The Real Poop
You've been baking for as long as you can remember. In elementary school, the playground's toughest critics raved about your mud pies, with their perfect balance between mud, water, and various unidentified substances. In fact, you took home first prize every year. After you got that plastic Easy-Bake Oven in third grade, you lived exclusively off of bite-size sugar cookies and thimblefuls of mac n' cheese. Eventually, you graduated to a real oven and burned whole trays of mac n' cheese.
Now you're hooked on baking. You count cookies in your sleep. In your spare time, you research the difference between buckwheat flour and semolina flour. You concoct all sorts of wild new baked goods to rival the cronut—to varying degrees of success. Those chocolate-chip lemon bars with the jelly filling? Not such a great idea. Making hamburger buns out of cake and calling them "Hamburger Bun-dt Cakes," on the other hand? Pure genius.
So you love baking more than anything, and successful people do what they love, right? Well, being a "successful" baker might not be all it's cracked up to be. It's just not the same when you're baking for people who aren't your friends, family, or co-workers. But before we get to that, let's talk about what kind of baking you might be doing exactly.
First, the baking profession has evolved a bit since the Middle Ages, when bakers worked one cut above serf-level as artisans in guilds. A lot of industries have changed with the times (think publishing, media, all of science ever), and baking is no exception. Mostly, being a baker in the modern world means being a factory-worker in a factory that produces bread. Simple as that.
What kind of person makes a career out of baking? And what does a career in baking really look like?
Well, let's say you want to become a lawyer. You're shaking your head right now, and your mouse is headed towards the red "x" in the top corner, isn't it? Not so fast! We know you don't want to become a lawyer. (Though we bet your clients would appreciate all the freshly baked goods you’d make for them, and to be honest, you'll be able to spend an extra couple bucks on that fancy shampoo you really love without having to skip a meal later.) But let's just pretend for a second that you want to be a lawyer. Are you the sort of person who would become a corporate lawyer? Maybe you like structured days, lots of rules to follow, an established chain of command, and a defined way of moving through the corporate ladder. If you're the sort of person who gravitates towards a corporate structure (without the salary or a lot of the benefits, have we mentioned?), then maybe you should give commercial baking some thought.
As a commercial baker, you'll be baking with lots and lots of other bakers for a super large company that mass-produces lots and lots of baked goods. As a plant baker or an in-store baker at some large retail vendor, you'll be using big machinery in order to mix batches of dough bigger than you've probably ever seen in your life. We're talking five-pound blobs of slick, oily butter, bags of flour the size of your younger brother, and comically huge industrial mixers that Roald Dahl only dreamed of when he wrote Willy Wonka. And forget about detail-work like icing or cake decoration. As a low-level commercial baker, you're strictly a body to pick things up, put things down, and measure things out. Put simply, your average day as a commercial baker is about how you can bake as much as you possibly can in as little time as possible.
Does that sound too boring and repetitive? Then you should give some thought to becoming a master baker at a craft bakery instead. If commercial bakers are like the corporate lawyers of the baking world, craft bakers are neither corporate nor lawyers. Like, at all. Craft bakers are free-spirited and independent-minded baking types. They like to blabber on about their craft to whoever will listen. They work in much smaller environments, and they get on-the-job training as apprentices.
But just because you'll spend a bit more time icing and pipetting the things you bake doesn't mean you've escaped the long and tedious hours spent in a hot, sweaty bakery. In fact, your hours are probably going to be even more irregular. And by "irregular," we mean longer, 17-hour shifts spent standing on your feet with even fewer days off than a commercial baker. Let's just say, it's going to be hard to hear in the bakery over the sound of the machinery, and over the sound of your sore, blistered feet screaming for attention. So go ahead and take a hard look at the last artisanal cake you baked, and ask yourself how much it’s worth to call yourself an "artisan." And if you think it's still worth it, may god bless you—with some orthopedic shoes. You're going to need them. God's blessings wouldn't hurt either.
But maybe neither commercial baking nor craft baking really gets your heart pumping. That's cool. Before you write off baking altogether, as maybe you should, there’s one more category of baking career for you to try on for size. How about baking for a restaurant kitchen? As a restaurant baker, you'll be using some automated machinery to make fresh bread products. Depending on the type of restaurant, you might or might not be doing decoration and creative work. You'll definitely have more regular hours, though. You can also find this sort of environment in hotels and schools, too.
What if, instead of just working at a bakery, you're actually in charge of running your very own bakery? Well, everyone likes bread, so you'll obviously have a line of customers wrapping around the block on opening day, right? Maybe not so much. Sure, everyone likes bread, but nowadays, there are so many more convenient places to buy bread than a small mom-and-pop bakery.
Bakeries like any small store are a difficult business to be in. If you're looking to finance posh hobbies like downhill skiing or hoping to spend your weekends jet-setting across the world, don't even think about starting a bakery. First, as a baker, you won't have weekends off to drive even to the bed and breakfast in the town next door to yours. Second, let's crunch some numbers, shall we? (If you're hoping to run your own bakery someday, you'd better be good with numbers.) If rent is something like $3k per month, including utilities, and you need to pay four full-time employees another $3k per month each, you would need to turn a profit of at least $3750 every week—just to break even. Assuming you slave away at the bakery all seven days of the week, no rest, you would need to recoup $535 per day. Sure, bagels are cheap to make, but unless you're making them with gold flakes instead of sesame seeds, the few bagels you sell every day aren't going to sell for all that much. And what will you get for all those bagels that you didn't sell that day? Zippo. Zilch. Nada. (Well, except maybe a midnight snack for you and your hard-working employees, but that's not much to write home about.)
At the end of the day, whatever the scale, baking is baking, and business is business. No matter where you're working, you’re still going to spend your days putting together variations of yeast, flour, salt, and water. On top of that, if you own your own place, you're going to spend a lot of time crunching numbers, estimating customer demand, and scraping out the barest of profit margins. Hopefully that sets your metaphorical dough a-rising.