My eyes pop open into the dark of our pre-dawn bedroom. No haziness yet, no sleep fog, just a quiet “oh goddammit” as I roll over and check the time. Tapping the bedside table is enough motion for my Apple Watch to wake itself up and inform me that I’m half an hour ahead of my 4:30 am alarm. I groan, grab my phone, and resolve to keep myself up by catching up on the latest news.
Tiptoeing around the apartment trying not to wake my wife, and enduring the loud pesterings of a bratty cat who has taken VERY quickly to being fed in the early morning.
Gotta eat breakfast, meditate, and get cleaned up. Gonna need all the goodwill I can gather, because God forbid people go without their croissants in a pandemic.
The Last Time We Spoke…
I had a team I trained in the nights. We’d taken on some massive accounts to the point that I couldn’t handle it all by myself, and for about four months I ran a team of four to help me in the evenings. I got promoted to “PM Pastry Lead” for my efforts, and everything ran on cue.
Then the virus spread. Around the kitchen, we cracked jokes. “Gonna go out and lick someone’s eyeballs, get it over with.” We were bakers, after all- we had bigger concerns. There was staff turnover, training, production schedules, quality control, who was handling what. If it wasn’t on our task lists, we didn’t give a shit.
I had vacation coming up, and my team was well-equipped to manage my absence. Good people I trained to do good work, and with good work ethic.
“Ok, text or call me if there are any problems. I’ve got most of the recipes memorized, so I can tell you how to go through them…”
“Matt, we will actively let the bakery burn the fuck DOWN before bothering you. Get lost, have fun, we’ll be fine.”
Ripping Off A Band-Aid
One week after I return, the last member of my PM team is asked not to come back to work until further notice. It’s a relief for her, frankly- uncertainty can be more stressful than just receiving bad news, especially if you are trying to ACT certain. It’s a financial blow, sure, but she was happy to be free to find other work at least.
The same day, in a conversation with Casey and Kyle, it’s revealed that our wholesale numbers have cratered. After one week, the last contract we had that would need a “night baker” is suspended. Closed-up cafes don’t need croissants.
There’s still prep to be done, but I’m asked to stop coming in on Sundays for the time being. Labor needs to be slashed, and everyone is losing hours. It feels like the company is trying to rip off a band-aid as slowly as possible.
At home, I start to wonder what’s next. That’s how my anxiety responds to uncertainty- Catastrophize and Contingency Plan. My wife shrugs and suggests that, if I DO lose my job at the bakery, perhaps I should take a couple weeks to relax first. `She’s not wrong. In a day, solutions start to form.
“Collect unemployment for a bit. Focus on writing- selling my own, writing for others. Keeps me home, doing work I like. Ask family for help if necessary.”
I’m ready for the worst- even relishing the idea of a change of pace for a bit. A little rest, then tackling a new field. It might just be a good time. Then Kyle calls. “Matt, come in like usual, but at 8am. We’re gonna make this work.
My plans go poof. I still have my job… or what remains of it.
“Dead Man’s Boots”
Every day, as news of the pandemic pours in, we murmur around the kitchen. No joking anymore. “Is this safe? It’s impossible to be six feet apart in this kitchen. Shouldn’t we have masks?”
“Why are we still open? We’re just a bakery- that’s hardly essential. Are we being irresponsible expecting people to come out and buy from us? Shouldn’t we be staying home for OUR safety? Some of us get sick easily…”
Kara is the first to go. She had been planning on quitting for some time anyway and moving to New York with her boyfriend, this seemed like a good excuse.
Casey is next. She and Kyle are close to tears as they tell me- she can’t take the stress of the job AND putting her family at risk to do it. I can’t blame her at all… I’m still thinking about what writing jobs might exist. During her voluntary lay-off, Kyle tells me that while there won’t be a replacement for Casey, myself and another baker will be tasked with supervising production and keeping things moving. It’s not the way I would have wanted to get a promotion- but it’s not a promotion anyway.
Within a week, we have no savory team left. No one makes macarons anymore. It’s just us- the “A” Team- and we need to go about Business as Usual.
A Normal Day in Uncanny Valley
8 AM, and I come in through the front doors.
I never liked doing that because of the crowds, and I didn’t think it was professional for kitchen staff to be walking through the dining room- but with half of the dining room roped off, and one barista idly reading her book at the far corner of the counter, I don’t really care much. She wears the light-blue mask that the owner and his wife made for all of us- a kind gesture. By now, most of us have made or found a face mask that suits our aesthetic.
The kitchen is in the tail-end of the morning rush. Beth, our morning baker, is balancing multiple tasks at once like I used to. She’s business-like and hyperfocused, but give me a short nod. Beth hates wearing masks at work- it makes her feel suffocated and overheated. No one has yet been able to get her to wear one for more than a single shift. Besides the morning bake, she also handles choux production, gateauxs, and quiches. Her music of choice- 90’s R&B- pumps out of the small speaker.
Rex sees me and offers a cheery “morning”- he’s my supervising counterpart, and gives me a chance to set my gear down before giving me the news of the morning. Despite being one of our most prolific bakers and main cookie producer, his black neoprene mask is immaculate.
Towards the back, our drivers are packing up the last few pastries and Zeke- the dispatcher- grabs an apron. He like supplementing his hours with kitchen work, and he’s very teachable. I’ve already got a couple tasks in mind he can help with.
Yolanda is in her own world. Laughing at our jokes, but quiet otherwise, she crushes out cold pastry like a machine. The teetering tower of dishes in the pit is mostly her doing, but she refuses to let anyone near them. “I’ll clean up my own mess,” she insists- knowing full well that if she let him, Rex would spend the rest of his shift in the pit voluntarily.
In the office, Kyle and Stan the area manager are having words over the computers. I catch some fragments as I get situated. Order changes, product problems, FOH and Zeke needing to finish other work before they help production. I swap my shoes and get my own apron on- they’ll let me know when it needs to be my problem.
I’m Kyle’s interim assistant. There’s workflow to manage and orders to put away. That comes first… after my task list and pouring an energy drink into straw-topped cup.
We’re all a team of selfless martyrs. It’s not exactly a healthy vibe, but it’s how our team works.
As short-handed as we are, Rex has been bouncing around the kitchen the most. While “his” station is still wholesale cookies, he now splits his weeks and days between bread, cold pastry, cookies and savory when necessary.
I check in with him during my morning walkthrough. His hands are quickly- robotically- scooping cookies out of a giant bowl of dough in front of our sunny, empty dining room. He shakes his head, “I’m sorry, Matt. I really wanted to help you more today, but everything is so piled up, it’s crazy…”
He wanted to help ME? He wanted to do MORE? I remind him of the enormity of his and Beth’s work. I watch them run around like mad all day, and despite the size of my own list, I feel like I’m the lazy one compared to them.
Rex pauses a minute and looks at me. “Oh god no. It’s the complete reverse. We’re all working ourselves to death- it just feels like we aren’t because we all handle it so well and try not to complain.”
Looking out through the picture windows to the sunny, empty street, I wonder if that’s always true for me. “Yeah, well… just because we carry it well doesn’t mean it’s not heavy. Put on your own mask before assisting others with theirs, and all that.”
We confer about the task list for today before I leave Rex to his cookies. “Done in 20” he says, to the heaping bowl as much to me.
We’re all martyrs- trying to do our best and looking after our own work, but trying to take more off of all our friends plates regardless. It’s one of the best teams I’ve ever worked with- I just hope we make it through alright.
“I just feel like I’m losing Sasha, you know?”
After a couple weeks, we got approval to bring back two more employees- Alice in Bread, and Sasha. She’s been with us since January, but now she’s my new trainee- covering the basics of Rex’s and my stations on our days off. She’s young, and doesn’t have all the knowledge and instincts for the bakery yet- but she’s got the drive and ethic. Everything else will come with time.
She didn’t sign up for THIS though. None of us did, really. Baking was never supposed to be this exhausting, this consuming. She has no energy left for her hobbies or relationships. She doesn’t want to quit, but she doesn’t know if she can keep up.
I can’t tell her to “quit bitching” or “suck it up” or that life’s unfair, even if I wanted to. This does suck. It is hard, and can be consuming, and I can’t think of a more defeatist, bullshit rationale than “life’s unfair.”
What I do remember is feeling that way myself, and saying it to my teachers and mentor. Chef Chelius would remind me to “Go home at the end of the day”, and Karen reminded me not to waste time on things I didn’t feel anything for.
Sasha listens patiently while I parrot it all back. It’s all true, but I know it feels Hallmark-cardy and pablum- especially when you’re in that state. We need empathy more than motivational posters. The knowledge that someone is listening, and I haven’t quite mastered the art of “just saying nothing.”
Sasha works 10 hours the next day, entirely on my work so I can finish last minute savory work. She stands quietly out front, filling 200 Almond croissants. Before she leaves, she checks my list and insists she can tackle a couple tasks on it tomorrow. She begs me to relax on my weekend, and thanks me again.
We’re both glad we both listened, I think. She’ll be fine.
It all looks so easy on paper.
Some of the tasks on my list only take about 15 minutes each. Simple recipes and preps that just need to get chucked in the fridge at the end off the day. Others are only a couple of words on the page, but mean hours of work.
We all work around the precautions as best we can. Washing our hands is a no-brainer. We handle people’s food- pandemic or not, every one washes their hands and dunks them in Sani-buckets compulsively throughout the day.
Our delivery drivers aren’t allowed to bring orders inside anymore. They get stacked up by the back door, and we wheel them in after they leave. Milk and eggs are the worst- we need to bring them in quickly, but there isn’t always enough hands.
The Bakeshop is already hot, even in the late spring. Running around and producing for all our stores with even a thin piece of cloth over our faces makes some of us feel dizzy and overheated. We lift them quickly to hydrate and to go out for smokes. They’re back on in the kitchen, or anywhere customers can see us- regardless of whether the customers wear masks.
The COO calls daily to find out how many people are working. Everything financial is bottle-necked through him- all ordering, staffing, any money in and out has to be checked through him. We don’t have actual closing hours anymore. The cafe closes when people stop coming in for the day.
It’s not just baking anymore. I train. I answer questions. I advocate to the higher-ups. I stock the fridge and place orders. I QC production and limit waste. I sweep the floors, do dishes, and strategize how and when we can make the most tarts.
None of that shows up on my task list- or the COO’s spreadsheet. Time spent doing necessary tasks is time wasted… unless it’s seen.
There’s people demanding they shouldn’t need to wear masks. The masks aren’t to protect the wearers- it’s to protect others. Like a Spartan phalanx- but there’s people with guns demanding they shouldn’t have to hold up a shield.
They demand that we reopen. They want to go out. They want to drink beer. They want to sit in a booth and eat shitty wings. If people die, that sucks- “life isn’t fair”- but not being able to go out as much is “oppression.”
Some people are nasty when they come in- they want to know why we have a limited menu now. Why there’s only one soup. Why we ran out of canele for the day. Why our baristas talk to them behind sneeze-cards- then they hand over moist, sweaty paper money in dirty-gloved hands.
In the kitchen, we work 10 and 12 hour days because we are short-staffed. Some of us are immune compromised, or live with folks who are at risk. We aren’t saving lives- we’re not “heroes.” We have to work because it’s “risk your lives and health to make these pastries, or you don’t make rent.” We can’t go out for post-shift drinks anymore. We can’t hang with friends.
We’re still getting paychecks though, so we’re “lucky.” We all have kitchen friends who are searching for work- but they “get it.” They don’t begrudge us our fortune- but don’t envy it either.
We all show up. Until sickness sidelines us, or our bodies break- because this is still a shade of normal for us, and we know that for some folks, getting a coffee and croissant is a little bit of “normal” for them too.
If I can put on a mask, run around a kitchen, and clock in every day to make pastries… surely these people can put one on and be a little patient while we do our best.