Idealism and practicality need not be enemies… as long as you keep your priorities straight.
Some time ago, I swung by a bakery I used to work at to try out a new pastry and see some of my old friends. The case and display looked much the same as ever, despite the high staff turnover. I picked out the new pastry- a riff on one of their staples- and took it outside for a discreet bite. That turned out to be the best course of action since no one could then see me throw the rest in the trash and quickly chug from my water bottle. I’d never really cared for that particular pastry in the first place, but somehow it had gotten worse since I left. The pastry itself was utterly tasteless, the icing oddly chemical, and the filling boring.
A while later, I texted a friend of mine who still worked there about it and asked what had changed. “Oh, yeah… we changed the recipe because the original one wasn’t coming out right from the new machine. It kinda sucks, but at least we’re not mixing it by hand anymore.”
What about the icing? This isn’t fondant…
“Nope, it’s this new stuff made with modelling chocolate, corn syrup… I think it tastes foul, but it’s easier to work with.”
As soon as you stop caring about making good products in favor of making sellable products efficiently, you’ve made a classic “deal with the devil”- and it won’t always end well.
No Such Thing As “Selling Out”
I can only hope to be successful enough at some point that I’ll need to debate my own “deal with the devil.” The owner of the bakery in question is arguably a successful businessperson. The bakery has several locations, has been in business for over a decade, and attracts special orders and wholesale customers as much as retail. On paper, that means the business is doing well.
However, the business also suffers from historically high turnover. A frankly crappy corporate culture and a lack of time and attention placed on training have led the owner to invest more and more money in machines and appliances. Ideally, they will take minimal effort to train on and put out a consistent product (eventually… most of the machines are not fully functional yet, so they just kind of take up space.) The owner no longer would have to worry about hiring trained or experienced bakery talent (and thereby paying better wages and creating a better culture for said talent.) They could hire anyone that will show up on time, keep clean and take instruction.
In other words, the owner decided that the real problem in their business was the fact that people were making the food.
Now, believe it or not, this is not exactly “selling out.” Selling out- commonly used for celebrities or artists- means that the person in question has chosen wealth and fame over artistic integrity. In this instance, the owner of the bakery has decided that an arguably lower-quality product made by machines is just as sellable as a higher-quality product made by humans, but at less cost (wages, workplace culture, squishy human emotions.) In a black-and-white, cost-benefit analysis, humans lost.
Are there better ways to make the products than by machine that will render better results? Absolutely.
Is it worth the cost of researching and developing the recipe then hiring, training, and retaining quality talent to do it? According to their sales figures, no.
Anthony Bourdain related an excellent moment when he realized just how stupid and hollow the idea of “selling out” was. Sitting around a table with a bunch of celebrity chefs, he heard them comparing endorsement deals they’d been offered, product lines, who was paying how much for what. When he asked, “Hey, isn’t there a line or something? How much is too much?” one of the chefs turned to him with a small, patient smile and said, “Are you asking me how much it would be to swallow a bug?”
When a person becomes successful enough that their name, face, brand, or whatever involves having stakeholders (significantly different from shareholders, people with an interest in a venture succeeding, such as employees, communities, vendors), providing for them becomes part of the calculus. We might have our professional pride and sense of artistry, but when the question is “Making this call will increase business, and thus put food on the table for your employees and their families,” our job is to eat that bug and grab some mouthwash later.
It’s one thing to make that kind of decision to look out for your employees, though- and quite another to make it in order to protect profitability and ignore problems… particularly when you start to see employees as a problem.
Idealism vs. Practicality
I am absolutely not anti-technology or anti-machine. I am a pastry chef currently trying to guide my team through a season where we will need to make over 2500 pies, and I’m not about to pretend that I’d happily do it without a dough roller, a steam kettle, or industrial ovens. The difference, however, is that every step I take to streamline production or to make the job more efficient and simple is made with the expectation of keeping quality the same or better. Would I love to give every pie crust individual attention from rolling to baking? Of course I would. That’s the slow, careful, meditative kind of baking I love. That’s my ideal. Is it practical for me to do so when we need to have 750 pies done by the end of Sunday? Absolutely not- so I do my best with the tools, time, and labor I have at my disposal, and to my knowledge, some mechanical pie processing device is not more practical than a real, living person with the training and intelligence to quality control products as they are being made AND think creatively about how to correct them.
So far in my career, I have had a few dictums about how I choose to go about the professional end of my work:
- “I’d rather do less business than bad business.”
- “If I don’t care about my product, why should customers?”
- “Don’t ask others to do something you’re not willing to do yourself. Be the example.”
I’m tacking on this one:
- Always know what you’re getting (and giving up) in a deal with the devil.
Anyone else out there have their own “deal with the devil” stories? Drop it in the comments!
P.S. Speaking of Deals with the Devil…
I have my own opinions about Jeff Bezos and the way Amazon does business, but the fact is they are also the ones publishing and selling my books!
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