Sunday, May 28, 2006

Ch-ch-ch-changes

My brain will NOT let me sleep much later than 4 or 4:30 most mornings, which is getting annoying (and tiring). The move will cut a half hour off my commute in the morning, so I'll move up the alarm a little (now set for 4:54, but I don't remember the last time it went off, as I wake up before that) and see what that does. I'm actually looking forward to beginning the packing today--much as I hate the chore, what I hate even more is knowing it needs to be done and not having it done. If I don't have enough boxes to start, I'll either buy some or just start sorting and piling. I'd hoped to have Craw's room for that, but it's still full of his stuff, and I think it's unlikely that he'll have all of his stuff out of here much before I move. Yesterday I bought some packing tape, some duct tape (for the heavier stuff), and some rags, so I can dust stuff as I pack it (and I know a lot of stuff is rather dusty). Yeah, I know, I could have sacrificed some t-shirts or something, but the rags were only about $2.

One of the side effects of my current job is that my upper body is gaining significant strength/muscle--my arms and biceps and shoulders are noticeably more muscular. (If I get to play handball again someday, it'll be interesting to see what effect that has on my game.) Another side effect is that my diet (in the sense of what I eat on a daily basis) has gone to hell in a handbasket. I try to have my bowl of wood chips and burlap bags in the morning, and I probably do that three, sometimes four, days out of five, but I no longer bother to pack a lunch. I end up nibbling stuff all day--bits of bread, day-old baked stuff, the occasional cake scrap with some fudge icing. I try to eat a reasonable dinner, if I haven't had too much crap, so it's not a total loss, but I don't really have lunch, per se. It's cheaper, for sure, and I make an effort to eat more bread than cake, so it could be worse, but it's still a lot of crap.

A lot of the products we make involve a mix of some kind, especially the cakes, cupcakes, donuts, and muffins. Even that stuff has real eggs, milk, buttermilk, sour cream, etc. in it, so it's not just powdered mix plus water (which is pretty common at most places). Our croissants are all butter, which is practically unheard of in this city, and we use butter (as well as something called "puff-flake"--you don't want to know) in our puff pastry, again unlike anywhere else in the city. We use real chocolate in our fudge icing and cocoa in our chocolate buttercream frosting, as well as in our chocolate mousse (again, most places don't use real chocolate). Yes, we use a lot of shortening, but we also use a lot of butter. Yes, we use a whipped-cream base, but we also use heavy cream with it (the base helps stabilize it, which is important if you're going to have a cake sit for more than an hour or two).

I'd say the two things we do best, though, are breads and croissants. As noted, the croissants are all butter--and I laminate the dough by hand, every day. And the bread--lordy, the bread is good. Some of it has shortening or oil in it, but many of the things we make have little or no fat, and a lot use organic flour. It's no wonder I nibble it whenever I can. My favorites are the semolina sesame, the roasted onion and walnut, and several versions of a tomato bread. The miche is dense and tasty, and the baguettes are beautiful and delicious. All in all, they are really exceptional products.

All of this is relevant in part because I have to figure out what I'm going to do. The mixes make life a little easier, but they also make life a little cheaper. If I don't have a location where customers will pay the higher price for the no-mixes products, then I won't be in business for long. The other thing I have to figure out is how much and how hard I want to work. Jefe spends at least 75 to 80 hours a week at the bakery, as best I can figure. He has a good manager in Brad, but Jefe still spends many hours with his hands in dough. Partly that's because he likes it--he wants to be making stuff, not dealing with the details of the business, and he only does the latter because he has to (and his wife and Brad both do a chunk of that). The other thing is that the three people who do the bulk of the rest of the production--the whistler, the baker, and Johnnie--have been there for at least a decade apiece; Johnnie has been there more than 15 years. The people who come in at night have been there a similarly long time. If I buy an already existing business, chances are I'll get the employees, too, which has good and bad aspects.

One of the problems this place faces is that the Hispanic guys resist certain kinds of changes. Jefe and Brad put up a white board in December. It's supposed to be used to list things that need to be ordered and to list things that need to be made. Brad and I are the only ones who use the board. He's tried to get the guys to use it for their ordering, but they just won't, in part because Jefe won't enforce it and Brad can't enforce it single-handedly. (That is, one could only order things listed on the board, which will eventually mean that there aren't eggs or butter or something like that, but Jefe will go to the whistler and ask him how many cases of eggs or milk he needs, meaning Whistler doesn't have to use the board. So he doesn't.) It may be that the guys aren't terribly literate, especially not in English (I've seen some of their labeling, and I suspect that's true), but that's going to be the case no matter where I go. (Hell, at this point Jefe and Brad both ask me to proofread whatever they're writing--I sometimes think I could make a living just doing freelance writing for places like this.) The upshot, though, is that Brad or Jefe have to go around the bakery and ask each employee whether s/he needs anything from a given supplier, which isn't terribly efficient. It also means that production is similarly inefficient--whenever Jefe asks Whistler when we're going to have Product X (something that Whistler makes), the answer is always "Tomorrow," because the question is what prompts Whistler to put the product on his production list for the next day. There are some exceptions to this system--Whistler keeps track, more or less, of what cakes he needs to make for the decorated cake orders--but it's how the cookies and muffins and cupcakes get made, by and large. Again, it's inefficient as hell, but it's the way things are done at the bakery, and trying to change it wouldn't work very well. If I buy a place, I'll be buying these systems, too, and I know better than to think major changes can be instituted overnight.

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