From angry customers to early mornings, here’s what it’s really like to work in a bakery

Not the bakery I worked at. LevTsimbler/ iStock
  • Working at a bakery is tough work.
  • There’s way more to just your croissant and doughnuts, and the people behind the counter are actual people too.
  • Despite long hours and rough experiences, I’d choose it as my first job again in a heartbeat.

Working at a bakery seems like a sweet dream. You’re surrounded by delicious treats all day and get to give people the gift of cake and cookies.

But having worked in a bakery during my time in college, I know that it can be a joy, but it was also tough.

Here’s what it was really like working in a bakery.

The hours are definitely not a regular 9-5

I learned quickly that it would be hard. If you’ve ever been to a bakery, you know that it opens well before the morning rush and that employees start baking even before that. I knew this too, but when you’re on shift for a 5 a.m. start, it can be a bit alarming the first few weeks.

During the week, I had classes, so opening the store wasn’t usually my responsibility, but weekends? Opening up the bakery became my main priority. When I came in that early, I would indulge in some free coffee that came as a perk and then set up the shop. I would pack orders for the day, put fresh bread out, and make sure the display cases were all stocked and clean. My freshman year, I was naive and gave my boss my whole class schedule, so on busy days at the bakery, she scheduled me in between classes, as well as after.

I was also working eight-hour days on Saturdays and Sundays, along with shorter shift every day of the week. I barely had enough time to do my schoolwork, let alone go to parties, football games, hang out with friends, or even watch TV. After a little while there, I finally got the hang of advocating for myself and my work limits, but it was a tough beginning for sure.

Holidays are not a relaxing time in a bakery

A Paczki. Flickr/Kurman Communications

So my regular hours were bad, but they were nothing compared to holiday time. When you think of Christmas, Thanksgiving, or even Mardi Gras, your mind might go straight to food. And we were the ones to supply those sweet goodies for a lot of people.

On top of the huge bump in sales, on the day of whatever holiday – Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Paczki Day– hours were drastic.

My first year on the job, I worked long hours over the holidays, but they didn’t even compare to my second holiday season. I was in the bakery, packing orders by 3 a.m. – 2 a.m. for Paczki Day. One Paczki Day, I had a 2 a.m. shift, left at 8 a.m. and then had a 9 a.m. class.

During those mornings, our selected team of senior staffers would pack over 700 orders for Thanksgiving and hundreds for Packzi a few months later. If you weren’t part of that group, then you were manning the front of the store, which included a long line, customers, and never-ending tasks to do.

The only good thing about it all was that I was able to get out around noon for the day. But being up that early means I’d fall asleep at different times throughout my family gatherings.

A lot goes into your favourite pastries

Wedding cake cookies
Cookies can be tough. igor_kell/ iStock

As stated before, bakers are doing so much to create that croissant you love, or those cookies or cupcakes you crave. The bakery I worked at was a 24-hour one, meaning there were day bakers and then night bakers, continually creating these goodies.

The huge amount of frying doughnuts or coffee cakes that get sold is super fascinating. Going into the muffin freezer to restock and seeing just how much bread is going to the farmer’s market the next morning always seemed like a surprising number. The ornate care and detail that went into cookies, especially the small ones, and of course the cakes would surely blow your mind.

I was there for almost two years, and I only flipped bear claws once and then made decorated some tea cookies a few times. But being back there with the backbone of the company was always a special moment.

The customers keep you on your toes

I believe that everyone should work in customer service at least once in their lives.

Yes, sometimes I saw some of the worst of humanity. Customers can be like this regardless of where you’re working – I know because I went into retail next – but when food is involved, it seems as if the stakes are high and the tension even higher.

We had a customer once who held up a whole line to yell at my manager or another time I had to talk a customer down because she was mad at how we charged for rugelach. I also had a customer upset that I couldn’t place a same-day order for custom cupcakes who yelled at me, and again, insulted my intelligence.

After I turned in my two-weeks notice, one customer condescendingly congratulated me on counting out the cookies he was buying, to which I said, “Yep, Northwestern doesn’t just accept anyone these days.”

I do get that buying goods can be time-consuming and frustrating, but what I hated was people thinking we were less than them because we worked behind the counter. Everyone working in customer service deserves to be treated with respect. Always.

But the experience and skills were the most memorable

Italian bakery
Not the bakery I worked at. Juliasv/ iStock

But despite it all – the long hours, the hard work, the standing on your feet and carrying heavy trays, not to mention the people I had to deal with – I wouldn’t trade my time at the bakery for anything. It was my first official, real-paycheck job, and although I was a bumbling fool for a short bit, I also learned “professional” multitasking and remembering long lists of things to do or orders to pack.

I also learned how to really work with a team of people, some of whom I consider great friends to this day. The bakery showed me skills in the kitchen that I didn’t think I would ever know and gave me so much knowledge on European pastries. I learned crisis management and how to talk to irate customers. I also learned how not to do things like scheduling within my busy life and work etiquette.

I’ll always remember my bakery time as tough, hard work, but it’s also a full, lived experience, and I’ll take that with me through all other positions I have.