Our weekly routine and timing in the bakery is a lot like being on a roller coaster. On Mondays and Tuesdays, we are getting strapped in for the ride ahead. We start making lists for the week: lists of sugar cookie shapes to roll, the various flavor fillings and special requests for the week, and custom orders for the weekend. We have hundreds of customers that come in the bakery every day and despite our planning something unexpected always happens. So Mondays and Tuesdays are when we pass through the turnstile, sit down in the roller coaster car, and strap in for the ride. We try to quell the butterflies as we wonder about the unknown course of what’s to come later in the week. Will the ride be a smooth, easy oval? Or will it be a fast and thrilling ride?
Our roller coaster ride begins on Wednesdays and Thursdays as we start the steep climb up the track. These are big production days, when we are producing the batters that we’ll turn into cakes, cookies and cupcakes. On Wednesdays, we have what we call “The Best Meeting Ever.” After our very first weekly meeting someone declared, “Well that was the best meeting ever.” and the name just stuck. During this meeting we go over the details for all the orders for that weekend: flavors, decorations, specific instructions, and the details of each individual order. One customer may want a very specific shade of teal, one customer wants all the writing in a very distinctive font, while another customer wants exactly six sprinkles on every cupcake. It’s at this point when we take a peek over the side of the roller coaster car and see how far from the ground we are. We know there’s only one way down and we know the pace is going to intensify. With each detail and with each additional order, our roller coaster clicks further and further up the steep hill.
The coaster reaches the apex of the arc on Thursday evening. That’s when the bakers and decorators in the kitchen begin to shift in their seats. Those in the front cars might be excited about a cake design, or a special cupcake order, or making a new item. With arms raised straight up in the air and big smiles on their faces they are ready for the thrill. Those in the back cars keep their heads down, eyes covered, and brace themselves for the wild ride.
On Fridays, we feel the initial exhileration of the descent into the weekend. Wind on our faces we are going as fast as we can to do the work: we make batters, bake cookies and cakes, crumb-coat cakes, final-coat cakes, decorate cakes, decorate sugar cookies, make up platters for orders, frost cupcakes for orders, scoop whoopie pies onto trays, and scoop more cupcakes into their tins. All of our oven doors are in continuous motion as batters enter and then exit as fully baked goodness. By Friday afternoon, we are at full speed and white-knuckling the safety bar as we head for the first big turn. We’d scream, but it would go unnoticed amidst the chaos going on in the front of the bakery. Middle school students make their Friday trek to Upper Montclair and congregate on the stools at our front counter. The bakery is bustling with a line of people seeking treats to take to school events, dinners, road trips and parties.
Fridays can also bring the first loop-de-loop. For example last week brought a text that one of my decorators had strep throat. Another decorator had to attend a wake, and we already have one baker on vacation. The coaster sails through the turn at full speed, unclear how all the work is going to get done with three people out.
Saturday at 7a.m. the coaster is jerked back upward warning of another free-fall. I get a text from my team telling me that one of the finished cakes for 9am pickup has fallen off the table. I jump in the car and head to the bakery to assess the damage and figure out a plan. The cake was boxed when it fell and is salvageable but requires some pretty intense reconstructive surgery.
Then the coaster beelines into tumultuous territory. A customer comes in to pick up her Star Wars cake and we don’t have it. Standing there talking to the customer, I feel like the coaster has whipped me upside down and sideways and I’m regretting my breakfast choice. I’m able to maintain a calm appearance as I check our order book. We had a new girl start this week up front, and whether it was her mistake or the customer’s, we put the cake order down for the next Saturday. The woman was understandably upset. Her party was starting in a few hours and she had no cake. She explains in a shaky voice that her son spent a lot of time deciding on the decoration for the cake and he would be so disappointed not to have it. I don’t want any customer to be disappointed, so without thinking it through I tell her we’ll do it and deliver it. The coaster spirals around and around as I try to figure out in my head how it’s possible to bake, crumb-coat, final-coat, decorate and deliver in our given time frame. We all spring into action. Despite trying to keep the bakery stocked with fresh baked goods that are selling out every half hour and with a full set of cakes yet to decorate for Sunday, the kitchen slides a 10” chocolate cake into the oven. I can’t explain how we did it, but we did, Darth Vader and all, and got it to the birthday boy.
That same day we run out of salt, butter, and whole milk. Seriously? I remember watching an episode of “Cake Boss” and finding it so hard to believe that they could run out of sugar. I figured the problem had to be played out for TV. Yet here we are, four and a half years in to the business, and we’ve run out of all of these ingredients. On a Saturday.
Add to that a child who gets sick and throws up all over the stools in the bakery, the iced coffee container leaks all over the refrigerator, and two new front-end customer service trainees trying to keep everything running smoothly.
At the end of the day I head to my car, which is now adorned with a parking ticket. I feel beat up and a bit like my coaster seatbelt had somehow loosened from all the impact.
Sunday is when we know the end of the ride is nearing, but there is still the potential for a pretty big downward spiral. At 11 a.m. a customer comes to pick up a bridal shower cake. We show her the cake. She says, ‘It’s beautiful, but it’s not what I was expecting. I thought it would be purple.” I look at the order and there is no mention of purple at all on the order. We don’t argue. We agree to redo it and deliver it. When do you need it? In an hour and a half. We scrape down the two-tiered cake and start blending the four different colors of frosting required to redo it. We decorate the top tier first and put flowered rosettes all over the bottom tier in all four different purples for an ombre effect. We write on that sucker and get it into a baker’s car for on-time delivery.
The roller coaster eases up and we start to feel a sense of elation when the Star Wars Cake Mom from the day before comes in to The Little Daisy to tell us how much she appreciated us doing the cake for her son, and how much it meant to her for us to get it to her. It ends up that the photos with the cake will be one of the last memories of the extended family all together. We tear up and feel honored to have played even a small part in that family’s special time.
“You know, when I was nineteen, Grandpa took me on a roller coaster. it was just so interesting to me that a ride could make me so frightened, so scared, so sick, so excited, and so thrilled all together! Some didn't like it. They went on the merry-go-round. That just goes around. Nothing. I like the roller coaster. You get more out of it.”
Later that same afternoon, the woman with the bridal shower cake also comes back to let us know how beautiful the cake was and how happy she is. Now the roller coaster is exciting and fun and our hearts are beating fast from all the commotion and excitement from the weekend.
At the end of the day Sunday the roller coaster ride is over. We feel disoriented and tired and a little sick, but we also feel proud and elated and a strange feeling that we’d like the coaster to keep going. It’s what we do. It’s what we love. We don’t get off the roller coaster. We want to ride again. It’s Monday now… so here we go...