It’s been ten months since my day job changed to answer COVID-19. The last time I wrote one of these, the “A-Team” was in charge. We ran our asses off for 12-hour days, making ends meet for the dawn of the apocalypse.
Ten months later, and they’re all gone. Quit from stress and depression, walked out in a huff, or simply went on leave and never really returned.
It’s a new team now. Eager, curious, capable… and as a Great Old Sage of an employee at two years, I’m doing my best to help them keep their hands on the wheel. I thought being the “Last Man Standing” would be a heady, affirmative feeling- “I’m finally indispensable. I’m the one that could hack it.”
Instead, I feel beaten. Beaten, tired, and sad. The “last man standing” is usually pretty lonely.
It all started when the Boss came in for a month. After the first six months of the pandemic, the Boss decided everything needed his personal supervision and input- that everything was “too inefficient” and “too slow.” Before, I could count on one hand how many times I’d seen him in the kitchen (much less get his hands dirty working.) Now the Boss wanted to know what was being done to streamline production.
When Kyle and I showed him the schedules we had created, the production flow Kyle had designed, and the recipe scaling spreadsheets I’d created to calculate needed ingredients, the Boss said “Amazing… who made these for you?” I’m pretty sure I bit through my cheek and Kyle stared a hole through him. This was not going to be a good time.
Casey never came back. Kyle quit in frustration with the Boss and the higher-ups, having given in to a few old vices to manage the stress. At least he saw it in himself before they could spiral and get worse. As he worked through his remaining days, some of the baristas cornered me one morning and asked if I would replace him. They had hired from outside, which- in all honesty- was fine by me. I’d wanted management experience, but having seen the bakery burn through two capable managers in a year and a half, I wasn’t interested in getting it here. My current manager Cathy was hired, trained at headquarters, then sent in to take over managing the madness.
Yolanda quit to work in her church’s kitchen (“If I’m going to be stressed to fuck, at least I can decide how and when.”) Rex needed extended sick leave after his shoulder locked up- two years straight of scooping cookies takes its toll. After coming back to the half-shifts ordered by his doctor and being unable to get anything done – pure torture for a workaholic- he came in one morning, dropped his key on the table, grabbed his shoes and said goodbye. Beth followed soon after, preferring to take her chances in a COVID-bombed job market than kill herself in front of an oven for a company that didn’t care.
Sasha quit to try a new career. Alley quit for a job near her home. Both decided that they weren’t getting paid enough to bake through a pandemic, much less put up with the endless stress and critique from the Boss- still floating around, still making observations, and asking me what’s wrong with people that they don’t want to work anymore.
The best answer to such a question was shrugging, keeping your head down, and waiting for the storm to blow through. When I popped my head up, I was the last man standing.
The New Crew
Cathy came in to the job the day after Kyle had walked out for the last time. He reasoned that if she was being trained at headquarters, she didn’t need his guidance- it would only confuse her.
Her first day in the kitchen after being trained, I stepped away from my bench and introduced myself.
“Hi, I’m Matt. I’m your production lead.”
“Hi Matt, I’m Cathy. Thanks for sticking around.”
As Rex, Beth, and Yolanda left, replacements were found. Terry was first. With experience as a bartender, a mother, and the wife of a cook, baking was a new skill set she has good energy for. I think the madness of the kitchen is more soothing than the madness of being home and looking after two kids through our current nightmare.
Meanwhile, Yolanda trained Cara. Cara was a decent pastry chef, but flustered easily. Yolanda quit after training Cara, then Kara called out one morning. She had a COVID scare, came back negative, then just never came back. The rotating door just seemed to keep on spinning.
We have a new team now. They are talented. They are eager to work together. They do their best everyday, and for the first time since losing my old team- I’m proud.
Many Hats Make Much Work
Coming in out of the cold at 8am is a mellow moment of the day. There’s usually about three or four customers. I slip past them, and they eye me with annoyance until I go around the counter and they realize I’m not trying to jump in line.
Even though most folks answer the general “good morning” I give coming in, I still feel like it’s important to walk around and check in on everyone and greet them personally. Layla is quietly shaping bread and only pops up if she hears Terry tell me about issues the bread team had that morning. Sometimes it’s technical, other times it’s miscommunication. I know that Cathy has already gotten in ahead of me and knows, but I like being aware in case someone calls in a huff.
Then it’s Pete and Chel. Pete is our regular morning baker- a mellow, Bigfoot of a kid with a penchant for putting trip hop, jazz, or gangsta rap on the speaker in the morning. It’s taken a while, but they’ve stopped apologizing for everything. They give me a short list of their prep needs for the day- cut apples, Pudding Sauce, and some more Lemon Icing. 90% of the time I’ve already guessed what they’ll ask for the day before, but it’s good habit for them to be conscious and to get used to asking. They’re new to baking, but take pride in their work and always have a million technical questions about what we do. “Matt, what is it that creates the structure in the canele? How can a couple extra minutes in the oven make that much difference to the sugar?” My favorite kind of student.
Chel is a bundle of giggly energy, zipping through the pastry work. She and I are Cathy’s enforcers and lieutenants. Chel came to the job with more management experience than me, but with more technical experience working with breads than pastry. We consult each other regularly to troubleshoot problems, and catching up with her in the morning is usually a chance to find out what’s coming down the road for Cathy that we can tackle first.
Cathy is last as I walk into the office and take off my coat. Usually, she’s already been there a few hours and we go through each other’s days- she asks about my expected task list, I double-check numbers and what the team has told me about the morning. If I’m being honest, Cathy doesn’t need me as much anymore as just someone with my skills. When she first arrived to replace Kyle, I was the Old Hand that told her the bakeries previous methods, precedents for sales, dealing with our usual vendors, and putting out fires when she’s busy. Now, most of that old knowledge has been handed down or is obsolete. I’m a known quantity for her though- a reliable and capable pair of hands that trains new hires and does good work. Ask anyone in the industry- someone like that is gold, and it’s even better than she, Chel and I work well together.
After Hector came in, was trained for a week, then no-call-no-showed, Cathy hired a couple of assistants. They would be my 16th and 17th trainees in two years… and one of them is my best yet.
Tori came in from the Midwest with her boyfriend, looking to go to culinary school after finishing her business degree. COVID frustrated her plans, and suddenly she needed work. Sitting down with Cathy, she explained that she enjoys baking and has some experience, but really wanted to expand her knowledge and go to school.
Cathy looked at her for a moment and gestured to the kitchen. “Matt, Chel, and I all graduated culinary school. Combined, we have over 40 years in the industry and come from a lot of different directions. Want to learn and get paid at the same time?”
By the time I’ve arrived, Tori has already pulled down my notebook where I started a list last night and begun work. She greets me as I tie up my apron and crack an energy drink. More out of habit than need at this point, I go over the list with her as well as updates I discussed with Cathy- new Valentine’s Day pastries to make, extra production for orders, what time to expect the Boss walking through. She accepts all of this, and we start to tag team the work.
Back in Atlantic City and during my time at the Cafe in Portland, something I noticed about myself as an “assistant” to anyone was that I would just “be around.” Passing by Victoria as she decorated cakes, I would take her dishes and tidy up her space without a word. Under Karen, I would warm up egg whites and pull out materials after looking at her list.
Somehow, I have passed that on to Tori. When I get back to the table with sheetpans for pulling cookies, she’s already pulled down paper for me. Working on tarts, my empty mixing bowls vanish to the pit before I notice them. I’m not used to asking for help, and I’m definitely not used to it just… happening. For a while, I feel guilty- “Tori’s my assistant, not my maid. I can do my own dishes.” As we work together, though, I realize that this is what it means to have a good team. We cover each other’s backs without being asked and anticipate each other’s needs- and I start to realize in a weird way that Tori is the exact kind of assistant I was, and that this was the result of everything I thought mentoring should be.
Of course Tori cleans up after me- I clean up after her, just like I looked after Victoria and Karen. Why does she jump in the dish pit first thing in the morning to get us caught up on dishes? She’s seen me do that when the kitchen is slammed and it’s the single most helpful thing I can do in that moment.
She is my latest and best student, and if she wants it she’ll be a hell of a pastry chef someday. I may feel beaten, tired, and worn out- but seeing her handle work and command love and respect from the team, I know it hasn’t been in vain.