As a point of differentiation for Schnucks Markets, St. Louis, Bill Mihu, vice president of bakery, looked to create an artisan bread program in early 2009. But in order to create authentic artisan bread, it was clear the bakeries needed artisans.
“You have to execute with an artisan bread program; the quality and consistency has to be there, and if you don't have trained people, you don't have a program,” Mihu says. “You have to have an infrastructure of cross-trained people able to complete multiple tasks, instead of relying on just one artisan baker.”
John Held, a retired Schnucks plant manager who contracts special projects for the company, and Bob Jacobs, head baker, created and designed the training program, which consists of a month of hands-on, apprentice-style learning with a trainee working side-by-side with an experienced baker. The result has been an overlapping two-day baking cycle, with fully trained bakers mixing dough in the early morning, retarding it overnight and baking fully fermented dough in the late morning and afternoon. Quality supersedes quantity in Schnucks' artisan bread program.
“We wanted to produce 12 to 13 varieties of bread really well; we didn't want to take on 25,” Mihu says. “We really tried to pare down in execution and make sure we had the right products. And we wanted to make sure we had an open bakery so there was theater with the baking process in view of the customers.”
Though not designed for export to every Schnucks location, Mihu needed the program to be replicable from store to store with consistent quality and results. To learn how to achieve this level of consistency across stores, Mihu, Held and Jacobs sought advice from retail artisan bread baker Josh Allen, owner of Companion Bread, St. Louis. Allen advised Mihu that sometimes it was best that trainees enter the program without a preconceived notion of how to bake.
“If you get someone with a strong bakery background, they think they have a better way. We don't mind that — if there's a better way, we'd love to hear it — but we can't have employees doing it differently at one place than it is done at another. We need it done our way, not their way. We need someone to do the program and do the training,” Mihu says. “We've had more success with people who have come to us with limited or no background in baking.”
That's not to say that Mihu doesn't value skilled bakers; he just wants to find them early, while they are still impressionable and teachable. He's currently working with a local junior college — one with a baking program — to put together a work/study training program. The goal would be to allow full-time students in the college's baking program to enter Schnucks in-store bakeries as trainees, complete the program and eventually work in the bakery.
“Hopefully, the students are looking for part-time employment while in school, and eventually, full-time employment. We prefer to offer full-time positions, and because of the investment we put into training, we have to reduce turnover, but in this case, getting young bakers trained both in our program and in the classroom would make sense for everyone involved.”
Training is an all-day, everyday activity at Sunflower Bakery, Gaithersburg, Md. The bakery trains adults with learning or developmental disabilities who have difficulty finding employment elsewhere. The goal is to impart personalized skill sets to trainees to enable them to find employment as an assistant in a bakery. More than 70 percent of Maryland adults with developmental disabilities are unemployed or underemployed.
“We decided on baking for this endeavor largely because of the repetitive nature of baking at different levels,” says Robyn Zimmerman, executive chef. “Also, the structure of formulas is helpful for people who need a lot of structure. A formula is a great step-by-step experience for people with learning disabilities. It allows them to do the same thing over and over again and get success.”
The program is modeled after vocational programs with similar goals, but instead of a sheltered program, Sunflower acts as an integrated facility.
“Our reason for being is to be an inclusive bakery, to work with both people with disabilities and without,” says Laurie Wexler, co-founder and director of administration. At any given time, roughly 40 percent of the bakery's workers have some sort of learning or developmental disability. Other than Zimmerman, Wexler and Sara Portman Miller, social worker and co-founder, all remaining bakery workers are volunteers. The bakery's status as a nonprofit, 501(c)(3) organization helps it operate on a limited budget. Neither trainees nor volunteers are paid staff.
“We have trainees learning fantastic skills. We have one young woman decorating cookies better than I do; she has a lot of focus and an incredibly advanced skill level,” Zimmerman says. “We are training her to work in a bakery where she can decorate specialty cookies. I wouldn't ask her to mix the 60-qt. mixer; that isn't part of her skill set. Each person is different and offers different talents.”
The training program is a work in progress. When it started, they noticed some people zipped though it, while others learned more slowly. Zimmerman uses the general framework she experienced when she was professionally trained and consulted people experienced in special needs training. To that framework they added sections on work preparedness and attitude. Safety and sanitation training is much more explicit than it would be in other circumstances.
The program features two larger training tracks. One level is for someone who needs to learn the basics. These trainees need basic skills, such as identifying measuring utensils or tying an apron. Other trainees are high functioning but need rigorous structure in order to thrive. For instance, Sunflower sees a high percentage of people with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) who are capable but haven't been successful in other jobs.
“We borrowed some ideas from other programs, and we found quickly was that our curriculum was too slow for some, too fast for others, so now we have individualized programs,” Wexler says. “There is no canned curriculum.”