“We, Zingerman’s Bakehouse, are passionately committed to the relentless pursuit of being the best bakery we can imagine.”
That’s our mission statement here at the Bakehouse. The bolded words come directly from the founding bakers who were making the bread here in the 90s. Those are the words they felt made Zingerman’s Bakehouse what it is and what they wanted it to be. Today, this mission is shared with staff during training and posted on our walls in the bakery to remind us why we’re here. It’s a reminder that our work here is not a final destination that we will reach one day, but rather a constant journey to be something better than we are right now.
But what does this mission statement look like in action? How do we show we are passionately committed in our daily work? Where do we demonstrate our relentless pursuit? What is the best bakery we can imagine?
One way that we actively live our mission statement here at Zingerman’s Bakehouse is with something we call “tastings.” Simply put, tastings are where the makers and bakers of our food critically sample that food regularly. It’s different than eating a Cinnamon Raisin Bagel for breakfast, snacking on a Ham and Cheese Croissant at lunch or enjoying a slice of Hummingbird Cake for dessert. It’s more than occasionally bringing a loaf of bread home for sandwiches. Tastings are something that our bakers, cooks and decorators are trained to do as a part of their work. It includes nearly all of the food we make here at the Bakehouse. Each day scores are recorded, tracked and then talked about at our staff huddles. We know this relentless practice is one of the reasons our great food keeps getting greater.
Because tastings are such an important part of our work at the Bakehouse, we have a recipe for them. We grade our food in three different areas; visual appearance, texture and flavor. For us every item has a specific way we want it to look, a texture we desire and a taste profile we strive for. These standards are agreed upon and documented. We train the staff on these standards and then taste and score our food against those standards. So while it’s certainly a fun dream job to eat samples in a bakery, this is some serious business!
The visual score pertains to how the food looks on the outside. It includes everything about the food’s appearance like color, shape, size, and volume. Is the Boston Cream Pie’s chocolate glaze smooth and shiny? Is the color of the True North bread crust dark enough? Since we are an artisanal bakery and use our hands to make our food, some variation in appearance is expected.
The score for texture comes from the inside of the food. Are the holes inside the Rustic Italian bread the right size? Is the Creamy Tomato soup just the right thickness? Is the cross section of a butter croissant showing an open honeycomb structure? These are the types of details that we’re looking for when we grade the texture of our food. This is similar to the visual score because again it is partially coming for visually inspecting the food, this time on the inside instead of the outside. Also contributing to the texture score is the way the food feels in your mouth. Is the Buttermilk Cake the right density when you bite into it? Does the Sourdough bread have a crisp, crackly crust with a moist interior? Is the sugar on the Palmiers caramelized or are there granules of sugar noticeable in your mouth? Are all of the vegetables in the Chicken Noodle soup chopped to a consistent size to avoid some being mushy while others remain crunchy?
Flavor is our final tasting criteria. After all, we are known to say “You really CAN taste the difference!” Does the food taste like it is supposed to? This is different than does the food taste “good” or does today’s taster like it. Regardless of your personal preferences, it means having a clearly defined flavor profile for each kind of food that we make and comparing what we taste that do to that desired goal. We have dozens of staff all with different taste, so we need to have an agreed upon standard we can all work with.
Tastings are graded are on a scale of 1-10. A score of 9 means the item is ideal. A score of 7-8 means the food is good, but not quite hitting the desired mark. Any score below a 7 is something that we won’t sell. This food just doesn’t live up to the Zingerman’s name. On the rare occasion that all of the stars are in alignment and the baking gods have smiled down upon us, we get an item that is the absolute best that we can imagine it to be. This is a 10! For each item tasted, it gets a score of 1-10 for it’s visual, texture and taste. That item’s final tasting score is the average of those three scores. Our Bakehouse wide goal is to have our tasting scores average no lower than 8.8.
So what exactly gets tasted at the Bakehouse? The quick and simple answer is everything. Between Monday and Sunday, nearly every item that we make and sell gets formally tasted at the Bakehouse. With over 25 varieties of bread, 75 kinds of different pastries offered each season, at least 10 different kinds of cake and 10 seasonal selections of soup, we do a lot of formal tasting. Sounds like a tough job? Or would you like to fill out an application?!
So how are these tasting scores contributing to the making the food better? Over the years, we have improved our recipes or techniques many times based on the data we collect from the tasting scores. Recent food improvements made in the bakery as a result of relentless tasting and the passionate pursuit of improvement include updating the Sesame Semolina bread recipe to 100% semolina flour, exclusively hand rolling our French Baguettes and Farm bread, adding to the richness of our cinnamon roll dough, and tweaking the ratios of our Funky Chunky cookie, Hot Cocoa Coffeecake and New Deli Coffeecake recipes for better texture. Some of these changes were relatively small; others were quite involved and resulted in significant changes to the way we work. They all had one thing in common though. We made them because we believed the food could be better. It was all selling quite well and our customers weren’t complaining about their quality. We’re just confident there’s room for improvement in everything we do. So we go to work to take those recipes from really good to greatness.
Wanna taste with us? Stop in to our Bakeshop and ask for a sample of anything. Before you pop that sample into your mouth, take a moment to look at it and smell it. After you put it into your mouth, pause to feel and taste it. Enjoy. Feel free to share your input and tasting score with us! We always love feedback!
-by Nina Plasencia, Zingeman’s Bakehouse baker
Nina Plasencia is a project manager at the Bakehouse. She’s been a part of the team for 18 years (14 of them in a managerial role), and has spent time in every area of production at the bakery. As a part of the bakery’s administration team, she works on things like implementing large-scale policy changes, planning and executing for the holiday season ramp-up in production, and product development. In fact, if you’ve ever enjoyed a Bakehouse pastry, there’s a good chance Nina has had a hand in it, whether the item is completely new to the lineup or is a classic that she’s tweaked to make it even better (like incorporating whole grains into beloved Bakehouse standards like Funky Chunky Chocolate cookies). She even has a pastry named after her—Nina’s ‘nolis, classic Italian pignoli pine nut cookies!