Tomorrows Bakery Leaders

When Crooked Tree Breadworks in Petoskey, Michigan, reached profitability in 2007, owner Greg Carpenter began thinking about the next phase of the business life cycle: expansion. 

He quickly realized that he needed to work out some operational kinks at the first location before he could open another—namely the high turnover that plagued the night shift. “Staffing those shifts was the biggest problem the bakery had,” he says. So he took a radical step: He eliminated the night shift as part of the bakery’s production schedule altogether. 

The move proved beneficial to both profitability and staff morale. The new schedule gave bakery employees time and resources to work on introducing new products. Employee turnover dropped and hiring got easier, too.

“When people don’t have to forgo daylight or quality time with their families, you get a higher quality of candidate and they stick around more,” Carpenter says.

This openness to untraditional solutions makes a difference when confronting one of the baking industry’s biggest problems: finding and retaining skilled employees. In a 2017 survey from Cypress Research and Bake magazine, 58 percent of retail bakery decision-makers named finding skilled labor a top challenge. 

Why is talent so hard to find? For one, the U.S. jobless rate is lower than it’s been in nearly 50 years, and job hunters can afford to be picky. That means foodservice providers across the board—from bakeries to restaurants to grocery stores—are competing for the best employees. 

Attracting talent requires knowing exactly where to find candidates, and what they want. “We need to adapt to not just new customer needs, but new employee needs ,” Carpenter says.


Where to Look for Bakery Employees

A tight labor market has long been a challenge for the baking industry, says Kent Van Amburg, executive director of the American Society of Baking (ASB). A 2016 industry study from the ASB and the American Bakers Association (ABA) offers four key recommendations for attracting future bakery rock stars: tap diverse talent pools (such as women and veterans); strengthen employee referral programs; embrace recruitment technology; and partner with local organizations and institutions.

Another great source for talent is good old-fashioned word of mouth. John Lupo, president of the Retail Bakers of America (RBA) and owner of Grandma’s Bakery in White Bear Lake, Minnesota, recommends owners ask their top employees to reach out to friends. “Birds of a feather flock together,” he says.

When your top employees are invested in their work, they’re motivated to spread the word about career opportunities to their friends—and that word of mouth is invaluable, Lupo says. 

That means not only talking to your senior bakers about upcoming openings, but to your apprentice and intern bakers as well. In fact, with skilled labor particularly hard to find, focusing efforts on recruiting and training industry newcomers can help build a strong team. 

“People gripe about millennials and [Generation] Z, but they’re not recognizing the strength younger workers have,” says Carpenter. “If you give them an expectation, and make sure it’s met, they’ll work really hard for us.”

Finding potential employees at a younger age can also secure a bakery’s future, according to Van Amburg. 

He notes that by connecting with students at local community colleges, trade schools and high schools, bakeries have a valuable opportunity to identify entry-level and seasonal talent, as well as seed early interest in the baking industry as a long-term career.


What Matters to Talent

According to the ASB and ABA study, another key obstacle to hiring and retaining employees is the schedule: Ninety percent of bakery industry executives said difficult working hours create a moderate or significant challenge in retaining employees. 

Carpenter’s best advice: “Make sure they have a life.” At Crooked Tree Breadworks, that meant revamping the schedule so employees weren’t always working late nights and weekends. 

At Grandma’s Bakery, it meant rethinking the approach to holidays. In the past, the bakery’s doors were open on every major holiday. But when Lupo examined the numbers, he realized that didn’t always make business sense. Now, the bakery is closed on Easter, Labor Day, Thanksgiving and Memorial Day. Employees are happy to have more days off—and that positivity can buoy productivity around those holidays.

Millennial and Gen Z employees, in particular, often respond well to flexible schedules. In a 2018 Deloitte study, 55 percent of respondents in those age groups who were planning to stay with an employer for five or more years said they had more flexibility in when they worked. 

In addition to attractive work hours, community service is another way to pique the interest of potential employees. Millennials now comprise the largest generation in the workforce, and a 2016 survey revealed that 76 percent of these individuals consider a company’s social responsibility before deciding where to work. This means initiatives like employee volunteer programs, product donations  and food-waste diversion can be a boon for bakeries’ talent recruitment and retention efforts. 

Metropolitan Bakery in Philadelphia, for instance, has numerous partnerships with nonprofits that raise money to fight hunger or homelessness. “They [make the employees] feel like they’re not just working at a bakery, but working toward a larger goal,” says Director of Operations Jessie Harris. 

A bakery can even let employees share which causes they think the business should support—and then give these workers a chance to hone their leadership skills by spearheading the initiative.


Turn Baking from a Job Into a Career

There’s another key ingredient in boosting retention: Putting career paths front and center for new hires. “Employees who feel like they have a future in your company are employees who stay,” says Carpenter. “The time spent early on with employee training, we get back with profit.”

Carpenter pairs new Crooked Tree Breadworks staff with more experienced bakers to help them learn the ropes and recognize the potential for a long tenure in the baking 
business. The partnership can also help them identify skills they’ll need for advancement.

At Metropolitan Bakery, new employees are immersed in a month of hands-on training. “I prefer when people make mistakes because they learn from those mistakes,” Harris says. “I really believe [that’s] the best way to train.”

And training and career development shouldn’t stop after onboarding. The RBA provides certifications for working bakers, and the ASB offers scholarships for bakers wanting to return to trade or technical school, or community college. 

When employees feel that their employer values them and that they provide value to the business, they’re encouraged to stay, Van Amburg says.

While these external skill-building programs also allow bakers to bring new knowledge back to their bakeries, ultimately, grooming the next generation of bakery leaders starts within the walls of the business. The right approach to employee retention differs by bakery, but owners can consider an employee recognition program, internal training opportunities and performance bonuses.

“The demand is there and these are good careers,” Van Amburg says. “It’s a family. It’s a great industry. Once people get in the industry, they stay in.” 

With the right approach to talent search, retention and development, bakeries can overcome staffing woes, and equip their bakery for long-term success.