The Unexpected Magic of Taking BAKE! Virtual

How we transformed in order to survive

The pandemic could have forced BAKE!, our hands-on teaching kitchen to shut down. Instead, we went virtual—transforming how we taught in order to survive. 

The Beginnings of BAKE!
Black Forest Torte
Black Forest Torte

Our idea to start BAKE! in 2006 came in response to challenging circumstances. There had been a downturn in the economy that alarmed us. In hindsight, with the experience of the 2008 financial crisis and our current pandemic, we can see that 2006 was a minor setback, but at the time, we were concerned. Among the challenges was that we lost a potential tenant for a space we were leasing next to the Bakehouse. We had 3200 square feet, the rent that went with it, and no plan for how to use it. So what to do?

Several factors came into play—we knew how to bake, we loved to teach, we had empty space, and in the early 2000s, there was lots of news about the obesity epidemic in our country. We believed, and still believe, that the act of making one’s own food, even dessert, leads to more nourishing eating and living. One way we could help with the obesity challenge was to teach people to bake in the empty space. We formed BAKE! with a vision of teaching students to bake through in-person, hands-on, straightforward instruction. The classroom kitchens would be humble and approachable and so would the teachers. It would be a welcoming, safe, and engaging learning environment. The information shared would be nothing less than everything we knew along with our Bakehouse recipes, refined through thousands of repetitions.

Impacts of the Pandemic

For 15 years BAKE! evolved and grew. We started with one classroom and two instructors. Our first weeklong class had all of two intrepid students. We persevered. Eventually, the classes were selling out and it made sense to build another classroom and to employ another instructor. By February 2020, it was a thriving popular spot for home bakers. We taught as many as 200 students a week in 12-16 classes. We had become a third place for some students, had an engaged online student forum, and had become part of some family traditions. BAKE! was a bustling place, so much so that we were considering reconfiguring the space to build a third classroom. Then the pandemic arrived. 

BAKE! was the first area of the Bakehouse to feel the pandemic. Making food for people is essential. Teaching people to bake is not. Spending hours in a room with many strangers was starting to look like a very bad idea. On Friday, March 6th we were considering pausing our classes at some point in the future and by the next Wednesday, March 11th we met as a team, cried a little, and decided to cancel classes for at least the next month. What would come next? The uncertainty was sickening. Instead, we took care of the details of the moment—filing for unemployment insurance, discussing health insurance benefits, work availability in the other parts of the Bakehouse…cleaning out the fridges, and, of course, speaking with all of the customers who had scheduled classes. As individuals we each had our own personal lives to contend with—children and no in-person school, family members on the front lines in hospitals, families far away, elderly parents, and a couple of us were not feeling well. Did we have COVID? We didn’t know and at that time we couldn’t even get tested.

Country Scones
Country Scones
A Transformation of BAKE!

As the first weeks passed we began to get at least a sense of what our lives might be like for a long time. A transformation of BAKE! had begun. That third classroom we were imagining? Well, it arrived but in an entirely different form than we had pictured it. After we got our bearings and the world became a little less terrifying and uncertain, Sara Molinaro, BAKE!’s Principal, decided to engage customers online with some charming videos about how to make a sourdough starter, held in her apartment and co-hosted by her cat and eventually her boyfriend. Then, just like much of the rest of America, we went entirely virtual. We decided that we would stop thinking that this was temporary and rather decided that we would be in the virtual world for a long time, maybe always. We needed to figure out how to teach well in this new format and to continue to fulfill our mission and vision. Previously, we had emphasized in-person, hands-on teaching. How could this possibly be successful? We settled into our new classroom which included a camera, AirPods, a screen, and many home kitchens—of our students. 

What we soon discovered was entirely unexpected and honestly felt magical. Teaching virtually was not going to be a massive compromise. It was going to be different, maybe had some downsides, but also was actually going to bring a variety of great improvements.  We soon found out that teaching students when they are in their home kitchens has advantages in terms of learning. We believe, and many many students agree, that by having students navigate the recipes with their own equipment and ingredients in their own kitchen leads to greater understanding and a better chance of future success. They get to work out all of the kinks of their environment with us right there to help them make the necessary tweaks and adjustments to be successful. It’s like having a guest chef right in your home, almost custom teaching. 

Potato Knish and Beef Pasties
Savory Pies
The Benefits of Virtual Classes

Our BAKE! kitchens are not 100% optimal for all students. Some students need help from family members because of physical challenges. Now that they’re at home they can have as many family and friends as they’d like to assist them. For students who have special accommodations built right into their personal kitchens, they can now participate fully in the classes. Some of us have transportation challenges. Even though we may be geographically close, getting to class was just not possible. With virtual classes, this problem is solved. We are excited that our classes are now more inclusive and accessible. 

One element of our BAKE! mission has been to increase home baking. We believe that virtual classes are helping this. When students come to our kitchens it takes some real determination to then try the recipes in their home environment. It’s not different from many classes in other crafts or even business. Taking the learning from the classroom to our personal lives doesn’t always happen. So much can get in the way. By taking BAKE! classes in their own home, this formidable step has already been made. It no longer takes a lot of imagination to see that it’s possible and much less energy to make it happen again.

A Community of Bakers

We have always aimed to create a community of bakers. This is happening now on a global level. The community of bakers is growing its geographic boundaries in a way that we never expected possible. As of the time that I’m writing, we have hosted students from 36 states and 14 countries, including India, Israel, Germany, and South Africa. We have many new students who previously couldn’t join us because they lived too far away to make the trip. Now they may contend with timezone issues but that doesn’t seem to deter them. Happily, we’ve been reunited with former students who have since left our local community. They tell us how thrilled they are to attend class again whether they’re in New York or northern California.

Somehow, perhaps through the strength of the human spirit to survive, friendships are even forming in these virtual settings. One of the most touching stories the instructors shared was when two women hit it off in a class. One of them was living in the same city as the other woman’s son. After class, she delivered some of her cookies to this man as a treat from his mom. Along with friendships, we’ve helped families find ways to be together. We have hosted many family baking events, gathering siblings, parents, and grandchildren from all over the country to enjoy a safe activity often around a family event that normally would have been enjoyed together. 

By being in their homes, people are also connecting in more personal ways not possible in our kitchens. Recently, an instructor suggested to a student that he was stretching his dough like an accordion and he said, “Well, that’s because I’m a professional accordion player.” He then went and got his accordion and played a piece for the class. It was a surprisingly touching and intimate moment. Our students are wonderfully communicative with us. One positive sentiment that they’ve shared is that the social connections they enjoyed during their BAKE! classes kept them going during this year of relative isolation. I believe giving the classes has kept us going as well. 

What’s ahead

What will happen to virtual classes when they are no longer absolutely necessary? Will in-person classes ever return? Although virtual classes have many advantages some students prefer in-person instruction and miss the full social experience. We expect that we’ll offer both formats of the classes to satisfy everyone’s preferences.

Beyond all this, one thing that’s become glaringly evident to us during the pandemic is the joy learning brings, the connectivity group learning provides, the love that people feel when they are taught by caring instructors, and the satisfaction sharing information yields. One student recently emailed me and said that you “can feel the love ooze from the screen.” Not bad for this unexpected third classroom.

Bakehouse Managing Partner | + posts

She has been an avid food lover and baker since her childhood in Nova Scotia, Canada. After high school Amy moved to Cambridge, MA and received her bachelor’s degree from Harvard University. She then followed her passion for food and learned to cook and bake at L’ecole de Gastronomie Francaise at the Ritz Hotel in Paris, France as well as in Michigan restaurants. In 1999 she received her MBA from Columbia University.

Amy came to Zingerman’s Bakehouse when it opened in 1992 as one of the original bakers on the staff of eight. She soon became the first manager of the bread bakery, then the manager of the pastry kitchen and in 2000 she became a partner.

Amy has been working in the food world for over 20 years and is passionate about hands-on baking, teaching about baking and business, developing businesses and people. As well as teaching at BAKE! Amy presents for ZingTrain on our business practices. A few of the Bakehouse items she is personally responsible for developing are the Old School Apple Pie, Buenos Aires Brownies, and our Gingerbread Coffeecake. In addition to developing items, Amy is a promoter of classic bakery favorites from many cultures and has brought traditional standards to the Bakehouse such as Paris Brest, Hummingbird Cake, and Maple Cream Cookies.

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Amy EmberlingCindy Recent comment authors
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This is such a well written article. I have been very hesitant about signing up for virtual classes, but after reading about the Zingerman’s method, I am planning to try one. Thank you.

Amy Emberling
Amy Emberling

So glad you enjoyed the post Cindy. Thanks for considering coming to a virtual class. Let me know what you think.