Being an Artisanal Baker Destroyed My Body

In industrial bakeries, everything in the bread-making process is ergonomic with vigilant precautions towards health and safety. In small bakeries, this is often not the case.


Photo via Flickr userPauline Make

Welcome back to Restaurant Confessionals, where we talk to the unheard voices of the restaurant industry from both the front-of-house (FOH) and back-of-house (BOH) about what really goes on behind the scenes at your favorite establishments.

In a bakery, every second counts.

At the bakery where I worked, everything was made by hand, and I sometimes made 800 loaves per day. There was a timer that kept the speed at which I made things; I wouldn't make more than an assistant's salary if I weighed less than 20 pounds of dough every four minutes. I really wanted to work at this bakery because it would look good on my resume, so for a long time, I accepted everything.

The artisanal bakery is making a comeback, and that's fantastic. Supermarket bread tastes like nothing because it has to meet so many requirements: it must remain fresh for a long time, and it should be bland enough to taste good with "everything." The irony is that in the industrial bakeries where those breads are coming from, everything is quite ergonomic and there's a high level of occupational health and safety responsibility. In the small bakeries where young bakers who want to be trained to learn the trade, this is often not the case.

And it's hard work. I hate to admit it, but for women it is even harder than it is for men.

In all of the restaurants and cafes where I worked before, I noticed that hard work was considered "cool." It was cool to go to your ultimate threshold, to work ten hours without taking a break, and to lift heavy things. When I started to work in the bakery I was used to that mentality. I wanted to be a strong woman so I never complained, even though I don't have strong joints. Actually, being a baker, I have chosen the wrong profession.

But then repetitive stress injury sneaks in. Everyone can get it if you make the same movement over and over. When you make a baguette, for example, you fold the dough, put in between your finger and thumb, and then give it a blow with your palm. You do that three times per baguette, and eventually, I became very bothered by the pains in my wrist.

I was also lifting 25-pound sacks of flour, which is above the permitted weight of the Working Conditions Act. If the bag sizes for artisanal confectioners and bakers were cut in half, it would be such an improvement. With the return of bakers who want to do everything from scratch, you come across this kind of thing a lot. Those bags are made for industrial bakeries, where they have carts. But when I've visited those bakeries, I've found that employees can't call themselves bakers—they're just pressing buttons. Physically, this is probably better for you, but it's not what you want as a baker. It's very contradictory.

If you tend to have tense muscles, you have a higher chance of developing RSI. I'm convinced that the pressure at work does not have to be so high—I was physically destroyed there. You have a stressful schedule, and you have to go on and on and on. The first four hours that I was working on my own in the bakery, I couldn't even ask for help from my colleagues. The bags of flour were on the other side of the kitchen, so I had to lug them back and forth by myself.

It was only when I sat down with an ergonomist that I realized that everything I did was super stressful on my body. Weighing dough is an intensive job, but you can buy a machine to help that doesn't affect the quality of your dough. It also helps to have smaller container for dry goods so that you don't have to lift as many heavy items as before.

In the meantime, I'm a bakery reject: I can't do the work that I was trained to do anymore. Because of the heavy lifting, I shifted a vertebra, and the RSI became chronic. At one point, I couldn't even open my front door. I had to buy lighter pans and raise the height of my kitchen table.

Thankfully, after a lot of yoga and swimming, it's gotten better. It's a cliché, but the truth is, with a few ingredients you can make such insanely delicious things. Dough lives.

The hospitality industry has little regard for good posture. I was rejected because of a combination of factors: weak joints, work pressure, and repeated physical movements. You have to multitask a lot while working in a bakery: you have to help people at the counter, serve them coffee and breads, and then run back to your dough. It's so unproductive—you constantly lose your flow. Those three seconds longer that it might take you to make the bread should not be that important. It's impossible to sprint all day; you can go a lot longer if you're at a relaxed tempo.

There's a reason that there's a distinction between long-distance runners and sprinters. This is also true for bakers, and anyone else who works in the restaurant industry.

As told to Felicia Alberding

This first appeared on MUNCHIES in March 2015.