Saturday, August 26, 2006

Stories from the Bakery #5: Perils of working on the Christian Sabbath

About a year after I started at the bakery, I took over the second shift oven operator position. It was a good move. The position was at the top of the hourly pay scale and I had almost a quarter of the plant all too myself, having to watch over the proof box, oven, depanner, and cooler. The oven, cooler and proofer were each the size of a house, the oven could hold nearly 1500 loaves while the proofer and cooler could hold over 4000 loaves at one time. This whole complex was automatic with lots of lights and bells to indicate something was wrong. I mostly walked around, making sure the electric eyes were working, checking the temperature in the various zones of the oven, the humidity in the proof box, and the temperature of the bread coming out of the cooler. As long as everything ran well, it was the best job in the plant. I could keep an eye on things while I reviewed formulas for chemistry or dates and names for a history class. But when things didn’t go well, it was a headache.

One Sunday afternoon (we baked on Sunday for Monday sales), a thunderstorm came through and seemed to sit on top of the plant. The lightning popped close and each strike caused us to momentarily lose power. Since the oven burners were lit by electric sparks, any lost of power automatically shut the gas off. When that happened, I had to go to work. The oven had around 50 burners and each had a manual knob that had to be turned off, then the dampers had to be opened and the oven purged for a few minutes before the gas could be turned back on and the burners lit again. This was a safety feature to reduce the risk of explosion. Once the gas was back on, I’d light the burners, close the dampers and continue on. Having this happen once wasn’t normally a problem. Working fast, I could get the oven shut down, purged and relit in about five minutes. Even having to go through the cycle twice in a row wasn’t too bad as I could slow the oven down and allow bread to bake longer to compensate for the loss of heat. But this day, we had several storms and they seemed to sit on top of us and I’d barely get the oven relit before we’d lost power for a few minutes and have to do the whole thing all over. Soon, the temperature in the oven was down 50, then 100, then 150 and finally near 200 degrees. There was no way I could slow it down enough to bake the bread, because that would mean the bread in the proofer would get way to big. We started having to throw bread that wasn’t fully baked. The mechanic on duty finally called his supervisor, the plant engineer, who told him how to rewire the panel, jumping over the safety switch. He did this and I was finally able to keep the oven lit long enough to get the heat back up. However, the though the thought of the safety being bypassed was a bit scary, but we had to do something had to be done if we were going to get back into production.

We lost a couple thousand loaves of bread that Sunday with the thunderstorms, but it wasn’t anything compared to an incident that also occurred on a Sunday afternoon a few years later. At this point in my bakery career, I was a new supervisor. Things had been humming along as we were making the pound and a half squared off white bread, the type that has no taste but was so popular back in the late 70s and early 80s. We’d often make 45,000 loaves of this bread a day. John, my oven operator called over the intercom this Sunday Afternoon to say that something was wrong. The dough was rising nicely in the proof book, but as it came out on the conveyor between the proofer and the oven, where lids were placed on the pans, the dough suddenly dropped to only a few inches in height. We had a problem.

The white spongy squared-off bread that was so popular back then wasn’t mixed in a traditional mixer. Instead, it was “created” in a machine that mixed the dough at high pressure and speed for just a few minutes (traditional mixers had cooling jackets and the dough was mixer slowly at cool temperatures). This machine not only mixed, but also cut the dough into shapes and dropped it into pans. It was fed automatically with flour, corn syrup, shortening and a brew that smelled like some bad beer. The brew contained a bit of flour, the fermented yeast, salt and all kinds of additives and each batch, which was mixed up in large stainless steel tanks, made enough to make approximately 3000 loaves of bread. That meant that if we had a bad brew, I had at least 3000 loaves of bad bread in the proof box, about forty minutes of production. It was a frightening thought. I went back to the mixing area and with my mixing operator we checked everything over and over again. I had him checking and recording the dough’s ph and temperature continuously. We checked the temperature of the brews. Everything seemed fine. I assumed something got left out of the brew.

As this “fallen bread” started to come out of the oven, I had to pull some employees from the wrapping department over to dump the pans of bread because it was too small for the depanner to pull out of the pan. Soon, back beside the cooler, there was a large pile of hot bread on the floor. Our production goal was to keep cripples to .5% a day. There was no way I’d make that goal for the day, or even for the week and probably not for the month with all the cripples being generated. When it got time for the next batch to start coming out of the proofer, I was hopefully that the problem would be over. It wasn’t; the bread continued to fall. I then had my mixing operator to shut down, dump the brews and to start over with fresh ingredients. I watched carefully making sure that everything was measured just right. It put a large gap in production, but we had to find the problem. By this point, we already had a few thousand loaves of bread on the floor, and with another 6000 in the system, I was about to panic. I called the plant manager and the general manager and they both came in. It was a mystery. The roll line wasn’t having a problem, it was just the bread. I watched with anticipation as this new batch, made with new brew, made it way through the proofer. The bread rose nicely, but so had the early bread. I was there, along with the plant manager and general manager, when that dough came out of the proof box. But again, once it got between the proofer and oven, it fell. At this point, the plant manager suggested even more drastic actions. We stopped production and got all new ingredients from a different shipment. This meant that we had to send people to a warehouse we had to get new ingredients. We also changed the silo we were drawing the flour from just in case something was wrong with the flour.

While we were scurrying around trying to pinpoint the problem, a crisis was building back behind the cooler. There were huge mounds of crippled bread. Generally crippled bread was packed in 55 gallon barrels and sold for a couple of bucks to small time hog farmers for feed. They’d bring back the empty barrels to get them refilled. Or the unsliced bread was put into bags and sold to a seafood place that made crap cakes. We called the crab company and they took a thousand loaves. We called our hog farmers and told them that if they could bring trucks, we’d give them all they could carry. We had to get the bread out of the plant, having that much warm bread sitting around unwrapped could develop into a mold breeding ground. So as the farmers arrive, an employee would use a scoop on a forklift to fill up the back of his truck with bread. We still didn’t get it all gone and the next day some of it had to be hauled to the landfill.

When the dough once again started to come out of the proofer, everyone was there to watch, including the owners of the plant who had also been called in. When the bread didn’t fall, I let out a deep breath. We were now making bread that could be sold, but we still had no idea what the problem had been and we had thrown away nearly 24,000 loaves of bread and had wasted almost a whole shift. Since we were only running two shifts, everyone got to work a lot of overtime, and we called the next shift in early so that no one had to work 16 hours.

It took a few days to pinpoint the problem and our answer came from a chemistry lab where we sent samples of the bread and our ingredients. It turned out that the enrichment we were using, (to make “enriched bread”) had three times as much iron as it was suppose to have. The excess iron made the heavily machined bread weak and caused it to fall when it left the moist warm air of the proof box. We got rid of that salt and the supplier got to help us recoup our cost and I didn’t lose my job even though I was known as the supervisor who threw away more bread than anyone else in the history of the bakery.

I never liked working on Sunday.

Other bakery stories:
Bad things can happen at night
Frank and Roosevelt
Linda and the summer of '76
Harvey and Ernest


  1. I will never look at store-bought bread in quite the same way again.

    Thanks for a fascinating look into a world few of us have ever had the chance to see. Cool stuff indeed!

    Michele, assuming her tummy feels better, should be by momentarily.

    Good to e-see you again, Sage. You're always a great read.

  2. I'm glad I wasn't you even though it wasn't your fault. That must have been an extremely agonizing experience.

    Makes my little mishap with the shoofly goo and cooker seem piddley.

  3. Fascinating story, Sage. I imagine those times had to be pretty stressful. I'm curious, though, about the white bread that was popular in the 70's & 80's...what's the difference between it and the squared top white bread sold today? I'm also curious to know if you ever got tired of the smell of baking bread -- one of my favorites.

  4. I would have never put bakery on my list of stressful jobs! Ups and downs in every job...

  5. Carmi--it may sound cool, but working in there was hot--looking back after 25 years, I wonder how I did it.

    Tim, I always thought it would be fun to work in a small bakery. We were so large that it was in some ways just a factory job.

    Wordnerd, it's the same bread, but I don't think nearly as much of it is sold today as then. Personally, I can't stand white bread, especially that smooth gummy type made by a doughmaker. If I'm going to eat white bread, I want it to at least be "old fashion" which generally implies bread made in a mixer and in my opinion, higher quality.

    Kontan, it was actually very stressful cause you had to have a consistant product out every day and there were a lot of things beyond your control. I got even more stressful the longer I worked there and the more responsibiity I was given.

  6. That white bread you refer's here in Japan! Entertaining post...and the "crap cakes" made me LOL ;)

    Michele sent me.

  7. I'm still reeling over the massive numbers of loaves. 24,000. Holy cow.

  8. vern... interesting. When I was working at the bakery, I took three weeks off the fall after I graduated from college and traveled to Japan (my parents were living there then--this was '79). I saw some white bread, but with the crust removed, as if you were making cocktail sandwiches. WHy do you need bread when you eat rice (and seaweed to hold the rice an a speck of meat and a sliver of ginger together?)

    Yeah Dawn, it was a lot of bread, 24000 loaves of 1.5 pound bread, 36000 pounds of bread or 18 tons. As most of it went to feed pigs, you could change the cliche around to "The hog eaten high"

    Murf, it almost seems as if this was in another life... I like good rich whole wheat bread, or maybe a sourdough rye, something chewy. Welcome back. Do you still like fudge?

  9. btw, Vern, the "crap cakes" was truly a typo/Freudian slip. It should have been crab cakes, but since they would buy our bad products to use as filling, the crap cakes stand.

  10. A very fascinating read, Sage. It was like "House MD" meets Wonder bread.

    I totally agree with you Sage. While it seems like an exciting job (at times), the higher you went up the job ladder, the stress factor increased exponentially. However, it does make for some very interesting stories.

    Thanks again; great post!

  11. what an interesting story....

    michele sent me.

  12. Can one ever be fudged out? I did have a bit of a stomach ache Saturday night but my Sunday morning, I was able to finish my peanut butter. The chocolate and chocolate macadamia nut may be brought in to feed the coworkers.

  13. Well I was going to say something about maybe you learned a lesson not to work on Sunday but you beat me to the punch.

    I like the honey wheat bread that is found in the store these days but do like the homemade white bread that my wife turns out at home. I just bought a loaf of sourdough bread this weekend for sandwiches. Can't wait to dig in.

    Another fascinating bread story.

  14. Glad to know the supervisor who throw away more bread than any supervisor....

  15. How ironic that too much iron made the bread weak!

    I guess that job was a bit like being a medical examiner.

  16. As always, great storytelling! I would have taken that as a sign that I really shouldn't be working on a Sunday! I do my best to enjoy Sundays without one bit of work!

  17. having been on both ends of the customer claims process I can only begin to imagine what the financial clean up was by the time it was over.


  18. Thanks V! I'll have to watch House MD now...

    Murf, yes, one can fudge out, two pieces does it for me

    Ed, homemade bread is always better

    Pia, that's not anything I put on my CV

    Kenju, I didn't do any of the chemical testing, we didn't have that kind of capability.

    Deana, I love Sunday afternoon naps, forget the NFL

    Mal, I wasn't involved in that negotions, so I'm not sure what the settlement was, but I think they paid not only for the replacement of the product, but also our lost in production and waste of material.