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Inside the Production Kitchen

Sunday, late afternoon at the Production Kitchen: cooks are loading containers of soups and salads onto racks; packers are labeling sandwiches; bakers are putting finishing touches on cupcakes. Overhead, the sound of pounding footsteps. Yes, it’s time for Ecstatic Dance at Main Street Yoga, above us in this building. I love this feeling of community connection! I just recently went to my first class at Main Street Yoga, where my instructor told me how much she loved our Nothing Muffins. The feeling is mutual.

Here in the Production Kitchen at 1882 E. Main Street, the staff works a little bit off the beaten path. Some of you might be finding out about this facility for the first time right now. People are hard at work here every day, with drivers bringing finished product to both the retail sites early in the morning, rain or shine. Willy Street Co-op has rented space here since 2005, when production began in the kitchen on April 8th. I got a chance to catch up with staff with many different perspectives on working here, everyone from a cook who’s nearing his first anniversary at the Kitchen, to the Co-op’s Prepared Foods Director. Everyone I interviewed had a very different path to the Co-op—many have worked at various restaurants, bars, and farms, but some also in fields as varied as medical administration and the military. One way or another, all landed here.

Josh Perkins, Prepared Foods Director
Josh Perkins, Prepared Foods Director, started at the Co-op in the role of Kitchen Manager in 2006, not long after the Production Kitchen opened. Before we had the Production Kitchen, prepared foods were produced on-site at the east-side retail (then the only location). Josh notes that there are advantages to producing food in a retail location; namely, responsiveness and sensitivity to stock, but this arrangement can interrupt customer service. The advantages of having a separate Production Kitchen are the ability to produce at a higher volume, the potential to automate more processes, and the ability to have both uninterrupted customer service at the retails and uninterrupted production at the Kitchen. Even though the Kitchen is in a separate space, Josh wants Owners to know that we design our product catalog based on a direct connection between customers, retail staff, and the Kitchen. Freshness and quality are paramount, too: we never use additives or preservatives, meaning that the product is very similar to what you’d make at home. “All in all, it’s a small batch made-to-order, right here in Madison, six blocks away from the flagship store. That’s pretty unique,” Josh notes.

Daily workflow
The daily workflow here varies depending on who you are. Drivers are the first to arrive in the morning, picking up the Deli and Bakery products to bring to the retails to have ready for you when the stores open. Cooks and Bakers start arriving at 7:00am, followed closely by Kitchen Assistants. Receivers start bringing deliveries in and putting away ingredients and supplies in their proper places. Noon is when the Kitchen is busiest, as the majority of the bakers arrive and the Deli cooks are in full swing with production. Mid-afternoon, the packers come in and get right to work wrapping and boxing up the products that Cooks and Bakers have made earlier in the day, as well as Willy Pack items—those are the products, such as fruits and nuts, that you buy in pre-weighed baggies in the bulk aisle. Maintenance staff work throughout the day making sure that anything that breaks gets fixed promptly.

A stroll through the Kitchen reveals the different mini-universes that all ultimately work together. Step in through the door and to your left, there’s another door (often open) to the Kitchen office, where a manager might be on a phone call with someone at Willy West, or printing out the purchase order for the next day’s production. Straight ahead, the dish station: tall shelving units holding silverware, empty bins for shipping and storing food, and a tidy row of clean measuring cups hanging on hooks. A set of sinks for washing and sanitizing dishes, two tall stacks of sheet trays. This is the home turf of the Kitchen Assistants, who spend their time both doing prep work and keeping the steady flow of dishes coming back to the cooks and bakers throughout the day.

To your right, the largest part of the Kitchen: the open space where, for most of the day, cooks are busy at their art and craft, and where the majority of our large equipment lives. This is also where we roll out pie dough both for the Deli’s savory pockets and the Bakery’s Cutey Pies and full-sized pie shells. Walk all the way through this space, and you’ll come out in the bakery, bookended by the walk-in freezer on your left and the large rack oven on your right. This is where you’ll hear timers going off throughout the day, and warning shouts (in the friendliest way) about hot pans and racks coming out of the oven and through the workspace.

Keep walking through the bakery, and you’ll come directly to the walk-in cooler, home to both fresh ingredients and finished product being held at safe temperatures. Did you finish off the last case of butter making your brownies? Grab a new one here and bring it out to the bakery’s smaller reach-in cooler for easy access. Finished packing a salad? Bring it in and slide it onto the rack for the appropriate store. Back outside the cooler, there’s a garage door: this is where we receive deliveries, and where drivers bring back our empty racks after finished products have been dropped off at the stores in the morning. Next to the receiving garage, there’s a swinging door into the packing room and dry storage area. Here, the packers wrap sandwiches and granola bars, while others filter in and out to grab another bag of rice, a new stack of cupcake papers.

Dustin Skelley, Rounder & Buyer
Dustin Skelley is a Rounder and Buyer, jobs that give him a unique perspective on life in the Kitchen. Rounders are jacks-of-all-trades; they are trained to be able to fill any role in the kitchen, which is particularly helpful if someone calls in sick. I asked Dustin what the differences are between work as a Cook and a Baker, since he does both. He talked about the different mental organization that’s necessary for the two roles. Cooks have a lot of balls in the air at the same time. They might need to prepare all their grains at once, then all their vegetables, and put everything together at the end of the day for their finalized dishes. Bakers have a more recipe-by-recipe approach—although they might have three recipes all in the oven at the same time, and two more in progress. Everyone who works in the Kitchen has an impressive ability to keep track of multiple time-sensitive demands.  

Matt Plath, Cook
The product range keeps us interested, too. Matt Plath, cook, says, “I like the idea of being able to travel through the Co-op we make a lot of different dishes [with various] ethnic backgrounds, and so it’s fun to not only [make recipes] here for the people that shop at the Co-op, but when I go home, I get to use some of those ideas to make healthy meals for myself.”

Learning and contributing
Those of us who work at the Kitchen also have the opportunity to learn new things on a regular basis, as we introduce new menu items on a quarterly cycle, in addition to seasonal offerings based on availability of fresh produce and special holiday product lines. Staff often get the opportunity to contribute their own ideas for new offerings, which is a great benefit for the creative people who work here. For example, in the bakery, some new products you might’ve seen recently that were contributed by bakers include Salted Caramel Bars, Dirt Cups, Matcha Shortbread Cookies, Gluten-Free Pumpkin Gingerbread Bars, and Pan de Higo.

Woody Stanley, Bakery Manager
Woody Stanley, Bakery Manager, notes that one of the biggest considerations for determining what we can add to our product line is ingredient cost. We focus on sourcing the high-quality ingredients that Owners are looking for. Since we are not going to sacrifice quality to achieve a cheaper product, our product range makes creative use of the best-value high-quality ingredients available to us. We always have our eyes peeled for organic and local ingredients we can make creative use of; for example, a source of fresh rhubarb allowed us to make rhubarb cupcakes this past summer.

Fresh pies
This is also why we’re able to offer fresh apple pies around Thanksgiving. November is the most exciting (and, admittedly, stressful!) time of the year for the bakery. Pie-palooza, pie-mageddon, pie-pocalypse—we come up with all sorts of names to describe the intensity of this season!

Sometimes this requires calling for extra help, which, given the collaborative spirit of working at the Co-op, is never hard to find. Luke Weber, currently employed in the Produce department at Willy East but previously a Kitchen Assistant at the Production Kitchen, comes back to us for an encore to pitch in for a few weeks during pie season. He’s pictured on the this page filling pie shells with pumpkin pie filling.

Woody wants readers to know that our classic pie shells are made with organic flour and organic butter. Our vegan pie shells are made with organic flour, and both are hand-formed. Our pie fillings are also made from scratch, using organic ingredients wherever possible. By the time this article is in your hands or on your screen, we’ll be embarking on the journey towards thousands of pies for the autumn 2014 season. Not to mention doubling down on our frozen pie shell production, keeping the cases full for you to buy handmade shells to fill with your own pie fillings at home.

A baker’s day
So, what does a baker’s day actually look like? Let’s step outside pie season for a moment to focus on the rest of the year. Here’s what a typical day looks like for a Baker scheduled for the noon-8:00pm shift.

  • 12:00pm: Arrive at the Kitchen, take a clean chef’s coat off the rack, put on a hat and your non-slip shoes, and clock in.

  • 12:00-12:05pm: Check out your production list for the day (assigned the previous night by the shift supervisor or manager), and copy it down from the master list to a sticky note for your workstation. Plan your order of operations: what items make the most sense to start first? For example, any item that gets individually wrapped should be made early, so that it’s cool in time for the packers to wrap it. Also, cakes need more time to cool than cookies do, and must be cool before they’re frosted, so typically these are best to make early. Biscuits are relatively quick to make and also cool quickly, so they can be done later in the day. As multitasking wizards, bakers know when to get the first part of a recipe going—first thing in your shift is when you might begin melting your chocolate for brownies over a double-boiler, stirring occasionally while also beginning your next recipe.

  • 12:05-4:30pm: Measure, mix, and bake, bake, bake! An average workload consists of 5-7 complete recipes per person, in various batch sizes. In this window of time, an individual Baker might make 24 loaves of Banana Bread, two pans of Gluten-Free Turtle Brownies, 24 Vegan Banana Peanut Butter Cupcakes, 12 Savory Cheese Scones, 30 Vegan Biscuits, and 130 Cowgirl Cookies. A Baker can take his or her 30-minute paid lunch break during this time, or a little later in the day. (Each person also gets two 5-minute paid breaks at any time during the shift.)

  • 4:30-6:00pm: Toppings! Caramel, nuts, and chocolate go on those Turtle Brownies, and then they get cut and set aside for the packer to wrap. Time to frost the peanut butter cupcakes, too, put themin a labeled container, and bring them to the walk-in cooler where they’ll go on the designated transport racks—with 24 total, it’s likely 12 for East and 12 for West, but you’ll check the order sheets to confirm, and mark down the quantities produced for the Flow of Goods department to have on record.

  • 6:00-8:00pm: Everyone in the bakery pitches in on what remains, regardless of who baked it: cut cheesecakes into slices, cut bars that don’t get individually wrapped, pack muffins and scones, occasionally assist with wrapping bars if the packers have a heavy workload. Then, work together to clean the kitchen, and there you’ve got it! A day’s work.

Want to see what this really looks like? The Communications department and the bakery have collaborated to bring you a time-lapse video of a day in the bakery. We’ve compressed many hours into just minutes! Check it out here.

Cooks and bakers alike get some extra excitement added to their days when catering orders roll in. Year-round, the bakery is making cakes for celebrations of all kinds, in a plethora of varieties. Need a vegan cake? Or gluten-free? We’re pleased to have these types of offerings for customers with dietary restrictions; we also make traditional cakes, and we can add custom writing to any type of cake. On the savory side, Bill Pohlman, Catering Coordinator, notes that the Deli’s taco bar is especially popular, and can accommodate all dietary restrictions. For your holiday get-togethers and office parties, we have great options for sandwich platters and appetizers.

The future
What’s in store for the Kitchen—where do you see it going in the future? I asked several people this question. Angelika Matthews, Kitchen Manager, and Woody Stanley, Bakery Manager, both talked about increased customer interest in convenient grab-and-go items, pre-packaged snacks and desserts. These have been rolling out for both Deli and Bakery offerings in the past few months. The Deli is now offering two snack packs: Nutty (with peanut butter, raisins, and celery sticks) and Eggie (egg salad, romaine lettuce, and apples). The Bakery offers granola snacker cups (with yogurt, honey, granola, and raspberries) and cake slices in various flavors. Of course, Owners are also concerned with sustainable packaging, so the Co-op keeps its eye on sources for environmentally friendly options.

Looking towards the future, Angelika, Woody, and Josh also all talked about expansion. The Ownership recently voted to approve a potential third retail site. Given this, the Kitchen departments anticipate possible expansion as well. The Kitchen was created in the first place in order to support a forthcoming second store. Staffing increased when that second site became a reality and will likely need to increase again when a third store comes to be. Similarly, we will need to assess whether it would make sense to either move to a larger physical space or increase the number of hours the kitchen is open for production per day. These are exciting issues to face, because they’re challenges for the best possible reason: bringing an increasing number of offerings to an increasing number of people in the Madison area. We look forward to it.

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