Remaining artisanal when preparing sweets by the thousand.
Ready to up your game? Ready to ban all inefficiency and waste from your pastry kitchen? Ready to do the math (and the heavy lifting) to scale up from 12 portions of five different desserts a night to 1000? Are you ready to do the hiring, firing, training, budgeting, setting up shift and delivery schedules, doing some hands-on R and D? Well, if you are, perhaps it’s time to take a hard look at another segment of the industry – working in a commissary pastry kitchen providing product to multiple outlets, locations of a café, restaurant group or wholesale accounts.
Being a pastry chef in a commissary kitchen, producing long tables full of plated desserts for a catered event, laminated dough-based products for wholesale distribution, or macarons by the thousands, is a far cry from helming a one-unit high end or even casual restaurant pastry kitchen. Just ask Rick Griggs, who has done both, and as Executive Pastry Chef now steers the sweet side of Taste Catering and Event Planning (San Francisco) which serves a discerning clientele who knows what they want and demands creative solutions to answer their every wish. “There is a big difference in the production process for a commissary kitchen versus a restaurant kitchen. Simply because of the volume, it is more like a large hotel production, without the restaurant outlet. All of my formulas are scaled to one kilo yields which makes it easy to scale up for the particular volume that we need for any given event.”
Running smoothly but not mechanized
In Los Angeles, Laurel Almerinda is the Director of Bakery Operations for a constellation of restaurants under the Rustic Canyon Family of Restaurants (Huckleberry Bakery, Sweet Rose Creamery, restaurants Milo and Olive, Rustic Canyon, and Cassia, the newest addition to the group). In her position as overseer of all of the baking done for the group, Almerinda floats between locations, in her words “working closely with the creative team headed by founder/baker Zoe Nathan, putting out fires, tweaking formulas, maximizing production efficiencies, checking in with each location’s sous chef who handles the day-to-day details, training new hires and a whole host of other roles. We are not institutional; instead we are a collection of independent places under one umbrella of ownership. Each location has its own identity, voice and focus, which makes my job varied, challenging and interesting.” Rising up through the ranks with no formal training, she started out as Zoe Nathan’s intern at Rustic Canyon, their first operation. “I got to learn how to organize stations of the kitchen, facilitate work flow, gain knowledge about costing and financials. And now, as an almost 100% organic operation, sourcing ingredients is a major part of my job.” The restaurant group runs the gamut in its needs for baked products. From sourdough boules used for sandwiches and sold whole to pizza dough to rich laminated doughs, the range of items is impressive and seasonally driven. Much of what Almerinda and her group produce flows from what’s seasonal and best in the local farmers’ markets. Under her intuitive eye, she manages the production of everything from possets to fruit- and custard-filled brioche, tarts to cobblers, and from teacakes to biscuits and scones. “In a sense, from our compact production kitchen, we are working almost at maximum capacity to supply all of our locations with just a bit of room at present to sell to a handful of wholesale customers. Everything we make is made by hand, including our baguettes, and that is the way we want it to remain.”
Being large but highly attentive to the details
Proving that commissary kitchens come in all s.izes and configurations, Bottega Louie’s is underground in a space measuring nearly 20,000 square feet, just across the street from its flagship, and at the moment single location café/patisserie/restaurant (active plans are in place for expansion, but no definite second location has been announced yet). In a state-of-the-art production environment, Executive Pastry Chef Alejandro Luna oversees production where virtually 99% of what is sold is made in-house, utilizing a staff of 58 employees. Under his purview, there is an extensive bread program. ”We are looking to revamp and expand that even more,” he says. “We are well known for a wide array our French macarons, which are made by the thousands, piped out with the use of a depositor. We are also developing a reputation for our customized special occasion cakes, a department helmed by well-known cake artist James Rosselle. We innovate lines of molded confections for each holiday season and feature 50-60 different kinds of pastries—mousses, éclairs, tarts, etc., rotated through the European-style display cases that are a centerpiece of our bustling downtown location.”
Seeking uniqueness and robust sales are not mutually exclusive
Superba Food + Bread (Venice, CA), part of the American Gonzo restaurant group with a diverse constellation of operations, has a 4800-square-foot centralized production facility featuring the exacting work of Carlos Enriquez, an industry veteran of other large scale pastry kitchens in LA and elsewhere. “In my work as Bread and Pastry Director, I am always conscious of the importance of the food getting from our commissary to its endpoint intact. Freshness is key and I always like to keep in mind that the products should be approachable, understandable yet innovative, but not innovative at the expense of reduced sales. Giving the public what it wants is the way to insure robust sales of products sold in their prime.” Offering a balanced array of baked goods, from breads to inventive laminated products, representing a variety of styles is the way that Superba and its wholesale customers meet demand. Tarts are shareable, intricate glazes or cocoa butter sprays are avoided, all in an effort to keep the product homey and comforting.
Enriquez continues, “As the one who is ultimately responsible for overseeing and setting the tone for the pastry and baking program at Superba for our locations and for large wholesale accounts, I feel the need to keep in mind how out-of-the-box creativity affects sales. Where I value innovation, for example, is in creating nostalgic flavors for our macaron program— speculoos, PB & J and a salty/sweet version with Ritz crackers as the flavorings— telegraphs the message of being creative but also relying on approachable, recognizable flavors.
We are not in the business of challenging our customers to learn to appreciate something that is highly unfamiliar to them. Our approach is seasonal, the farmers’ markets is our source for fresh produce, and we are working toward producing all of our products using 100% certified non-GMO ingredients. Also being mindful of how hard a baker’s work truly is, I am proud of the fact that we have created a facility for our employees that is ergonomically designed.” Asked about his day-to-day schedule, Enriquez quickly responds: “I never get too far from the R and D side of the business, looking for solutions to create products more efficiently, the problem solving side, if you will. But along with that, building a team that is ready for growth and ready to grab opportunities by taking on more responsibility is at the top of my to-do list. As is true in any endeavor, you are only as good as your team.” A sentiment that is true regardless of the size of the operation.
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