I get asked a lot of questions about my career as a baker.
Was it what I always wanted to do? (No- I remember wanting to be Indiana Jones for years.)
Aren’t the early morning hours rough? (They can be, but you eventually either get used to them, go mad, or advance far enough that you don’t have to work them anymore.)
Is it rewarding? (Absolutely.)
The most common one, however, is “do you want to run your own pie shop one day?”
The answer to that one is “…Maybe kinda?” I have kicked the idea back and forth in my head for ages, especially since I moved out to Portland and started surrounding myself with other entrepreneurs in the industry. Over post-shift beers and conversations across counters, I’ve gotten some solid insights into the life of a small business owner. It’s rewarding, and it can be fun, but it can also be a massive stressor and its own flavor of hell. You can’t really blame everything on the owner or boss, either- you know just how much of a screw-up that fella can be, but they’re trying hard.
All the same, it doesn’t hurt to dream. Between chats with other pros and a little soul-searching, I think I’ve got a good idea of what my dream shop would be like. It almost certainly won’t wind up quite like this, but I wouldn’t mind trying.
A Business With Personality In Mind
I’ve long since learned I don’t want to work in fine dining. Fussy plating, frantic service, and endless demanding and entitled customers are not what I do this for. Instead, I want to be whatever the modern equivalent is of “the village baker-” a small shop, knowing all my customers personally, knowing their likes and dislikes, and my work being an integral part of the life of the community.
In Portland, that’s a pretty easy thing to do. Neighborhoods support their small businesses and evangelize for their favorites. A small shop selling pie- possibly on its own or as an eatery- would slot in well with plenty of neighborhoods where people love to picnic in parks or brunch.
Wholesale would not be an option. In my experience, wholesale is a double-edged sword. The income can balance out the seasonal highs and lows, but if individual customers can be entitled and persnickety, having a business as a customer is a thousand times worse. In order to meet demand, one starts looking for ways to increase production- and that often turns into more “deals with the devil” than I’m comfortable with. I’d rather do less business than bad business, or sell products I don’t stand behind.
Instead, I would cater to the real customer. Families seeking dessert for dinner. Brunchers and restaurant goers looking for “a pie and a pint.” I might even have a small market of locally-made goods so that my pies could be the centerpiece of picnics in the city’s various parks.
That would be my favorite kind of business- good food, made with personality, sold to good people to enjoy. Something to be a part of people’s lives and memories. As Chris Guillebeau would tell you though, it’s not enough to simply be successful. Eventually, you need to wonder about what you can do for the world and how you can give back to it. For me, the single best thing I can think of is the crux of the industry itself. I would hire my employees, train them- and TEACH THEM.
A Business Built on Mentorship
Cooking and Baking are industries that, famously, people just seem to wind up in. You take a summer job at a fast-food restaurant and it’s not bad. The money doesn’t suck and you enjoy being in that environment. You start seeking similar jobs throughout your life, and everywhere you go you pick up new skills and ideas. It becomes the most reliable way for you to earn a living. You never needed a degree, you were functionally paid to show up and learn, and you’re surrounded by a tribe of other weirdos and misfits like yourself. Time passes, and one day you realize you’ve got ten years of experience under your belt and you can’t imagine doing anything else.
Some folks (like me) imagined that life from the get-go and decided to get a “jump-start” by going to culinary school. That comes with its own risks and drawbacks, though- imagine spending all the time and money going to culinary school just to find out the field isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and you don’t like it as much as you thought. If you’d maybe just taken a simple, small job first and tried it out, you could have made a more informed decision.
That’s the business I want to be in. As much as possible, I would want to hire kids and students who show an interest in the industry and give them work so they can earn while they learn and decide if this was really what they wanted. I love teaching and training, and I would do my best to teach the kids everything I know.
Sure, some would decide it wasn’t for them and quit. That’s life- it happens. The ones that do learn to love the craft of baking, however, and want to make it a career? I’d love for those people to be able to say they got their start with me. I’d even run fundraisers to help them get started in culinary school if that’s what they wanted.
Businesses come and go. Everything changes and fades- but I imagine that when the time finally came for me to hang up my apron, it would be an incredible comfort for me to pull down an album of faces, menus, and letters from the generation of bakers, pastry chefs, patissiers and boulangers I helped usher into a world I loved so much and could now leave to them.
A simple, pretty dream for sure… but one worth pursuing I think.