Great formulas don't necessarily guarantee great products. Pamela Fitzpatrick, executive baker at Fox & Obel Food Market, a scratch in-store operation in Chicago, believes it's the human factor that makes all the difference.
I've seen good recipes and high quality ingredients turn into completely mediocre products in the hands of bakers who don't possess the finesse that's required to turn out consistently high quality products,” explains Fitzpatrick who has worked in bakery production and consulting for many of the nation's largest and best known operations. “I don't know whether it's passion, or just a knack, or a work ethic of paying attention, or maybe a combination of all of those things, but, whatever it is, you can't have consistent quality without it.”
Part of Fitzpatrick's job is to ensure that every bakery employee at Fox & Obel has that indefinable “it.” There's no other way the team of 18 to 20 could turn out the 25 varieties of morning pastries, eight kinds of cookies and bars, five types each of cakes and tarts, 45 to 50 different breads, not to mention assorted bread puddings, panna cotta and pavlovas for the store's shelves, instore cafè and catering department.
The pace in the bakery is virtually non-stop to ensure that the morning pastries are baked and cooling by 6:30 a.m. and cookies, bars and pies are ready by 9 a.m. Breads have to be baked by 7 a.m., except for the baguettes, which are baked twice or, on weekends, three times a day.
Using preferments rather than direct or straight doughs reduces the margin for error even further. Split second timing also is critical considering that even a short delay between mixer and oven or two minutes of underbaking can result in a product that is unacceptable.
“If a dough isn't right, our bakers know that in many cases they won't have any more until tomorrow,” she notes. “And if we're short a product, they know the cost can be high in terms of lost sales and customer disappointment.”
Production space is limited, with only 1,500 sq. ft. for the bread area and 600 for pastry. Display space is at a premium so cases, shelves and racks are refreshed constantly.
In the cafè, displays of plated desserts are changed every other hour. There's also a grab-and-go case that requires constant monitoring.
Despite the variety and volume required each day, turnover in the Fox & Obel bakery is unusually low. Fitzpatrick points out that most members of the department have been with the store since it opened a little less than three years ago.
“That's a particularly important thing because many of our customers have been with us from day one as well,” she observes. “They have come to expect an exceptional level of quality from Fox & Obel and we're not about to let them down.
Even if they miss the message on the curbside bench or on the banners outside the bakery door, no one within sniffing distance of Fort Lauderdale, Florida's Croissan' Time French Bakery & Fine Foods can miss the aroma of the baguettes that come fresh from the oven every hour. Even customers who arrive at 5 p.m. know that when Bernard Casse says he sells hot French bread, he means it.
Mixing begins at 1 a.m. and continues-until 4 p.m. Doughs are closelymonitored to assure that they have time to mature and develop their distinctive flavor and crumb.
Casse doesn't take any shortcuts when it comes to any of his other breads and sweets either. Real butter croissants are mixed one day, laminated and cut the next. He does not allow them to proof for more than five or six hours after laminating because they will develop too much gas, he says.
But the European born and trained Casse is not against automation. Take his signature Fraisier, a specialty cake made with layers of yellow sponge, kirsch syrup mousseline cream, fresh strawberries and decorated with white chocolate shavings.
Although everything is still prepared from scratch, the production process for making this and many of his other traditional cakes is vastly different from when Casse opened his bakery in 1986. Back then, everything from custard making to glazing was a laborious, manual process.
Equipment investments pay off
Now, he uses pasteurizing equipment to prepare his custard and a glazing machine to give cakes a glossy coating. What makes him happiest, though, is a chocolate shaving machine that he unhesitatingly calls “my best investment.”
“When we were making two, three or four Fraisier cakes a day, shaving the decorative white chocolate by hand with a knife was laborintensive, but acceptable,” Casse recalls. “Now we sell between 15 and 20 a day, which would require one of my staff members to spend an hour or more at a time shaving chocolate.”
With only 20 employees in the entire shop and a menu that encompasses everything from madeleines to Sachertortes, and from fruit tartlettes to an array of breads and rolls, there is seldom time or staff to spare.
“For me, baking is non-stop learning,” he says. “And I'm always happy to learn how to do things better.”