Labor of Love

By Kate Rockwood
labor of love

Here’s a bittersweet stat: Seventy-five percent of Achatz Handmade Pie Co.’s annual sales occur in the last quarter of the year.

“The holidays mean huge sales for us,” says veteran baker Wendy Achatz, who opened the Chesterfield, Michigan, bakery with her husband, Dave, in 1993. “On the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, we typically do six weeks of sales in that one day. Staffing our six pie shops and the bake house properly for those months is a real balancing act.”

That balancing act is all too familiar to bakers nationwide, given that Thanksgiving and Christmas are the top holidays during which baked goods are consumed. And it’s not just pie that reigns supreme: Cakes, brownies, cupcakes, dessert bars and specialty desserts all spike in popularity around Christmas

“Customers are looking for items beyond the holiday dinner table—it’s a festive season,” says Beth Cotter Fahey, co-owner of Creative Cakes in Tinley Park, Illinois. “We see more pastry trays and miniature pastries for holiday parties, gift baskets for corporate clients, bags of cookies for kids’ stocking stuffers and donuts for Christmas breakfast.” 

“Labor is typically a bakery owner’s biggest expense, [eating up] 40 to 50 percent of revenue,” says Fahey, who is also president of Retail Bakers of America. “Getting that piece right can have a huge impact on your margins.”

—Beth Cotter Fahey, President of Retail Bakers of America

Producing all of those sweet treats takes elbow grease, and a retail bakery can easily erode its profit margin in overtime, training costs and inefficient staffing. “Labor is typically a bakery owner’s biggest expense, [eating up] 40 to 50 percent of revenue,” says Fahey, who is also president of Retail Bakers of America. “Getting that piece right can have a huge impact on your margins.”

Here are five strategies for getting it right without wasting a cent. 

Employ Seasonal Help Shrewdly

Temporary help is essential this time of year, but Fahey says the unemployment rate in the foodservice industry is extremely low right now, making highly skilled and motivated temp employees hard to find. What’s more, untrained or unmotivated workers can drag down productivity—or, worse, make costly mistakes.

Achatz learned that the hard way. “Once, we let temporary people put strawberry pies in boxes, but they labeled them rhubarb,” she recalls. The make-good on the error? “We wound up giving customers credits and giving pies away.” 

But with 100 employees throughout the year and as many as 150 needed during the holidays, Achatz can’t forgo seasonal help altogether. So she put strict parameters on which tasks these employees can be assigned. “We’ll handle the brain surgery, and the temporary help can mop the floors and break down boxes,” she says. 

In addition, when she’s looking to fill an opening, Achatz relies on a roster of past employees or current workers’ friends and family members rather than placing a job ad. “We call on people who know us really well and have maybe worked here in the past—an ex-store manager, an old employee who’s now a stay-at-home mom, a college kid home from break—because we know they’re going to bust their butts for us, and they have a sense of how things work here,” she says.

Tapping former talent also works well at Flirty Cupcakes Dessert Garage in Chicago. During the holidays, the bakery does brisk business in pie, as well as specialty desserts like hand-decorated white chocolate peppermint cupcakes. 

“Hiring temp labor and getting them up to speed is way more work than it’s worth at a time when we’re already crunched,” says owner Tiffany Kurtz. “When I double my staff, I bring back people who have left. Often, they’re happy to come back for a couple of days or a week—and they can jump right in.”

Make Friends with the Freezer

Seasoned bakery owners agree that a holiday game plan should be locked down long before November. Planning as early as summer allows time for much needed R&D. “It’s worthwhile to do internal testing and see how long your products last and what different types of available storage do to the quality of the product,” Fahey says. 

At Fahey’s bakery, workers make cookie batter during the early fall, a slower season for the bakery, and portion it into pucks that are stored in the freezer for the frenzy later.

Achatz, meanwhile, starts thinking about Thanksgiving on June 1. By month’s end, pumpkin and pecan pies are filling her freezers. “We pull them out and bake them the week of Thanksgiving,” she says, noting that each frozen pie is one less crust to make or shell to fill during the chaotic holiday rush, when labor is stretched thin.

Stagger Shifts

Doubling your staff won’t automatically double production because every bakery has a natural bottleneck: equipment availability. After all, the oven can fit only so many pie tins, the mixer, only so much dough.

A 24/7-production schedule is easier to tolerate in the baking industry, where overnight shifts are common. 

That’s why Flirty Cupcakes takes a different approach to scheduling, running around the clock during peak holidays. “We usually bake from 8 p.m. until 5 a.m., but we’ll add another baking shift from 5 a.m. until 8 p.m.,” Kurtz says.

A 24/7-production schedule is easier to tolerate in the baking industry, where overnight shifts are common. “Most people know that long holiday hours are what bakery workers signed up for,” Achatz says. “You might work an eight-hour shift 10 months a year, but you know at Thanksgiving or Christmas, you might have to work a 14-hour shift. Even our administrative director comes out on the packaging floor and helps label pies.”

Automate to Dominate

Investing in an industrial cookie machine or pie press may seem like an unnecessary expense when your staff already handles that task by hand. But during the holiday rush, those manual labor minutes can add up to needing to hire extra help. 

“Automation can be very helpful, if you can afford the initial expense,” Fahey says. If you’re torn between hiring someone new and buying a specialty tool, it can be more cost-effective to invest in the equipment, she adds. “It doesn’t call in sick, and you don’t have to pay [for its] health insurance.” 

For a bakery whose workers have handled the same tasks for years, consulting with an equipment supplier may make it easier to decide which tasks to automate and how equipment can be integrated into existing workflows.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

Managing staff expectations can go a long way toward maintaining morale when everyone is working long shifts at full speed. That means being upfront about hours during the hiring process. Are these shifts eight or 10 hours long? Does everyone work Thanksgiving morning and Christmas Eve? Be explicit at the outset to avoid confusion or resentment later.

It’s also a good idea to make and share policies that are consistent and fair so the entire team knows they’re in this together. “If employees know what to expect, they’re happier—and they’re not wasting time wondering what’s going on,” Achatz says. “We talk to everyone about blackout days when no one can take off and everyone is expected to work. And managers get their schedules done by the first week of September.”

By leveraging these tried-and-true staffing techniques, you’ll get all hands on deck and up to speed with fewer holiday headaches—and a richer year-end bounty. And that’s something to celebrate.

 

FURTHER READING

Is your bakery hiring new team members? These interview questions can help you identify potential rockstars.
Transform the post-holiday slump into a boon for business.