Ryke’s Bakery builds a culture of caring
Good customer service starts internally. That’s the mantra of Renee Rouwhorst, co-owner with her husband Butch of Ryke’s Bakery Café & Catering, Muskegon, Mich. The Rouwhorsts bought the bakery in 2003. When the bakery began seeing significant growth five years later, Rouwhorst, a former business consultant, realized she couldn’t run everything herself.
“Up until that time we were very small, and I had a strong presence on the floor so we were able to stop big problems from happening by jumping in,” Rouwhorst says. “In 2008, we really started to grow and I couldn’t be on the floor all the time. I saw that we were definitely needing to do major improvements in terms of onboarding new staff and communicating our vision and making sure we were on the same page with our employees.”
At Ryke’s, training begins before employees even join the bakery staff, because the bakery has a very specific culture that is focused on caring, high expectations and open communication. And it’s not for everybody, Rouwhorst notes.
“I look for four things in an employee,” she says. “Every person is passionate, has great character (and behaves the same if I’m here or not), is focused on what the next person needs to be successful, and needs to have a voice. It’s not your manager’s job to tell you when you’ve done a great job or made an error. It’s everybody’s job. Everyone has a voice and has to participate for us to be successful.”
She put together a rigorous application process for full-time employees, starting with a five-page application that also contains specific directions for completion and when to turn it in, which is the applicant’s first test, she says. “One of the most important things people have to do to work for me is follow a procedure,” Rouwhorst says. “If they don’t follow directions and turn in the application properly, we pitch it.”
Potential employees then undergo phone screenings, in-person interviews and working interviews that also involve math tests, measuring, decorating, baking or mystery-box cooking, depending on the job. “The whole hiring process is made up of tangibles,” Rouwhorst says. “All of these things are designed to help us, but we also want the person coming on board to be successful.”
Once new employees are hired, they go through a 30-day evaluation process to see if they’re a good fit at the bakery. Orientation involves learning schedules, basic customer service training and how inter-staff communication works. “We talk about how we communicate through data and how to give feedback appropriately,” Rouwhorst says. “We have feedback forms that I call ‘Opportunities for Improvement,’ and they learn how to use those for internal and external issues. Our training is solution-based as opposed to identifying problems.”
Rouwhorst has the same hiring system in place for part-time, seasonal help, since the busiest time at the bakery is the summer, when the staff count jumps from 28 to 45. She only hires high school seniors to ensure she has consistent seasonal help for two to four years. “During my initial phone interview I spend a lot of time talking about the expectation that it’s not just for the summer. We talk about whether or not they can make a commitment to the bakery,” Rouwhorst says.
Training is a continual process, which is why Ryke’s holds weekly “huddles,” where employees discuss internal and external complaints and how to solve them. “People believe that once you train somebody, they’ve got it and you’re done. But you’re not. Training isn’t just the company’s responsibility; it’s the employees’ responsibility, too. It’s your job to keep constantly checking and changing and growing.”
High freedom, high demand at Hearth Artisan Bread
When Peter Nyberg opened Hearth Artisan Bread in the summer of 2010, he wanted only to focus on making 18th century-style wood-fired bread largely by hand using local, organic grains. To him, that necessitates a passion for bread, an eye for detail and a perpetual desire to learn–an onus he puts on each of his 13 part-time and full-time bakers, who are turning out 25,000 pieces each week at his Plymouth, Mass., bakery. The majority of his bakers never touched a loaf of bread before they started. But he prefers it that way, noting that it makes it easier to train bakers on his heavily manual process.
“Even though it’s been challenging, it’s been very rewarding,” Nyberg says. “I am always involving my staff in the thought process and listening to their opinions even when one has only basic or very little knowledge of bread. I also have found that working in a very strict environment does not allow for mistakes to happen and learn from. Yes there is learning in a perfect environment but what do you do when things are not perfect? Critical thinking and problem solving are extremely valuable in an unforeseen situation, so I allow a bit of freedom and self-discovery in training.”
For example, when Nyberg trains a baker on the oven, he teaches the basics of operating it and then leaves the baker to load the oven himself. “It typically shocks a newbie baker to see a 12-door deck oven in front of them and three racks of bread,” he says. However, he adds that this hands-off style of training also lets bakers know Nyberg trusts them and helps them focus on the task at hand without always looking over their shoulder for approval.
“High freedom, high demand is the motto that we live by,” he says. “I demand a lot, and they get driven pretty hard because there’s a lot to do. It’s like the evening rush at a restaurant all day long.”
Hearth Artisan Breads’ product line is based on Nyberg’s 25-year-old natural starter, which translates to 24-hour production at the bakery. “Doughs range from a 48-hour-long schedule for a single miche to a straight forward brioche for lobster rolls. So there are many different processes going on simultaneously ranging from poolish, liquid and stiff levains, to sponges, soakers and the list goes on,” Nyberg says.
Because of the wide-ranging timelines, he has to stagger shifts and overlap where needed to ensure smooth production. “Building timelines is the ideal process and method for a smooth and fluid operation, all the while taking into account volume differences during the week,” he says. “Consolidation and keeping everyone tight/overlapping when possible is how I have found the most success. That way, the different shifts can talk about how the process is going. Having separation between shifts has always caused misunderstandings.”
Overall, Nyberg, who also is an adjunct instructor at Johnson & Wales University, Providence, R.I., looks to create a positive working environment through a shared passion for and understanding of what makes high-quality bread. “It’s a cliché to say, ‘it takes time to make great bread,’ and yet it does. More importantly, it’s paying attention to the bread every day and comparing to the day prior. Slowing down and paying attention to process–learning the whys and why nots.”