Snapshots of the Bakeshop III- The Night Shift

Good evening, friends and neighbors.

The last time I wrote a “Snapshots,” I was working the morning bake shift. Since then, I’ve taken over the completely opposite end of the day- evening pastry prep.

I’ve gone from managing the oven and getting the bakery off to a good start each day to watching it slowly empty out, till I shut everything down as the last man left.

If you’re wondering what a bakery looks like as the day dies down, here we go.

Two thoughts compete in my mind as soon as I walk in to the bakery. I come in the back door, shrug off my coat as quickly as possible, and think:

  1. Where should I start today?”
  2. Oh god, what the hell happened while I wasn’t here?”

By the time I arrive, the rest of the kitchen is in the middle of it’s day. Kara is piping macarons- the tiny, neon-colored almond and buttercream cookies that have held the public’s eye for years. Kara’s been training hard to run that station under Casey- lately promoted to assistant manager. You can tell how the day has gone based on how talkative she is. She drives herself hard, and zeroes in on her work when her piping is crooked or the bake doesn’t go right. I admire her- those colorful little cookies are ridiculously finicky.

Rick and Mike are hustling about. They usually chat and joke unless something has gone very wrong earlier and we need to catch up. I just call out a general “hello” to everyone- they know I’ll greet them individually later, but for right now I need to get situated, and they need to get off my work table, if possible.

I head to the office/staff room to drop my bag, take off my coat, and change my shoes. Casey and Kyle, the manager, are discussing staff and product issues usually. I greet them too, but try not to linger around too long or get involved in their discussion. We’ve all got stuff to do.

My previous position in the bakery means I know a bit more about some of the products and how they are made, so occasionally they’ll ask my opinion on how some products look or ought to be- “Matt, have the scone numbers been dropping?” “How did you used to lay out these cookies for baking?” That sort of thing. In general, though, I try to let them do their thing- my station is busy enough.

Off with the shoes, on with the clogs and apron, a quick look through the communication log. Cold Pastry needs tart shells for a special order, and they asked for lemon curd and pudding custard. Fair enough.

My job is to do the prep for cold pastry, make sure morning bake has all the sauces and batters they need, and bake off pastries that are too complex to work into the morning- danishes, scones, muffins, and monkey bread. The pastries themselves AREN’T complex, but the steps to making them are a big too much for an already-rushed overlord to manage well.

That’s my job in a nutshell. Prep is the primary support position, and tries to catch as many issues/tasks early as possible. I have transferred from the frontline fighter to “support” class.

Not too terrible a switch, really.

Game on.

On the morning shift, my role was Morning Baker and “Ovenlord”- I managed who went into the oven when, so that the staff could bake most efficiently. On this new shift, there’s much less competition for the oven, so I’m concerned mostly for my own work. Busy hands and a quiet mouth.

Even so, timing is everything.
Alright, gotta have these danish and monkey breads ready for the proofer in one hour. Once in, they should take about two hours, so I can set up the rest of the bake and get some prep done…”

Kyle’s been in since nearly 4am. He’s a little bleary-eyed, and wanted to do a little planning with me before he goes. Kyle’s been a baker way longer than he’s been a manager, and I get the feeling he misses getting his hands dirty more often. It’s a pretty big mindset-change going from regular production to having to manage orders, labor costs, inventory… not too mention some of the personalities involved in management. “Boss man” or not, he still schedules himself for at least one early AM bread shift a week.

We discuss training new employees and production while I try to get my hands in some flour and the day started. New contracts… storage issues… “what are these people doing…” How long has this been working?” By the time we reach some flavor on consensus, I’m looking at the clock.
Three recipes to plow through before I can start my actual baking for the day. This is gonna be a long one.

Casey, meanwhile, has always been a sweetheart, and beyond dependable. Elevating her to assistant was a natural choice- she’s calm where Kyle is emotional, diligent where he is distracted. She tries her best to raise everyone’s spirits and keep us smiling- a hard-enough task in the face of understaffing.

Casey enjoys the office work well enough, but every now and then comes out and asks if I need help. Mine is a station that is very understaffed, and I think she knows the answer is “yes”- but there’s something in her question and smile that’s hopeful. No matter how I’m doing that day, I can’t help but chuckle.

“Need a break from the computer?”
Almond croissants and tarts take roughly an hour. Casey hops right on them. I hope we can get someone trained up quickly. As much as she reminds me that my station is understaffed and that I need more help than I ask for, I wonder if she doesn’t take on a bit too much herself.

Hopefully, she and Kyle will be able to back off from production a bit more and take it easy on themselves.
As I watch both of them work, though- Kyle talking Rick and Mike through orders, and Casey cheerfully slicing apricots for tarts- I can’t help but wonder if that’s something they actually want.

In a little less than a year of working at this bakery, I’ve trained 7 people in some capacity of the work. Even after all that, training others makes me nervous.

I tend to zone out when I’m at work and lose myself in my tasks. You can’t do that when training, so I need to remember to narrate every step of something that, at this point, I do automatically. I need to consciously remind myself to let them get their hands dirty and learn a bit by doing. I can write down all the manuals and directions they need (and I have,) but watching and then doing is still supreme.

Next week, I’ll be doing a working interview for yet another new hire. Casey and Kyle want me to put them through tasks to see if they can follow a recipe, handle a knife, scale, and work quickly and cleanly. I have ideas in mind, but part of me hopes I don’t get a trainee like I was- full of ideas, wants to make all these cool new recipes, “Have you read this latest thing from Splendid Table…”

I love and understand enthusiasm and passion- it’s what started me off in baking and kept me going- but I keep finding myself in a position where I need to help people reign in that enthusiasm without quashing it.

It sucks. It hurts. I don’t want to rain on people’s parades. The truth, though, is that we need a workhorse before we need a creative- and when we hire someone to assist me, I’ll need to find a way to tell them “Listen, I’m glad you want to go to the moon, and I’d love to get you there, but first we need to outrun this tidal wave.”

“Yes, I know running for your life isn’t than fun. I’ve been doing it for a few years now.”

Kara and Casey are wrapping up, and the savory guys have long since left. It’ll be me, the dishwasher, and the front-of-house closing crew. I can get lost in my work, and think of how to teach it to someone that wants to learn these recipes- but not do them for weeks on end.

Last man standing.

The dishwasher leaves before my shift is up, so I usually do my own dishes. The baking is all done, and I’ve shut off the oven. It’s been chugging away for nearly 20 hours, and will get a couple hours rest before my friend Gina- the new morning baker- comes in to wake it up again.

I have a podcast going on the little Bluetooth speaker. The front of house manager doesn’t like the hours I work. “It’s so quiet and lonely. It’s why no one stays in that position too long.” I point out that I listen to podcasts- like Lore, Myths and Legends, or Welcome to Night Vale– so that it’s another human voice and she shakes her head. “Wow, that makes it sound even sadder.”

It’s not really that bad. Early in my career, I knew I worked best on my own. I figured my future bakery would have a small back kitchen just for me to work and experiment in. The Alchemist’s secret lab.
As I’ve gotten older, though, I’ve realized I DO enjoy having others in the room, and having the option to work with them. All the same, I like having alone time to focus and work.

When the others imagine having the kitchen to themselves, they rhapsodize about “imagine being able to spread out! You could get so much done!”
That’s not how I like to work, though. Even in a full kitchen, I like to keep my work contained- or at best, sectioned off into stations. Too much clutter frustrates me.

Dishes done. Oven off. The front has been shut down, and I check the doors anyway. Everyone is supposed to sweep up their own sections of the kitchen at the end of their shift, but I do the whole kitchen. I don’t like the idea of others having to work in a mess.

The day ends as I flip the lights off, check my production list for the next day, and head out. It’s bitter cold and windy… maybe I’ll grab a stout somewhere on the way home.

Stay Classy,

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