Thursday, May 24, 2012

Reality Check- The future Baker Edition

This is for everyone who's interested in entering the baking industry as a student, employee, business owner, etc. This is not meant to deter anyone from going into the baking/food industry but rather meant to give you a more realistic idea of what the baking (or any service industry) world is like.

Every day I receive resumes and externship requests from people interested in becoming a professional baker/cake decorator/etc, well, actually, cake decorator is the most requested/demanded position. 
Some of the applicants have worked in the food industry before, some are currently attending school, and others have never before touched a cake pan but most of these people know, without any doubt, that they are/will be the best thing the pastry world has ever seen.

So often I hear things like: "I love to decorate and... "
  1.  "I went to school for this."
  2.  "I've done it at home for family & friends and everyone loves everything I've made."
  3.  "It's so easy to do, I can't believe you get paid to do this."
  4.  "It's not like your are really working or need any skill, you just play all day long." 
(Yeah, um NO!)
And almost every single person ends with, "So I've decided that I am going to be a professional cake decorator".

I had one person who, when he applied for an open bakery position, told us that his "Real" job was as a realtor but since it was slow in the real estate market at the moment, he had decided that working at my bakery would be a fun lark to pass the time until he found "Real" work again. 
 (Obviously he has no clue as to what "Real" work is.
 Why even bother wasting my time? Seriously.)

A couple of applicants actually told me that it would be great working at my bakery because they could learn how to decorate while they worked as our decorator. (Yeah, um NO!)
(Um, thought process anyone? Anyone?)

To most of these types I have one thing to say,
"I am disinclined to acquiesce to your request. Means "No.""
and here's why.
Reason #1.
I already have an excellent staff and (somewhat unusual for this industry) a very low turnover rate.
Reason #2.
Baking at home or in a school environment are completely different beasts from baking on a commercial level. Completely.

Baking at home, a person has the luxury of spending hours (or days) on the decoration, getting every little detail absolutely perfect. He/she can buy the ultra luxurious ingredients: local artisanal chocolate, organic evaporated cane sugar or whatever the latest expensive designer sweetener is at the moment, and freshly hand milled super premium flour, fresh cream from a cow named Jenny and on and on. This person isn't concerned that the super premium chocolate is $15 per pound or that the flour is $12 per pound. He/she also doesn't think to add in the costs of overhead: utilities, rent, licenses, paying employees, and a hundred and ten other things that are all part of running a business.

With any business, you have to balance the time and cost put into making a product with how much someone is willing to pay for the finished version. The cake may look stunningly beautiful but if a bakery has to charge $500 for a 9" cake to cover the costs involved and to turn a profit then it won't be in business very long, unless it's attained celebrity status and even then it can be iffy.
Of course, if you can find a customer who is willing to pay that then congrats are in order, but you will need many of those customers and I wish you all the luck in finding them.

The majority of baking/cooking shows on tv show a world where: everyone (mostly) gets along, there are always new & exciting projects to work on, money is no object to customers (hahahahahahahahahaha-that one always cracks me up), and no expense is spared on the ingredients. In this fantasy realm, the kitchen is always huge, gorgeous, well stocked, and the conditions are always optimal.
That's great for a tv show but that's not the real world.

The same thing happens to some extent at culinary schools; there's oodles of equipment and ingredients for projects, the students can focus most of their time and attention on making their projects the best that they can be, and they don't have to worry that the customer's check is valid.
If something gets messed up, there's someone there to help fix it or the student can just dump the mess and start over.
(I kind of miss those carefree days *sniffle*)

I find that many people coming to our bakery inquiring about jobs or externships have the attitude that wherever they are, they will be the best thing that my business has ever seen and that they will be able to do EXACTLY what they want to whether it involves only decorating wedding cakes, focusing solely on sugar work, or even the nuts & bolts of stuff like: starting work at 10am and leaving at 1because they feel like it, texting all day long, not cleaning up after themselves or finishing a project they've started, etc.

(The hours that people think they would actually work makes me chuckle a little, especially if they want to own a business.)

Whether starting an externship or a new job, I can tell you right now what most of the businesses you will be training at/working for really want and need from YOU.
It's pretty simple, really, and once you truly understand what we need from you, you'll be 900% ahead in the game.
*Drum roll*
1. Ability to follow OUR directions.
2. Ability to measure/scale ingredients & product correctly without needing constant supervision.
3. The ability to be fast, efficient, and careful.

If you are unable to prove to my staff and myself that you can master the basics like using a measuring cup correctly then there is very little possibility that I would ever let you work on anything more complicated.
You need to be able to show me proficiency on the day to day, basic projects (and that includes everything from the finished product, to being able to clean up your work area afterwards and managing your time efficiently) before I would trust to you work on something more elaborate like a wedding or birthday cake. Cakes for special occasions are much more expensive for us to produce (in time, labor, and ingredient costs) so we need someone who can work quickly and cleanly while still making the customer happy.

In school or at home, the baking projects tend to be small scale-one or two desserts that you can focus all of your creative energy and time on. In bakeries like mine, for an average week, we may have 15 or 20 special order cakes and another 60 to 80 cakes for our wholesale customers that all need to be finished nicely and in a timely fashion. For holidays, it's much more.
A person HAS to learn how to balance quality with speed.

Businesses understand that there's a learning curve to transitioning from the methods you were taught in school or learned at home and learning how to apply them in real-life situations and most businesses adjust for that to a point.
A big part of this is also realizing that every place you go will do things slightly different and that you need to be flexible enough to adjust to this.
I can't tell you how many externs have told my bakers or myself that we are doing something wrong so they are going to do it the correct way.
(Tip- that's an excellent way to earn the disrespect of everyone around you.)
If you give me or my employees attitude, such as "I know how everything should really be done at your business" then all you are going to end up doing is irritate the people around you and, in turn, no one is going to want to work with you.
First thing you need to remember, it's not your business. Yes, there may be and probably are better ways to run the business, but unless you are paying all of the bills, it's not your business and ultimately, not your decision.

You can't change stuff without permission or unless you are running your own operation. You may have some excellent ideas but you have to be careful about how you approach the subject of change and you also have to consider factors such as how much x costs instead of y (didn't realize that you would be using algebra did you), what permits are required, factoring in the costs of labor/electricity/gas/packaging/etc that will be required. It doesn't hurt to ask but don't take it too personally if you are told "no".
example: I worked for a brief time at a local country club as the only pastry chef. One of my weekly projects was to make 10 or more Apple pies three times a week, peeling & coring cases and cases of apples. I know how much time (labor cost) is spent just prepping the apples so I went to the executive chef and asked if he would consider IQF apples (already sliced, peeled, cored, picked at ultimate ripeness, and flash frozen) which would cut down on time & labor cost. He said "No. I want everything to be done from scratch." That was his decision and though I personally disagreed with it, I continued to do it the way he wanted. 
Follow up: a few months after I quit working there, I heard from a couple of people that the country club no longer had any pastry chef and had started using pre-made frozen apple pies and other pre-made desserts to cut down costs.

On the other side of things, if you continually screw up a recipe-that costs money and anything that changes the current operation has the potential to cost the business money which, unless you are a celebrity chef or something, has a razor thin margin to begin with.
example: I had an extern a while ago that could not make a batch of our mousse correctly no matter what. Different staff members tried to help or worked through the recipe with this extern, they kept an eye on the person as the batches of mousse were made, all to no avail. This extern could not produce one batch that was usable for my bakery and, as the recipe uses several gallons of cream at a time at $16 a gallon; the extern was not allowed to make the mousse for the rest of the externship. It was just costing the bakery too much in ingredients and labor to repair the damage done. I have had other externs who have been able to make it by themselves starting on the third day of their externships so I know that it can be made.

If you show up, try hard, are confident enough to ask if you can work on a "fun" project, without being overly pushy (harder to do than you think), then there's a good possibility that you will get to do some of the fun stuff as well as the regular day to day bakery things.

Other things to consider as well.
(Really not trying to scare you but these are things that you need to think about).

Personal: Give up on having holidays and weekends off or at least expect to be very restricted in times off. You are entering a service industry who's busiest times are the holidays. You may not have to work on Christmas day but don't be surprised if you do. Similar scenario for vacations. All of the times that the majority of people traditionally take vacations or have days/weeks off for holidays, especially Thanksgiving & Christmas, tends to be the busiest work season in the baking industry.
Also, when someone quits suddenly or calls in sick 10 minutes before you are supposed to leave or on your day off, more than likely you will be working on their projects or working their shift until someone else can take over.

Wear and tear on the body: There will be heavy lifting on a regular basis, 50 lb bags of flour and sugar are normal, lots and lots of repetitive motions that will wear out joints. If you are careful you can mitigate the damage you do to your body but carpal tunnel, bad backs, being overweight, breathing problems, and other health related issues are constant problems for many and good health insurance, if any, is expensive.

Pay: Don't expect to earn huge sums of money. If you are a celebrity chef, then yes you probably will but most people may make just enough to cover bills and have a little extra cash left or they probably are struggling to get by as many live paycheck to paycheck. Baking is an industry that is very labour intensive and most businesses want/try to keep their expenses (of which payroll is usually the biggest chunk) down.

Portland can be an especially difficult place to work because with the very expensive cost of living here, and the fact that there are soooooo many other people (from schools and/or moving here) who can replace you, no matter how good you think you are.

Working for a small business: You get a more personal atmosphere but most small businesses, like mine, can't afford pay raises very often though all of our employees are worth a lot more. You get to work on a larger variety of projects but in a place like ours, that also includes stuff like helping with dishes, taking out the trash, answering phones, helping customers, and so on. We do have specific duties for certain job positions but everyone needs to be able to do a little of everything.

Working for a corp./large business: You may or may not have more staff to help. Benefits like health insurance, if offered, tend to be better. Your work days are a little more consistent. It's less personal and you are more likely to be doing only a portion of the production of a dessert rather than doing it from start to finish. It tends to be less flexible if you need to make some adjustments for life things like picking up your kid at daycare at 2pm instead of 5pm because he/she got sick.
You usually have to answer to someone else (higher up) who may never have stepped foot in a kitchen and knows NOTHING about baking and can't understand that you aren't able to: whip up a 5 tiered cake with three different cake flavours that the bakery has never made before, fully decorated, in an hour for the wedding that someone forgot to tell you got scheduled yesterday. 
And there will be people who do this, trust me.

If you end up on the management side of the corp/biz and are on salary, you tend to be doing more paperwork than anything else, you will be on call for any reason 24/7, but your pay will not reflect that.

Owning a small business: There are days that you will love every aspect of your biz but there are also days when you wish that you could just light a match and walk away.
Holidays? Vacations? What are those?
My average work day is 12 to 14 hours, 6 days a week and sometimes a seventh. Having two days off in a row is so rare, I truly don't know what to do when I do have them.

You will be doing everything in the business and then some: the dishwasher, the pastry chef, the counter person, repairman, unless you have someone rich supporting you (sugar daddies & mommas are few and far between) so that you can "play" at owning a business without having to worry about paying the bills.The food industry has very small margins of profit and it can only take one small thing to overwhelm you.
When someone calls in sick, guess who will be the person to fill in, especially when it's your delivery driver texting you half an hour before their shift begins at 4am to let you know that he/she won't be able to work today because he messed up his leg mountain biking over the weekend and is just letting you know now...

Most of the customers that you will deal with are very nice but you will also be dealing with the customers from hell because they just have to make someone else's life miserable. As in any business, there are always some customers who will try to push every last button, or bully you into letting them have their way because they feel entitled.

One very memorable customer told us that, under no circumstances, would she pay more than $70 for the $350 cake that she was going to order.  
My pastry chef wished her the best in finding a bakery that would be able to accommodate her needs.

I have fired three customers and I do not regret it a bit. All three were energy vampires and I know they've continued to make a few other businesses in town suffer from their behaviours.

Equipment will be various stages of used because shiny & new translates to very expensive.

Equipment breaks, wears out, and that gets expensive fast. A new condenser for a small walk in cooler can cost $4000 to replace (know that from experience). Money that was needed to pay other bills goes to things like surprise repairs/maintenance issues popping up for something because if if that freezer doesn't get fixed today then you have no place to store the frozen desserts..
If anyone knows an excellent plumber willing to work for cookies, let me know. Seriously.

You will be dealing with Federal, State, and city regulations & laws whether you know them or not.
The fun part is when you try to figure out what all this stuff means and the language is so difficult to follow that even the regulators who should be able to explain it can't.

You will be not only a supervisor to your employees but a therapist, referee, and general life coach on occasion. Don't think you won't.

You will have to keep up on trends but also have to learn to keep them in perspective and not go with every fad that rears it's head because you can drive yourself insane trying to do everything.

Gluten free and Vegan have been a huge thing in the Portland area for the last few years-for some it's due to medical reasons, for others it's a lifestyle choice. We have had customers with family members who are so allergic that they can't step foot in a business because there is regular wheat flour in the business and if there's flour in the building that means there is gluten in the air.
My bakery makes a few vegan (and pretty darn tasty too) items but we decided to not mess with trying to be gluten free because you really need to have a facility dedicated to that-as in NO GLUTEN EVER. 
 I did some research on what is involved to make truly gluten free baked goods and it involves being very, very careful in everything you do; though there are no official government requirements, I know of at least one business in town that claims to make gluten free items in the same space where their regular items are made. One of these days, I won't be surprised if that bakery has a customer problem show up.

You will also be dealing with people illegally running businesses out of their homes-most of them won't even realize what they are doing is illegal but it is. These people will underbid everything because they don't have the same overhead costs to deal with and as long as they are careful, they probably won't get anyone sick. However, if any of the regulatory agencies like the health dept or Dept. of Agriculture catch up with them then they will be in a world of trouble.
I know of one guy making all sorts of food in his home and taking it around to local places to sell. One of his favorites to make was a cake that used Altoids and green mouthwash as main ingredients. 
He had a video online showing how he makes it.

No more Scary Stuff, I promise...(or do I?)

The thing to keep in mind about choosing to work in the baking industry or, for that matter, any path you choose is that you really have to enjoy doing something for its own sake.  This doesn't mean that you have to love everything about the job every single second, because the hours are long, the pay isn't fabulous (no matter how the tv shows glamorize it), and some days it's really really hard to be up at 5am, at work, and be "happy". Keep things in perspective, try not to take things too personally but also realize that you need to be careful with what you are doing and learn to be faster and flexible because life will throw you curve balls, usually at the same time it throws 5 others at you.

Remember to always do some things that you enjoy that are different from work.
(helps with the sanity, trust me hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha). 
If you enjoy working in this field, continue to practice and do it because you enjoy it whether or not others appreciate what you do.
Keep in mind that, in this field especially, it's chock full of stress from every direction you can think of (and many you didn't), there is serious physical work involved, and there are a lot of different paths to choose jobs wise; each coming with their own set of issues that you will have to learn to navigate.

Rabbit, one of the members of my favorite band, Steam Powered Giraffe quoted a mentor of his
"Find your passion and live it. What gives you happiness and fulfillment is what you need more of in your life."

Three final tips:
Always wear comfortable shoes.
Always carry a sharpie.
Try something new/different every day.