his specialty bread in bulk. He then moves on to filling orders for individual customers in the afternoon.

After dinner with his wife and two children, Anderson returns to his home kitchen to prepare the next day’s dough into the wee hours of the night, only to wake up early and do it all over again.

Azikiwee Anderson of Rize Up Bakery pulls and twists sourdough coated with garlic and thyme into shape on Wednesday, June 2, 2021. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

Rize Up Sourdough was born early in the pandemic when Anderson’s job as a private chef and caterer disappeared overnight. What started as a hobby turned into a small phenomenon “overnight,” driven by word of mouth and a few posts on Instagram. His success was not only buoyed by the delectable varieties coming out of his kitchen, it also gained traction because Anderson uses the sale of his bread to spur conversations about social justice.

Early on, Anderson said he couldn’t bake the bread fast enough to keep up with the demand.

“Then, all of a sudden, it became a business, a very small business, but it became real,” he said. “I could make as many loaves as I could and I still couldn’t make enough.”

Some of the different offerings from Rize Up Bakery sit on a shelf ready for delivery to customers on Wednesday, June 2, 2021. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

But it hasn’t always been this way.

A New Orleans native, Anderson moved to San Francisco as a kid with his mother who was fleeing a violent relationship. They lived on the streets for a month before moving into a shelter, their only meals coming from neighborhood nonprofits and church groups.

“Only by the grace of goodness and kindness of other people were we OK, and I think something we have forgotten as a people and as a culture is that we really are our brothers’ keepers, and we should really care about our fellow man,” he said.

Now, nearly four decades later, Rize Up serves as that call to action.

After George Floyd was murdered in May 2020, Anderson recalls feeling uncertain about his place as a Black man in San Francisco and questioning his role in the broader social movement given his responsibilities as a father, husband, brother and friend.

The bakery was his way of channeling that angst, that negativity, that raw anger into something productive that allowed him to give back to his community as well explore his own understanding of himself and his fellow Black residents in San Francisco.

“We’ve been bamboozled into thinking we can’t be certain things, or we’ve never seen someone in that element represent that so we can’t even see ourselves as it,” Anderson said. “I want people to be able to look at me and say here’s a dude who represents me, and if I wanted to be this then it’s a thing that I could be.”

Megan Gibes says it’s this candor and conviction that keeps her coming back to Rize Up every week since October, when she first stumbled across the loaves at Rainbow Grocery in the Mission District.

Yes, it’s some of the best bread she’s ever had, perfect for making thick slabs of toast, but Anderson’s charisma and eagerness to forge real relationships with customers, even if it meant talking about the hard stuff, is what made her a regular.

“He’s all about dialogue, and in a lot of his interactions with people he puts his focus on social justice,” she said. “That’s a really important part of his business and his identity.”

What also caught the attention of Gibes was the Pay It Forward program. Customers can purchase the OG sourdough loaf — in other words, a plain varietal — for a discounted price, and it’s then donated to community organizations, nonprofits and food banks.

Azikiwee Anderson of Rize Up Bakery places sourdough loaves into the oven on Wednesday, June 2, 2021. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

Some of the programs Anderson works with are the same that fed his family as a child. Others are those that he sees doing critical work in his own neighborhood, such as the Richmond Neighborhood Center which distributes the bread to residents living in SROs or currently experiencing homelessness.

“The bread from Rize Up is of such high quality, and some of our neighbors have never had freshly baked bread before, so it’s been a treat for us to supplement their meal deliveries with the hot loaves,” said Naomi Hui, community relations manager at the Richmond Neighborhood Center.

Anderson says the simple act of baking sourdough loaves allowed him to focus on something he could do to make himself happy. He soon noticed that it could make other people happy, too.

“I realized I could make a difference the way that I know that I can, and that through food and communication and community,” he said.

Anderson says he’s now driven by the maxim that he can make the world a better place, one “beautiful” loaf at a time, a fitting word to describe both the flavors and care he puts into each.

He wants his bread to evoke vivid memories and remind people of child-like sensations.

Take the 9th Ward. It’s an homage to his creole childhood, filled with authentic “funky” Louisiana sausage that he buys from San Francisco corner stores that know how to spice it right, he says.

Then there are his spicy loaves, which he stuffs with pickled jalapenos and a variety of cheeses from the Clement Street Farmers Market to put a San Francisco spin on more southern flavor. Or there’s the paella loaf he makes with a specialty grocer in the Richmond to echo authentic Spanish and Portuguese flavors. He’ll often tell customers of these stories and others when they come to pick up their orders at his family’s front porch.

“He puts all his heart and soul into it,” Gibes said. “There’s such a pure joy in that interaction that happens every single time I go there, and that’s the magic of the bread.”

Until recently, the Anderson’s Richmond District home kitchen acted as Rize Up headquarters.

Now, Anderson does most of the work out of a commercial culinary space near Fisherman’s Wharf, and he’s just hired and trained two new full-time employees.

Azikiwee Anderson of Rize Up Bakery holds one of his signature sourdough loaves on Wednesday, June 2, 2021. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

Forever trying to strike a precious balance between optimism and realism, he’s under no delusion that life as a small business owner is easy in San Francisco, especially as The City emerges from the pandemic. All the money he’s earned from sales has gone back into growing the bakery, with his eye on expanding his reach so he can touch more people.

“I feel like the more people that know about me and sign off and are into what I’m doing, the bigger the platform and the more I can affect people,” Anderson said.

If things go really well, he’d like to offer scholarships or internships to at-risk youth.

But first, Anderson plans to focus on figuring out how to scale up his business and support a workforce.

“It is really cool that people like my bread, and that they’re excited that I’m doing something new,” he said. “But all of that is just underlying taking care of other people, and I feel like that’s what food really does.”

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