You could get all the education you could possibly imagine — a B.S., an M.S., an M.D. or even a Ph.D — and it wouldn’t prepare you for working in the food industry. One task isn’t necessarily more difficult than the other, but a majority of the skills required for one simply don’t carry over to the other. At least, that’s what I’ve found throughout my experiences working at the Flour Bakery and Cafe these past few months.
I originally applied for a job at Flour because of an excess of free time first semester. I didn’t actually know anyone who had worked there, but my impressions of Flour, from the customer point of view, were very encouraging and I imagined it would be a fun and engaging place to work. I wasn’t wrong.
Now that I’ve been on the other side of the counter, I can never go back. I have a much greater appreciation for bakers, servers, and counter staff, and truly understand the importance of tipping. I didn’t know that it was common to give credit card tips on food ordered at a counter, and must admit I had never even thought to tip someone in that manner. (Perhaps some of you may admit this as well.) The first time I saw someone give a credit card tip while working, the generosity amazed me — until a couple hours later when I noticed that it’s a pretty common kindness at Flour. On an average day, about 20 percent of my income is from credit card and cash tips!
One of the most surprising things that I learned at Flour was how much thought, effort, and energy goes into every piece of pastry, drink, and sandwich. Every employee works incredibly hard to make it seem like the process of getting your food is effortless. Most of this effortless appearance is due to the efficient system Flour has developed: one that has been modified to near perfection and is constantly improving even now.
Everything from where we decide to take your order to how we put in your drink order has been methodically considered. We never take your order until you have passed the refrigerated case, because then you’ll have had the chance to see the pastries. When you order a drink, we put the cup on top of the espresso machine, yell “drink up” so the person making drinks hears, and retrieve every ingredient needed beforehand to speed up the process. In addition, each sandwich and pastry ingredient is added only after it goes through countless testing phases, and pastries are displayed such that there is never any empty space between them and allergy-specific items are kept apart.
I believe that most of this insistence on quality is due to the incredible and inspirational owner, Joanne Chang. Years after graduating with a degree in Applied Mathematics and Economics from Harvard, Joanne opened up Flour in the South End of Boston. Now, 16 years and a few new Flour locations later, Joanne has made a name for herself in the world of professional baking.
The first time I met Joanne was during my interview for the company, and it was only for a few seconds. However, the next time I saw her a week later, she greeted me without missing a beat.
“Hi, Gillian,” she beamed (even pronouncing my name properly!) “How is MIT going? You’re studying computer science, right?” Perhaps you will be less impressed, but I found it absolutely astounding that she remembered me after meeting me so briefly — before I was even an official employee. I believe this warm and thoughtful behavior that Joanne exhibits on a daily basis reflects the same atmosphere that Flour works hard to create every day.
The final lesson I’ve learned while at Flour, and perhaps the most important one, is to not let other people’s bad days infect your own. My first couple shifts at Flour were terrifying, simply because I was so scared of making a mistake and upsetting a customer or coworker. Every time I wrote down the wrong order, made a drink incorrectly, or didn’t know something I should have, I would internally beat myself up. This made me incredibly unhappy and on edge for the majority of my shift.
However, I had a moment of clarity during one of my shifts where I realized I had to let my mistakes go. I learned that it’s not worth it to be so affected by something that means so little in the grand scheme of things. Since my first day, I’ve had plenty of rude customers, unhappy customers, and even customers that have outright yelled at me.
I’ve had customers that were angry at me for no substantive reason: one time, a customer was upset because they wanted their pastries now and didn’t want to wait five seconds for me to put on the “Flour” sticker, and so proceeded to yell loudly at me.
I have also had customers who have gotten frustrated at me for justifiable reasons: I’ve made drinks incorrectly, told people we had a pastry when we were actually sold out, and charged people for the wrong items on the register.
A few months ago, I might have been very shaken up by these events, but today I’m the one who shakes it off. I’ve realized that most people aren’t actually mad at you — it’s most likely something else, so don’t let their bad day ruin yours as well. Even when the mistake is mine, I’ve learned to just let it go. In the end, if I accidentally told you we had a pastry we really didn’t, you’re going to be okay. I’m going to be okay. We are all truly going to be okay.
Throughout my journey of working at Flour, I have learned so many valuable lessons, had so many fun experiences, met so many incredible people, and ate so much (probably way too much) good food. Now my floormates have new and creative ways to tease me by bombarding me with Flour-based trivia — although they never question the leftover pastries I bring home — and I can boast about knowing way too much about caffeinated drinks.
Gillian Belton is a member of the Class of 2019.