As printed in the Bread Bakers’ Guild of America newsletter Breadlines, Volume 24, Issue 4, Winter 2016
by Greg Carpenter
We’ve all heard it. The first thing outta their mouth when they find out you are a baker. “Time to make the donuts.” That iconic image of a comatose baker trudging out the front door at dark-thirty in the morning, rain or shine, day after day, hallucinating until he meets himself at the door. Despite its age this ad campaign still typifies the cultural view of what bakers do. But is it truly necessary to deprive bakers of daylight and social skills in order to serve customers? What do we really get in exchange for the hallucinations, and what is it really costing us? To shed some daylight on the subject I’d like to share my bakery’s experience.
When I opened 20 years ago I never questioned the necessity of a night shift. We ran one so that all of our products could be baked, fully cooled, and sliced or packaged in time to load up a Subaru and deliver them to supermarkets. It’s what bakeries have always done. Everybody I met in the industry assured me it was necessary. But soon the headaches got me wondering.
And the headaches were many. Night bakers frequently took liberties with formula ratios, mixing times and fermentation schedules based on their own “expertise” (“We added some yeast to the sourdough starter to “speed it up”), changes I would only hear about after they left the company or got fired. Trying to ferret out inconsistency among these ever-changing variables was futile. And the rare nights I was not scheduled to be on site provided no rest. From panicked midnight phone calls, asking how to turn the mixer on (“See that electrical cord? It plugs into the wall…”) to covering the shifts of fugitives who had to jump state, to filling in for delivery drivers “calling in drunk” (and expecting to still have their job the next day. For real.) the night shift was responsible for 90% of the bakery’s problems.
Figures from our storefront cash register showed most products were sold between 9:00AM and 3:00PM. We ran a night shift primarily to ensure the supermarket bread shelves were stocked with cooled, fresh products by 10:00AM at the latest. Were a bunch of low-margin sales and a handful of early retail customers worth the vexation of trying to babysit a team of walking problems? I began to seriously consider abandoning the night shift when I surprised my shift supervisor with a 2:00AM visit and found him making love to his woman-friend on top of the chest freezer. But it took a much larger crisis than that to move me to action.
In December 2007 I was making plans to expand production and begin a second delivery route. Our little storefront bakery was bursting at the seams. All indicators pointed to 2008 being a boom year… until it arrived. Just as we began the new delivery route, fuel prices shot through the roof and flour prices doubled, drastically increasing the costs of stales and deliveries. Consumer confidence went into free fall. The crisis hit my bakery hard, burning through our limited financial resources. Banks would provide no help.
Analysis showed that staying afloat meant reducing deliveries to the low-margin, reselling accounts. We had been delivering fresh products 6 days per week; that would have to change to 3 or fewer. Reducing deliveries meant the bread would not always be fresh for the customer, being left on the shelf for 2 or 3 days. That change would necessitate packaging our bread in plastic bags to increase perceived freshness, a move that made me cringe. One compromise inevitably led to another.
I didn’t relish the concept of driving our fresh, crusty bread across town to sit on a supermarket shelf next to the Wonder Bread, our name emblazoned on the limp, plastic bag, with a 20% chance that we would return in 2 to 3 days to pick it up and drive it back to the bakery. I checked my hunches against the opinions of friends, business acquaintances and family members and each led to the same conclusion; We hadn’t built our reputation by compromising quality. This, more than anything, increased my resolve to focus on what we did best; selling fresh bread directly to customers.
We decided to abandon most of the markets, and with that decision we were able to ditch night baking. We limited wholesale deliveries to the restaurants and the choice markets that had tirelessly promoted us over the years. We no longer gave credit for stales. And we decided not to spend time worrying about what we weren’t doing.
The results of the new focus surprised me. Although we lost some of the supermarket shoppers as customers, many of them sought out our storefront for the first time. Once in the door they realized that we made many products they had never seen in the supermarkets. Having made a special trip they lingered, taking in the sights and smells of a working bakery, enjoying a scone and a good cup of coffee, chatting with the bakers.
Those markets that still wanted to sell our bread became far more focused on selling it. Those that had deli cases or restaurants worked them into their bread rotation. It’s amazing how much more motivated the sellers get when they have to absorb the cost of stales.
Best of all, my baking team was transformed. To this day our bakers rarely have to be here before 5AM, still early-ish, but the difference between that hour and 1AM is night and day. My hands were in the dough again and I directly supervised all of the bakers. We began baking the best products we had ever baked. New product ideas, formerly scuttled because we couldn’t squeeze them into production, flowed in a steady stream. There was a strong belief among the crew that our work was exceptional, a far cry from the clock-punching mentality that had taken hold when we ran the night shift.
I did not realize how much money had been squandered on the night shift until we stopped squandering it. Untethering our schedule from supermarkets’ ridiculous receiving-dock policies gave us the freedom to schedule production more profitably. Sure, we took a hit on gross sales, but employee turnover nearly vanished. Labor-to-sales ratios plummeted. No longer giving credit for stales greatly reduced our ingredient and packaging costs. As soon as we made the change (in the heart of the Great Recession) we restored profitability, providing immediate validation and making me feel a little embarrassed. How would the business look today if I’d focused all of those years on growing better, rather than wider? We had been investing heavily in a distribution system that was designed for other businesses, not our own.
After putting a query out on the BBGA message board about the subject I found my experiences (and the sordid stories) were not unique, but many still see night baking as the most viable way to operate. Bakers who rely on selling through coffee shops, where early morning business is vital, have a legitimate argument for night baking. Larger producers point to the need for additional production time to accommodate the high volume needed to maximize their return on investment. Many small- to medium- sized bakeries use night baking as a means of controlling product quality for resellers. And in competitive markets, bakers may not have much leverage to dictate distribution methods that don’t require night work.
Not yet, anyway. As food tastes and customer preferences evolve it is becoming clear that customers will take extraordinary measures in pursuit of the chimera of “Ultimate Freshness”. Despite the fact that good bread, properly treated, is still good bread on the day after it is purchased, consumers will go to great lengths to “get the freshest one”. That is their obsession to justify. If it means going to the market a couple hours later or seeking out a retail bakery rather than the supermarket, they will do it. I don’t believe that the cost of “Ultimate Freshness” should be taken out of the hide of the night baker.
I realize every bakery is unique and, for some, night baking is the best model. My bakery has the advantage of a good retail location in a food-friendly town. But I am not a fan of night shifts in general. From the employee’s viewpoint, being expected to sacrifice daylight for the privilege of working or, worse yet, to keep margins high for a reseller, feels primitive. The quality of our products depends on the quality of our people. People do better work when they have a life.