ST. CLAIRSVILLE, Ohio — Riesbeck's Food Markets is looking to preserve its competitive advantage with an apprentice baker program.
The 15-unit, family-owned independent's from-scratch bakeries already set the company apart in a very competitive market, and officials want to keep it that way.
Finding and hiring experienced bakers has always been very difficult, and has become more difficult in recent years, so the company decided to develop its own small crew of bakers — a process that began earlier this year, when director of bakery operations John Chickery posted notices seeking apprentices on bulletin boards in all of the company's stores.
Looking for potential baker apprentices within the company makes all the sense in the world, Chickery explained.
“We know them, and they know us. We can spot a good worker. They want to contribute more to the company, and want to have the opportunity to make more money, too.”
“We want to continue to make things from scratch,” Chickery said. “It definitely gives us an edge. In this market, supermarkets for the most part offer thaw-and-sell items and some bake-off, but our customers value us for our made-from-scratch products.”
One apprentice, now nearing the end of a yearlong training regimen, is already proving to be a tremendous help this holiday season, officials told SN.
The apprentice program was launched last spring, and Debbie Gaus, who will complete the course in February or March, has been taken through all the steps and operations that will officially make her a baker.
“Naturally, we've been doing on-the-job training all along, so some associates know some of the production techniques, but this is the first time we've tried a program like this,” Chickery said.
“We've talked about starting a formal training program for probably two years, but last January we made a firm commitment to do it and do it quickly.”
Gaus, already with much of the knowledge under her belt, has helped out at other stores recently, when the bakers there had time off.
“Debbie is doing very well. She has recently filled in at two of our stores. Now she's back at the training store,” Chickery said.
The idea is to develop several full-fledged bakers, giving them hands-on knowledge of all facets of from-scratch production.
Longtime Riesbeck's employee Johnny Harubin, as bakery training supervisor, puts the apprentices through their paces, teaching them how to bake breads, cookies, cakes, rolls, coffee cakes and doughnuts. In one of the first lessons, she shows them the basic differences in types of dough for breads, rolls, cookies, the company's signature nut rolls, and all the batters for muffins, cream cakes and items like fresh pumpkin loaves.
Gaus was a cake decorator at another of Riesbeck's stores before she applied for the apprentice program.
A few years ago, she had exposure to baking at a small, independent bakery in Texas. Then, too, she said, she had always watched her mom and aunts bake at home and sometimes helped them.
One of the things she likes best about the apprentice program is just that she's learning new things, Gaus told SN.
“There is so much to learn that you wouldn't necessarily think about. The dough can't be too hot or too cold. You make sure the yeast is just right.”
Gaus said she gets a good reception at Riesbeck's other stores, and Chickery explained that the company has made it clear that Gaus is not looking to take anyone else's job.
“We've talked to the store directors, the managers and the associates to let them know Debbie should be seen as a troubleshooter or facilitator,” Chickery explained.
“She's there to help, we tell them. Her being there is not going to inflate that store's [man] hours, either.” Indeed, Gaus reports to corporate, and that's where her time is charged.
Gaus told SN that going to other stores is educational, too.
“Just about every store has equipment that's a little different, and I meet new people. I actually enjoy everything about the job. I'm even developing more muscles, with the things I have to carry around.”
Gaus said carrying 30 to 50 pounds of dough from one place to another is fine with her. She looks upon it as a workplace workout.
Gaus has already run the full gamut of Riesbeck's from-scratch lineup of products. Among her personal favorites are the company's nut roll cookies, which are always a hit with Riesbeck's customers during the holidays.
“I also love the hot pepper cheese bread. And I just took some sauerkraut rye out of the oven that looks and smells wonderful,” Gaus told SN.
Though the job's hours might daunt some potential bakers, going to work in the wee hours of the morning hardly fazes Gaus.
“I'm adjusted to it. The hardest part was getting to sleep during the daytime. But it's OK now.”
One bakery consultant who has spent his entire career in supermarket bakery management, and who is familiar with Riesbeck's, had good things to say about the apprentice program.
“It's a great idea. Anybody with any number of stores who wants to keep their scratch operation just about has to do something like this,” said Carl Richardson, former bakery director at Farmer Jack, Detroit, and at Price Chopper, Schenectady, N.Y.
As a consultant now, Richardson, based in Rochester, Mich., works with supermarket bakeries across the country.
He stressed that for supermarket bakeries, the importance of training just can't be underestimated.
“Training is everything. We've gotten so far away from training that nowadays it seems [the personnel in supermarket in-store] bakeries are only taught to receive and sell.”
Richardson is a veteran, too, of the Retail Bakers Association, which has run its own Master Bakers program and has always urged retailers to create their own formal training programs.
“A lot of retailers who'd like to don't go the [totally] scratch road because they can't find the people,” Richardson said.
The Riesbeck's program will enable the company to keep — and hone — its competitive edge in the market it's in, he added.
In its market, which covers east central Ohio and a part of West Virginia, Riesbeck's bumps up against the likes of Kroger, Super Wal-Mart and some Giant Eagle stores.
Those chains do an excellent job with thaw-and-sell and some other items, Chickery told SN, but Riesbeck's looks to continue to offer unique bakery items that have become customer favorites over the years. Richardson cheered him on.
“This [apprentice] program is in keeping with the Riesbeck's tradition — that it's an upscale, quality, family-owned operator that has always looked to give its customers the best there is,” Richardson said.