The alarm slices through my sleep like a laser beam. The red numbers on the nightstand clock announce 4 o’clock. That’s a.m. I throw back the covers and shuffle downstairs where, with luck, a cup of coffee will bring me back to life. I consider myself a morning person, but I don’t consider this morning. This is still night. But a baker’s day starts very early, and for the next few days that’s what I’m going to be. I’m scheduled to work at the Busken bakery on Glenway Avenue in West Price Hill.
I’ve been thinking a lot about jobs lately, as have you, I’m sure—mostly because people are losing them all around us. Even folks who have been spared the ax face wage freezes and reductions, furloughs, and the loss of treasured colleagues. Any typical exchange of workplace gripes these days is quickly short-circuited by someone chiming in, “Hey, be grateful that you have a job.” And we all nod.
Still, even that job you’re so grateful to have can be a pain. No doubt there are times when you think that a more suitable, less stressful, more fulfilling career exists for you. For me, that job is baker. Working at a bakery is something I’ve always wanted to do; a dream job, of sorts, the one I think about when the stress and pace of the white-collar rat race gets me down. A bakery seems like the perfect oasis. Warm and comforting, they are meccas of wholesome self-indulgence. People are happy when they walk in and even happier when they leave with their bags of treats.
The biggest challenge for me in this new job is that I’ve never actually baked anything. Dinner rolls, sure, the occasional batch of holiday cookies from a tube, a cake or two from a box. That’s pretty much it. I’m hopeful that I can make up for my lack of experience with joyful enthusiasm.
To give this new vocation a trial run, I called Brian Busken, who I met while working on Have a Crumby Book, a collection of the bakery’s clever billboard advertisements. I asked if he would hire me for a few days so I could get a taste, as it were, of life as a baker, and write about that world as it exists on the west side. He generously accommodated me and said I should report to the Price Hill store at five in the morning.
We all tend to think that everyone else’s job is easier than the one we’ve got, right? No doubt there are bakers who think all I do is sit around with my feet up hatching hair-brained journalistic stunts to dramatically portray facets of west side culture. OK, bad example. But you get my point.
IT’S A FEW minutes before five when I pull into the Busken parking lot. The lights are off, the interior dark. Through the big windows at the front of the store I can see a couple of women filling trays with the day’s fresh treats. Though they seem to see me, they continue their work. I knock on the door.
“We don’t open till six,” one of the women calls from behind the display case.
I tell her who I am.
“We open at six,” she says.
I motion to her and both women come to the window. Shouting through the glass, my frozen breath billowing into the cold air, I explain that “I’M THE GUY BRIAN CALLED ABOUT. I’M SUPPOSED TO WORK HERE TODAY!”
They shake their heads, looking at me in a way usually reserved for convicted identity thieves. If they’d been packing Tasers, they’d have drawn them. Finally, I convince the manager, whose nametag says “Cheryl,” to call the main office, though I can’t imagine who would be there now. She retreats and returns a few minutes later.
“Come back at six,” she calls through the glass.
And so I go home, wait an hour, and come back. By this time the lights are on, the door is open, and a few customers stand by the display case. I wait my turn and then explain again. “I don’t know anything about it,” Cheryl says, with a crisp finality, obviously ending the discussion.
My first day at the bakery has not gone well. The job is already harder than I expected and I haven’t even begun doing it yet.
A CALL TO Brian later that day resolves the miscommunication, and I head back the next morning, this time waiting until six, hoping that by not lurking in the dark my soon-to-be colleagues will be a bit more relaxed about the new guy.
A stroke of luck: When I get there, one of the few customers is my friend Bob. He greets me warmly before Cheryl and a younger woman behind the counter have a chance to rekindle their distrust.
“It’s been a rough week at work,” Bob says as he reaches for a box of a dozen doughnuts. “I thought these would make everybody happier.”
Which speaks directly to one of the great things about working in a bakery. You make people happy, whole offices full of people. The person who brings the box is a hero for a day.
Bob then asks me about an article I wrote a few months ago, which confers even more credentials on me for the two women behind the counter.
“Are you picking up something before work?” he asks.
“No,” I say. “I’m at work.” And I explain my plan.
“Great,” Bob says, and leaves with a smile and a box of doughnuts. He couldn’t have been more helpful if I’d hired him to be there.
Having gotten the message from Brian and overheard the conversation with Bob, Cheryl Peters is still a little confused about my intentions (as am I), but she’s much more welcoming. She has a sweet Irish face, a raspy voice, and the engaging personality of someone customers are pleased to see first thing in the morning. A five-year Busken veteran, she rules the morning roost at the Price Hill store.
Within minutes she has me set up in a room off the sales floor, right behind the rear display racks, where she shows me how to take cookies from metal oven trays and put them into boxes. Simple enough—until she demonstrates how the box is folded around the cookies. She moves so quickly and with such dexterity through a complex process of flipping tabs and bending corners that she may as well have whipped up an origami swan.
“When you finish those I’ll show you how to do the labels,” she says and hurries off to serve customers. The first couple of times the boxes look a little battered, but I soon get the hang of it, counting out a dozen cookies and folding up the box. The trays are loaded with butter cookies, chocolate chip, peanut butter, oatmeal raisin, M&M, and Heath Candy, each smelling better than the last. The whole place has the rich smell of baked goods and coffee. Unfortunately, the cookies aren’t made at the store, so I won’t be baking there. Everything is made at the Busken kitchen in Hyde Park, at the corner of Madison and Edwards roads, and shipped in trucks at night to the 11 satellite stores, along with Remke grocery stores, some United Dairy Farmers locations, and a few other clients.
As I box the cookies, I hear customers filtering in, talking with Cheryl and her cohort, Nickie Brady, about the forecasts of snow later in the day. On the television above the service area, newscasters gravely warn of slick streets. But inside the bakery all is toasty, the warm yellow lights casting a pleasant glow. Outside, traffic picks up on Glenway Avenue as the morning lightens into a gray winter day.
WITH THE COOKIES boxed and labeled and placed on the racks, I help Nickie bag and label loaves of bread, which we place on display racks in the middle of the store.
“Tuck the tails,” she says, and shows me how to fold the top of the bag, a plastic floret gathered with a twist-tie, beneath the loaves on the racks. I take it as a sign of my natural aptitude that she needs to remind me only once more.
Next I’m told to put out the Valentine cookie bags. Each bag contains two cookies; my job is to insert the top of the bag into a row of alligator clips on the stand-up display racks. I spend what is no doubt far too much time making sure the hanging rows of cookie bags are straight and even, each one facing the same way. On each bag the Busken logo is partnered with the question “Got milk?”
When finished, I present my masterpiece to Nickie with a flourishing wave, ready for her to declare my bakery genius. She nods, says, “Looks good,” and sends me to the walk-in refrigerator, where I fill a cart with plastic milk bottles, which then are placed in the cooler next to the coffee urns.
All the while, customers come and go. Many, it becomes clear, are regulars. There’s a ritualistic quality to the banter they strike up with Nickie and Cheryl, as if they’re continuing a conversation, maybe one that’s gone on for months. The two women agree that their favorite part of the job is waiting on customers, some of whom show up every day. Through the years, they’ve gotten to know some of them pretty well. “It’s like bakery bartending,” Cheryl says with a chuckle.
Which is exactly what it looks like. I haven’t yet worked up the nerve to wait on customers. I have no idea which doughnuts are filled or what the filled ones are full of. Some are jelly, others custard, others chocolate. To questions about paczki (pronounced punch-key), a Polish pastry available in the weeks leading up to Mardi Gras, I can only shrug. But by the end of day one, I’m feeling comfortable behind the counter. Still, I’m eager to do some baking. I phone Brian Busken—who, God bless him, is still taking my calls—and we set up a time when I can go to the kitchen in Hyde Park to see how the process works and maybe get my hands in some dough.
TO ENSURE THAT the morning offerings are fresh, the Busken kitchen hums through the night. I arrive at 8 p.m., don hairnet and apron, and join the bustle of bakers. The first impression you get is the sheer size of the place, which doesn’t appear all that big from the street outside. Inside there are ovens the size of elevators, long conveyor lines for molding the dough, and still others that transport the shaped dough through baths of hot oil, from which it emerges golden brown.
Stan Grevas, the night bakery supervisor, gives me the tour. A husky guy with a gray goatee and a steady, almost piercing gaze, Stan has been in the business since he began sweeping up at Servatii’s back in the 1970s. He knows and manages every stage of the process, which at first glance is a clattering cacophony of workers, metal trays rattling in tall, rolling cabinets, and sizzling fryers. But there’s a method to the madness, and Stan guides me through it, stage by stage.
Most of the workers on the evening shift are men, and many have been bakers for much of their lives, Stan says. Some have worked at Busken for decades; others came from smaller shops that have gone out of business through the years. “It’s hard work,” Stan says, “and a lot of people don’t want to do it anymore. The hours are tough. You hardly get to see your family.” I watch the bakers work and easily see what Stan means; this job is much more demanding than I expected.
He hands me over to David Roper, the assistant night bakery supervisor, who is overseeing a half-dozen guys standing on either side of a conveyor belt twisting doughnuts called tiger tails. Tiger tails in raw form are approximately eight-inch-long strands, with dough on one side and chocolate on the other. Dave patiently demonstrates how to twist the dough, pressing on it while rolling it under your right hand and holding the other end with your left, pinching and slightly twisting that end. When the roll is tight enough, you lift up with your left hand and let the twisted dough spin itself into the right form. Like anything new, there’s a bit of a trick to it and my first few look more like pretzels than doughnuts. Dave demonstrates again, and I try a few more.
“There you go,” he says. “First day on the job and you’re getting it.”
He’s being far more kind than my tiger tails deserve, but I eventually get the hang of it. Before long I’m patting my hand in flour (so the moist dough doesn’t stick) and grabbing the slabs of dough off the conveyor and twisting them into what tomorrow will be someone’s morning delight.
Stan, Dave, and I then head to the decorating section, another huge room where an average of 2,000 dozen pieces wait to be iced or boxed and loaded onto trucks. Fat steel vats loaded with gooey brown, white, and pink icing stand ready to coat the fried pastries and cookies. One baker loads two dozen doughnuts onto a rack that, with a flick of a handle, inverts into a bath of chocolate. Stan asks if I want to try some pastries he’s just made. They look like rolls with white icing on top, some with raisins. “I’ve been experimenting with these,” he says. “I’m not really happy with them yet, but try one.”
They’re delicious. Any home chef would be the hit of the party after pulling these from the oven. Stan, however, dismisses them as an early attempt. He says he relies on his wife, who worked for years at Servatii’s, as his ultimate judge. “If she says it’s good, I know it’s good,” he says.
He puts his creation in a box and I head out, eager to get to bed, knowing the alarm will sound far too early in the morning.
BY FRIDAY I’M old hat at the Price Hill store. Cheryl and Nickie greet me like an old friend. “Fridays are busy,” Cheryl says, and I soon find out she’s right. Waves of customers ebb and flow throughout the shift, sometimes lined up six or seven deep at the counter. Cheryl and Nickie greet each one, manage to keep up a friendly chatter while filling orders. Meanwhile, I fill boxes with mixed dozens so they can just grab a box for customers who want a variety but don’t want to bother picking them. It may just be because it’s Friday, but no one looks at his watch as he waits his turn or grumbles about being in a hurry for her morning meeting. People look happy to be here.
I decide the time is right to dive in. With Cheryl and Nickie occupied, I point to the next person in line. “Can I help you?”
“Yeah,” the guy says. “Give me one of those maple ones with the nuts on top.”
“The Persian?” I say, sounding, at least to me, like an experienced baker from the old school. I snap open a small bag, grab a piece of waxed paper, and slide in the doughnut, pleased to know it might be the highlight of the guy’s day. It’s gratifying to offer something that provides instant gratification to someone, an experience that working behind a desk rarely provides. As for the baking part, I have a lot to learn before I’m ready to take on that job. While I tuck a couple of kettle Danish into a bag for the next customer, I think about stopping at the grocery store on my way home, picking up a few tubes of Ready-to-Bake cookies, and honing my craft.