In my original letter to Flour, it was “Joanne, please.” Today, “it’s Joanne and Tommy, thank you.” If you enjoy reading this, consider extending your thanks by donating to Centro Presente, an organization that Flour supports and which supports the Latin American immigrant community.
For three hours today, I stood in the way, and I’m so grateful that a few people at Flour let me be a bottleneck. The dream team consisted of Sarah, Nicolle, Riley, Kimberly, Kenny, Tess, Joanne, and especially Tommy – Most Valuable Baker – for letting me shuffle around the kitchen while they warned one another about hot pans, opening oven doors, knives on the move, swinging racks, and people stepping into egresses. Bakeries are small spaces – not suited for extra warm bodies, like me – and the science goes beyond the chemistry of the heat-triggered reactions in the oven.
Tommy, the opening baker, arrives well before sunrise, and I showed up at 5 am to meet him. 4 am is widely considered the strangest hour of the day – it’s both too early and too late – but for Tommy, it’s routine. The streets were dark and quiet when I knocked on the bakery door, and Tommy was the only soul I saw. In this awakening via bakery opening, I rediscovered my six-year-old soul on Christmas morning. I unwrapped new knowledge, respect, and admiration for the behind-the-scenes, inside-the-oven, under-the-glaze work that is the recipe of a bakery’s daily opening.
Behind the scenes at Flour, before opening.
Like ingredients in baking, every task matters in quality, quantity, and timing. Tommy is responsible for a breadth of work, from the front-of-mind tasks, like “bake the muffins,” to the minutiae, like “collapse and finger-poke the sandwich loaves until they’re exactly 4 inches wide, before baking” or “trim the banana bread ends.” While the world sleeps – let’s be real: most of us can’t make it to work by 8 am – Tommy is thinking and working: pouring and simmering the oil that Kenny will use to fry the donuts, rotating more than two dozen trays through two ovens, proofing (and baking) the various brioche items, and setting the pastry display to be ready in time for opening.
And to master all these tasks, Tommy’s go-to advice: know what’s in your oven. From the moment he unlocks the bakery door, he keeps a mental menu of which trays are where. The brioche needs to be in a hot spot to proof. The muffins must cool before depanning, otherwise they risk crumbling. The sticky sticky buns are still in the oven – and we may need to shuffle or rotate the pans – while we’re starting to arrange the front display. Meanwhile, the oatmeal is simmering, the creme fraiche may need to be fed, and the other bakers – Kimberly on the case, Kenny on the donuts, and Tess on the cookies – will be arriving later. They’ll need this space. At the height of the dough rising, when the ovens are full and the counters are ready to stock, the electronic timer becomes Tommy’s best friend, and he has the buttons memorized: a single device with a timer each for the upper and lower ovens. When the clock hits 0:00 and chirps, he hears his baby calling from across the room.
The short story is that Tommy is part chemist, part mathematician, full-time baker, and part ninja. (Though the real ninja is Riley, the front of house opener with a spirit of sunshine. He stealthily grabbed the blueberry muffin that didn’t make it out of the pan and told me his diet is 70% fueled by Flour. Sign me up!) Tommy’s a refined human timer, an expert taste tester, a very organized task manager, and a gracious host for my absurd dream morning. Oh, and he just graduated, but is back in school to earn his MBA. Someday, he’ll own and operate a bakery of his own that focuses on a few specially refined menu items. And for sugar on top, Tommy was a narrator this morning.
Tommy verbalized almost everything he did, so that I understood what was going on. His job is complicated, and my presence made it doubly so. The video clips that I captured on my iPhone were the only method that I captured his choreography without ruining his dance. I knew exactly when we were ahead or behind schedule, as well as what he was thinking about; it’s always “what’s in the oven?” plus at least the next dozen tasks. Because he’s mastered the routine, he knows exactly what minute each phase of his workflow should be done.
By 5, all muffins should be in the oven, and we have fifteen minutes to get all the scones on their trays (and some of them need egg wash or seasoning before baking). An empty oven is wasted time. Thirty seconds of spare time are worth prepping the glaze station or wiping down the “quick bread” cutting board. At 5:30 (or 4:30 on a non-Sunday), we need to wash, cut, and sugar the brioche au sucre once it’s “supple”. (Bakery basics: brioche is ready for baking when it shakes gently on the pan or when it feels like a human cheek to the touch.)
My job was mostly to stand out of Tommy’s way, which became exponentially more difficult when the rest of the crew arrived. I also excelled as a taste tester. The items that don’t pass the “mom test” go on a “sample tray,” for the Stephen test. I mean… for the employees to sample throughout the day. Fun fact: Joanne Chang still loves the banana bread ends after 10 years of Flour.
Think about the customer. Remember, most importantly, does it pass the “mom test”? What would your mom say? With the family name Fournier, which means “man of the oven” or “baker” in French, I understand now why my mom taught me to notice the details, to enjoy good bread, and not to trust a baker that sells bread with too many holes.
At Flour, average doesn’t pass. Every customer’s experience is their own, and one customer’s bad – or less good – experience means mom is disappointed. We all know what it’s like when mom’s “not mad, just disappointed.” If it’s too small, or overbaked or falls apart, just don’t serve it. So, for Tommy and the rest of the bakers, every item gets checked: a visual check of the appearance, a gentle poke to verify the consistency, and… sometimes a taste test. They know exactly what to look for, and sometimes ask for a second opinion. And then, just like mom, there’s feedback.
Each tray, loaf, or ingredient gets tracked starting with who prepared it, and anything abnormal becomes a note for the manager to relay to the production team or individual. Let me caveat: the baker’s feedback is very different from what a single customer might critique. You and I are simply thinking whether we like it or not: how much do we love the flavor and texture? The baker knows their standards and wants to ensure consistency and quality across the display and over the days. Today’s notes: the banana bread tasted a tidbit sweeter than normal, which may mean the bananas were over-ripened; the pop tarts are a bit small and taller than normal; the experimental savory scones need more refinement before the holiday debut.
Through my special shadow experience at Flour, Tommy gave me new perspective and appreciation for every detail. I realized my favorite might not be the baker’s favorite. Some items are much harder to prepare than others. Even between types of muffins, for example, added ingredients like fruit can make the muffins challenging to depan, and that means time. Minutes matter for the baker to maintain routine and stay on schedule. A bakery’s daily opening is a show-like, finely scheduled production. It’s 7:55 am. We have to be ready for the curtains to open. The sticky sticky buns sit in the pan, hot and gooey after browning in the oven. Tommy puts on three sets of gloves to avoid burning himself and have them ready just in time, for the customers. For you and I. While he doesn’t talk to them often, Tommy thinks about the customer, and so, we plate the sticky buns, and the last thing we do is check the display: what does the pastry counter look like for the tired eyes that will groggily ask for their muffin, their scone, their coffee, and their gluten free bread?
The display is ready for the first customers.
“We look great this morning,” Tommy says, and I agree, as I continue nibbling at the warm butter breton cake (otherwise known as “kouign amann,” or my new favorite pastry) that was too small to sell.
On the coldest morning of the fall, I feel warmly welcomed. That’s the spirit of a bakery. Tommy was smiling when he opened the door for me at 5 am, and I’m smiling from the inside out. Thank you, Flour.
Stephen “Fournier” Nock
Update: now that I’ve finished my slice of twice-baked brioche, I’m done writing, and ready to head home – for a nap, I think – I stretch my neck across the counter. There’s a taste of pride on my tongue as I watch the woman next to me gently cut her sticky bun, and I know just how many tasks were juggled to make those flavors possible.