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The old man and the bakery: a crummy parable
Growing up in the East, my parents purchased our bread from Fairway, a local bakery on Kinderkermack Road. My family knew the owners. We trusted their quality and the loaves were always fresh. If you ever bought a stale pastry, they would take it back with a smile. ``Baking isn't a science,'' they would say. ``We do our best with the ingredients we get.''
When A&P, a national chain, built a superstore off Route 4, Mom swore she would never buy her bagels there. They stocked everything from soap to doughnuts, promising lower prices, a larger selection and higher quality. Mom said, ``Who needs three kinds of biscuits that all taste like soap? If I want to save money, I'll eat from Fairway's day-old bins.''
A&P named its bakery section ``Upper Crust,'' advertising excellence in everything sold. Mom called it ``dough with an attitude.'' Everyone in town talked about A&P's philosophy: every bran muffin was enriched, fortified well beyond FDA requirements. Every cake rose to its full potential, and all Danish, even the ones with nuts, were in a class by themselves. A&P's robust recipes and rigorous preparation ensured they graduated only the best buns. Mom would say, ``Rigor is something you find in yesterday's toast.''
Upper Crust made it well known that no flour fell through the cracks, no ingredient got left behind. Upper Crust built elaborate systems to track the individual progress of all its products. Routine tests ensured each cupcake met the bakery's high performance expectations. They promoted no average biscuits, only honor rolls.
After a while, rumors circulated that Fairway's bread was second best. People openly wondered if their croissants couldn't be just a bit more buttery. That's when Mom called a community meeting. Fairway owners were unhappy. Their staff was unhappy. Long-standing customers were unhappy. These were contentious meetings. People questioned, ``Do we need different owners, better bakers or updated recipes? The tastes, they are changing. How should we react?''
Committees were formed to contact and learn from other successful bakeries. After a great deal of investigation, it was reported these renowned establishments all followed nine similar recipes. Based on this research, plans were created, policies were drafted, voted upon and implemented. Everything possible was done to improve performance. Nothing seemed to make a big difference.
Later that same year, in August, my grandpa Artie came to visit. At the time, he was 88. Grandpa Artie grew up and was educated in the old country, when and where Latin was required as an essential subject. After visiting the Statue of Liberty, Mom took him to Fairway. To be fair and balanced, Dad drove him to the A&P.
Artie smiled and suggested Mom call another community meeting. The people came to hear what the old man had to say. ``On the one hand, good bakers make good bread and Fairway has great bakers. On the other hand, good process consistently makes good bread, and A&P has great process. There is nothing wrong with A&P's bread.''
The crowd went from desperate to despondent. Their hopes crumbled. People once again began to blame each other for Fairway's failure. And when the noise died down, Grandpa Artie spoke again.
``But I would shop at Fairway. To be the best, takes more than being better. It takes risking to be different. You can improve by raising standards. But all you get is a loaf of bread, a little better than the one behind it on the shelf.''
``All babka is not alike. And I've eaten a lot of babka in my life. My wife Thelma was the cook in our family. She was an artist. As part of every recipe, she always added passion and something a little different. To her, there was no such thing as a simple sandwich. Every ingredient was special. Food spoke to her. That's why our kitchen was so noisy. The only thing Thelma loved more than me and cooking was cooking for me.''
``Fairway has great bakers. Did they, one morning wake up and forget how to bake? Fairway's babka has special ingredients that make it unique. Factories make everything look and work the same. Toilet paper should be made in a factory. It takes vision and passion to make a memorable tuna casserole. Turning up the heat on the ovens, risks burning the mix. My advice, celebrate what has been coming out of Fairway's ovens for years. What makes great babka is special bakers.'' With that, Grandpa Artie wiped his glasses, adjusted his teeth and settled back into his seat.
Everyone proceeded to make a list of all the special products Fairway had produced over the years. Then they explored all the different ideas they would like to try. Some sounded crazy. Some sounded like they were better done in the back of the kitchen far from the noses of incoming patrons. Some sounded like they just might be possible.
Everyone left the meeting excited. Everyone understood their purpose, felt valued and wondered how they could contribute more. Being better stopped being important. Being special was something everyone could take pride in.
On a recent trip home, I visited Fairway. The place was bright and clean. The only clues it had once faithfully served an earlier generation were the happy customers who, like myself, grew up in this neighborhood. The rolls smelled fresh and I suspected there were still one or two stale pastries somewhere on the shelves. There was also a section of bread that hadn't risen. My guess is that it will be passed over.
David Ross, not to be confused with radio host Dave Ross, is a Mercer Island resident.