In 2020, EntryPoint had great conversations with 40+ thought leaders across the country on The Cackle and we all want more!  So in 2021, we are continuing the conversation with those guests to dig a little deeper into topics that matter. Like Zingerman’s Bakehouse bringing people joy and connectivity while navigating new obstacles brought on by the pandemic. 

Keep Cackling with Amy Emberling from Zingerman’s Bakehouse

The pandemic could have forced our hands-on teaching kitchen BAKE! to shut down. Instead we transformed how we taught in order to survive. Our idea to start BAKE! in 2006 came in response to challenging circumstances. There had been a downturn in the economy that alarmed us. In hindsight, with experience of the 2008 financial crisis and our current pandemic, we can see that 2006 was a minor setback, but at the time, we were concerned. Among the challenges were that we lost a potential tenant for a space in the building next to the Bakehouse that we were leasing. We had 3,200 square feet, and the rent that went with it, and no plan for how to use it. So what to do?

I chatted about building a sustainable and successful business with Emily on an episode of The Cackle, but let’s dig deeper into how our team at Zingerman’s navigates obstacles and ensures our business is sustainable during difficult times.

Vision for the Future

Several factors came into play — we knew how to bake, we loved to teach, we had empty space, and in the early 2000s there was lots of news about the obesity epidemic in our country. We believed and still believe that the act of making one’s own food, even dessert, leads to more nourishing eating and living. One way we could help with the obesity challenge was to teach people to bake in the empty space. We formed BAKE! with a vision of teaching students to bake through in person, hands-on, straightforward instruction. The classroom kitchens would be humble and approachable and so would the teachers. It would be a welcoming, safe, and engaging learning environment. The information shared would be nothing less than everything we knew along with our Bakehouse recipes, refined through thousands of repetitions.

In the ZCoB 2020 Vision that was forming around the same time, we envisioned that Zingerman’s would be a destination for learning and education. Our plan for BAKE! was completely aligned, a perfect fit. Sharing of information about food and business has been a distinctive quality of the Zingerman’s experience. Being in a vibrant university town full of thoughtful and curious people makes it entirely fitting for us to share information about all that we have learned, and all that we create. It’s for this reason that as the marketing world moves to photos and tweets, we’ll still be providing longer written pieces and unapologetically lengthy classes on baking. Learning, like sourdough baking, often takes time.

For 15 years BAKE! evolved and grew. We started with one classroom and two instructors. Our first weeklong class had all of two intrepid students. We persevered. In February, 2020 it was a thriving popular spot for home bakers. We taught as many as 200 students a week in 12-16 classes. On the weekends BAKE! was a bustling place, so much so that we were considering reconfiguring the space to build a third classroom. Then the pandemic arrived… 

Navigating Obstacles During the Pandemic

BAKE! was the first area of the Bakehouse to feel the pandemic. Making food for people is essential. Teaching people to bake is not. Spending hours in a room with many strangers was starting to look like a very bad idea. On Friday, March 6th we were considering pausing our classes at some point in the future and by the next Wednesday, March 11th we met as a team, cried a little and decided to cancel classes for at least the next month. Clearly we had little understanding of what was about to happen. What would come next? The details of the moment had to be dealt with—unemployment insurance, health insurance benefits, work availability in the other parts of the Bakehouse…cleaning out the fridges, and of course speaking with all of the customers who had scheduled classes. As individuals we each had our own personal lives to contend with—children and no in person school, family members on the front lines in hospitals, families far away, elderly parents, and a couple of us were not feeling well. Did we have COVID? We didn’t know and at that time we couldn’t even get tested.

As the first weeks passed we began to get at least a sense of what our lives might be like for a long time. A transformation of BAKE! had begun. That third classroom we were imagining? Well it arrived but in an entirely different form than we had pictured it. After we got our bearings and the world became a little less terrifying and uncertain, Sara Molinaro, BAKE!’s Principal decided to engage customers online with some charming videos about how to make a sourdough starter, held in her apartment and co-hosted by her cat and eventually her boyfriend. Then just like much of the rest of America we went entirely virtual. We decided that we would stop thinking that this was temporary and rather decided that we would be in the virtual world for a long time, maybe always. We needed to figure out how to teach well in this new format and to continue to fulfill our mission and vision. We had emphasized in person, hands on teaching. How could this possibly be effective? We settled into our new classroom which included a camera, airpods, a screen and many home kitchens — of our students. 

Finding Success One Tasty Treat at a Time

What we soon discovered was entirely unexpected and honestly felt magical. Teaching virtually was not going to be a massive compromise. It was going to be different, maybe had some downsides but also was actually going to bring a variety of improvements. Teaching students when they are in their home kitchens has advantages in terms of learning. We believe, and many many students agree, that by having students navigate the recipes with their own equipment and ingredients in their own kitchen leads to greater understanding and better chance of future success. They get to work out all of the kinks of their environment with us right there to help them make the necessary tweaks and adjustments to be successful. It’s like having a guest chef right in your home, almost custom teaching. Some students need help from family members because of physical limitations, and now the virtual classes make this easy. For those who have special accommodations built into their personal kitchens they can now participate fully in the classes which wasn’t always easy before.

Zingerman's Bakehouse
Cinn-ful Cinnamon Rolls, one of the many things you can learn to make virtually with Zingerman’s Bakehouse!

One element of our BAKE! mission has been to increase home baking. We believe that virtual classes are actually helping this. When students come to our kitchens it takes some real momentum to then try the recipes in their home environment. It’s not different from many classes in other crafts or even business. Taking the learning from the classroom to our personal lives doesn’t always happen. So much can get in the way. By taking BAKE! classes in their own home this formidable step has already been made. It no longer takes a lot of imagination to see that it’s possible and much less energy to make it happen again.

Building Human Connections

Another critical part of our mission has been to create a community of bakers. This is happening now on a global level. The community of bakers is growing its geographic boundaries in a way that we never expected possible. As of the time that I’m writing we have now hosted students from 36 states and 14 countries, including India, Israel, Germany, and South Africa. We have many new students who previously couldn’t join us because they lived too far away to make the trip. Now they may contend with time zone issues but that doesn’t seem to deter them. Happily we’ve been reunited with former students who have since left our local community. They tell us how thrilled they are to attend class again whether they’re in New York or northern California.

Somehow, perhaps through the strength of the human spirit to survive, friendships are even forming in these virtual settings. One of the most touching stories the instructors shared was when two women hit it off in a class. One of them was living in the same city as the other woman’s son. After class she delivered some of her cookies to this man as a treat from his mom. Along with friendships we’ve helped families find ways to be together. We have hosted many family baking events, gathering siblings, parents, and grandchildren from all over the country to enjoy a safe activity often around a family event that normally would have been enjoyed together. 

Zingerman's Bakehouse 3

By being in their homes, people are also connecting in more personal ways not possible in our kitchens. Recently, an instructor suggested to a student that he was stretching his dough like an accordion and he said well that’s because I’m a professional accordion player. He then went and got his accordion and played a piece for the class. It was a surprisingly touching and intimate moment. Our students are wonderfully communicative with us. One positive sentiment that they’ve shared is that the social connections they enjoyed during their BAKE! classes kept them going during this year of relative isolation. I believe giving the classes has kept us going as well. 

What will happen to virtual classes when they are no longer absolutely necessary? Will in person classes ever return? Although virtual classes have many advantages some students prefer in person instruction and miss the full social experience. We expect that we’ll offer both formats of the classes to satisfy everyone’s preferences. Beyond all this, one thing that’s become glaringly evident to us during the pandemic is the joy learning brings, the connectivity group learning provides, the love that people feel when they are taught by caring instructors, and the satisfaction sharing information yields. One student recently emailed me and said that you “can feel the love ooze from the screen.” Not bad for this unexpected third classroom.

About Amy Emberling & Zingerman’s Bakehouse

Amy Emberling is the owner and managing director of Zingerman’s Bakehouse, an artisanal retail and wholesale bakery and baking school in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Amy has been an avid food lover and baker since childhood and has been committed to “the relentless pursuit of being the best bakery we can imagine” since Zingerman’s Bakehouse was started in 1992. 

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