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Ask HN: Is Anyone Here a Professional Baker?
131 points by idontwantthis 51 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 90 comments
Hoping someone can tell me about what it takes to become a professional baker.

Did you go to school for it or learn on the job?

What is the job market like?

Do you consider it a good career?

I ran a bread baking business for a year in suburban TX, and I can safely say that it doesn't matter how good you are: profit margins are really low in certain areas. People were extremely cost sensitive. Also they often didn't even like "fancy" bread, and would complain about anything different from just regular sliced grocery store foam.

I got pretty good, and was able to have some "subscriptions" back before that was a thing, delivering it to people at work, but in the end I was barely able to cover the costs once I'd factored in running the oven. I then moved to the northeast , where people care about bread a little more, but again are usually quite sensitive to convenience and price. The groceries here have average bakeries in store, and produce cheap reliable bread.

As for cake baking, that's a whole different ballgame. I've had a friend who tried that and she had a very hard time. People typically were extremely price sensitive, and were very hard to please. It reminded me of the tattoo business: a few rockstars charging 10k for art that gets thousands of upvotes on social media, then a mass of people doing $100 specials for customers who are never quite happy. Kind of a bummer, so my friend gave up after a year and doubled down on programming as a career. She now keeps baking firmly in the "hobby" realm, since while she loves it, she knows it's extremely hard to make a living doing it.

You’ve hit on something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately in price sensitive markets (which is basically anything in the consumer space). You’re better off being very expensive ($10k tattoo artist) than broadly appealing.

I’ve seen it mentioned here a lot w.r.t. freelance web developers, but my friends in the trades are aware of it too. Be expensive. It filters out the terrible customers and gets you people who are willing to pay (and wait) for quality work. The difficult part, I think, is knowing your market well enough to know what that threshold is. There is a lot of hysteresis in pricing - you can easily be too expensive for the cheap customers, but not expensive enough to make up for the reduction in paying jobs.

The hard part is you have to know your market really, really well. And you may not be able to apply that model to every job. No matter how rich your customer is, they’re probably not going to pay $1000 for you to change a lightbulb. On the other hand, there are plenty who will pay you $20k for work that your competition is quoting $5k for.

And the closer your chosen field is to art, the greater that gap can be. If you want to be a baker, you can’t compete with grocery stores for the $30 birthday cake market, but you can make $6k wedding cakes and corporate event cakes. You might only make one cake a week, but isn’t that better than having to crank out 200 sheet cakes with terrible baby pictures printed on them?

I’ve seen this play out in other (mostly creative) fields as well. But it is not without its challenges. Namely, the people who will pay the very high prices tend to come in via reputation and referrals. You can’t generally just throw up a website and some AdWords as a brand new baker and start pulling in five-figure clients. They either want to hear from other people who trust that you’re the person to go to, or at least you need a portfolio of similar work. And of course therein lies a bit of a catch-22. You can’t get high end clients without having other high end clients. No number of $30 birthday cake clients are going to give you credibility with $6k wedding cake clients.

Cake baking is one example where you might be able to work around this somewhat by just baking high end cakes for no client, posting them on social media, and hope to pull in a few brave first customers. But for trades like tattoos where there’s really no way to do it without a client, it’s tough. I have no experience with tattoos, but I’m guessing that in that world the high end customers want to see that you have tattooed beautiful things on other beautiful people. If your current client base is average looking people who mostly get boring or trashy tattoos, you can’t just quadruple your prices and expect it to work.

Having worked in the luxury industry before, my experience is that it really comes down to personal connections and branding. The problem is that positioning yourself as a true luxury player takes years (even in local markets) and until then you're still have to pay rent for high-end locations, PR, and equipment. There is a reason why most successful founders have strong industry connections and/or excellent references.

There’s no Catch-22 if you know the potential clients socially…or your parents and grandparents do.

It’s not that that advantage means a person doesn’t have to work hard. It means that hard work is more likely to produce success.

Even more important the social connections make hard work more likely to produce success. Prior familiarity with $6000 cakes creates intuition regarding where to prioritize efforts and where efforts don’t produce returns.

For example, what is the optimum resource commitment to the cake box. About how good does it need to be? Not enough is bad. Too much is money left on the table.

I read an interview with a watchmaker once. He used to make watches in the $2000 range, before moving on to watches much more expense (I forgot the number, $50,000?). The reason was simple: someone buying a $2000 is often there for a once-in-a-lifetime purchase - graduation, marriage, etc. Someone able to spend $50,000 on a watch typically will have no issues to start collecting them and buying many more.

Interesting! I have questions.

   * Did he have to start off in the 2k range before he had the skills/brand to make the 50k watches? 
   * Did he take any steps to avoid getting trapped in the 2k market (too busy making 2k watches to make a 50k watch)
   * Were there any intermediate steps up to 50k or was it 2k->50k directly?
   * Are the inputs for a 50k watch significantly more expensive? 
I imagine you won't have the answers (unless you can dig up the interview), but what a fascinating story with lessons for software. I've read plenty about avoiding the $9/month SaaS customer in favor of the $500/month or $10k/month customer, but it is interesting to see it play out in a different, consumer focused space.

Unfortunately, I don't remember the details, but from what I recall it was 'simply' a conscious decision on his part to switch his customer base, so it seemed that tooling/parts/skills/money were not the problem. I assume, as always, that luck has to be involved for someone to discover you and think you're worthy of their money. Then again, just the price tag alone may signify that you're worthy (remember that iPhone app 'I am rich', that did nothing but cost a couple thousand dollars?). Especially if your target audience really doesn't care about the price at all and can just afford to buy it as a novelty, to be the first to have watches from that new unknown brand, before it was cool.

But the story had an immediate impact on how I thought about many products and marketing.

As a previous goldsmith, I'd say it's the materials used (gold/platinum over silver) and the time one puts into a piece. Gold is easier to work with than silver as you don't have to worry about fire-scale and it's more malleable, so if you're able to produce a piece in silver, or stainless steel for that matter, then making the same piece in gold just comes down to investing more in your materials (~$1,8000 vs $30 an oz for gold vs. silver) for each piece. After that the time, embellishments are just more time invested with the piece.

If you’re interested in this topic of leveling up as a freelance creative, I recently came across Chris Do who has a lot of youtube content on this topic. There’s a lot of good stuff, and his delivery is much better than most other of the similar content youtube associates with him.

I've been thinking about that regarding tourbillons. This is the now-unnecessary but aesthetically pleasing component that has made some watches not mass produceable for 200 years. Over the last several years some enterprisers mostly in China have finally refined robotic processes to make them. The watches styles that are 5 and 6 figures in price are now around $1000. But, for now, I am still thinking I wouldn't be caught dead wearing one of those.

But because of the scam-like (or at least "rip off") nature of liking a brand that is using an inferior manufacturing process at 10x the price, I now have a quagmire where I wouldn't want to be seen owning the more expensive ones either!

But fortunately there is good news: almost nobody knows the more prestigious brands if it doesn't say "Rolex". So you get to blend in. Even thieves will go after the Rolex over the more expensive Breguet, I doubt aesthetics are a factor, only because of the name brand recognition in consumptive pop culture.

With high end goods and services It’s not enough to know the market.

Cultural fit is critical. To be in the metaphorical $6000 cake segment of the cake market, you have to hit all the social notes on cue that customers in the metaphorical $6000 cake market want their $6000 cake makers to hit.

What I mean is that the architect who designs golf course clubhouses has to be fun to play golf with to establish and maintain relationships with potential and current clients.

Delivering a $6000 cake cake experience to the sort of event that pays for a $6000 cake runs on the razor edge of servant and served without questioning the absurdities around $6000 cakes.

And if a person likes making cakes, bringing the joy of cake to 200 clients may be more satisfying than catering to people who suppose themselves intrinsically entitled to being catered to.

Obviously I know where I fall on that equation. From personal experience for whatever that’s worth.

> on the razor edge of servant and served

An incisive comment for the times. It brings ‘farm to table’ to mind.

>You’re better off being very expensive ($10k tattoo artist) than broadly appealing.

This is like saying you’re better off playing in the NBA than shooting hoops in the park. Yes, anyone can shoot hoops in the park and make $0 but wouldn’t it be so much better to play in the NBA and get paid millions?

It sounds great in theory but you better hope you have the talent, drive, and luck to make it happen.

Baking a $30 cake and baking a $6,000 cake are totally different ballgames and the actual baking is quite different and the business part of it requires totally different skills/network/etc.

Baking a $30 cake and baking a $6,000 cake are totally different ballgames and the actual baking is quite different and the business part of it requires totally different skills/network/etc.

I don't think that's true. The difference between two cakes is down to who baked them, not the price. There are amazing bakers making fantastic $30 cakes, and great bakers making brilliant $6000 cakes, and there are terrible bakers making awful $30 cakes and others making awful $6000 cakes. You can't tell whether a baker's cake is any good by what they charge.

No doubt the technique for baking a $30 cake and a $6000 cake is different (the sizes are probably different for a start) but any good baker could work at either end of the scale. It is absolutely not like basketball where things like genetics (height, lung capacity, heart size, etc) enter into it. No one is a naturally good baker.

This isn’t true at all! You can’t have ordered many cakes for weddings and large parties. There are plenty doing a good job who would not be able to move on to richer clients. There is significant variation in design skill, baking skill and equipment out there among professionals. Visual taste, food taste, steady hands, and stamina are three natural traits I’ve noticed and there are probably others in great bakers and chefs.

> No one is a naturally good baker.

While baking/cooking may not relate to physical genetics, it is definitely linked to creativity and such. Not everyone can be a Masterchef.

> I don't think that's true. The difference between two cakes is down to who baked them, not the price.

It is true? Everything you listed are things that are influenced by both the baker and the price. Not everyone can handle the stress of managing multiple high-end event deliveries while fulfilling the nuanced needs and quality expected of a 10k cake vs a 100$ cake, and so on.

No one is making awful $6000 cakes (or at least they're not selling them). You can absolutely tell how good a baker's cake is by how much they charge, assuming they're actually making sales. Someone who is consistently selling cakes for thousands of dollars is a very good baker.

Beyond that, you have to bear in mind that $30 cakes and $6000 cakes are basically different products. The former is a dessert and the latter is closer to art. A very successful baker making $30 cakes is more like the head chef at a restaurant than a home baker - they're running an operation that's making those cakes at scale (because there's a limit on how successful you can be selling $30 cakes that you make yourself - only so many hours in the day).

A baker making $6000 cakes is making hands-on, labor-intensive creations, and while that person may have some staff, they're involved in each cake. Their work doesn't scale the way the large-scale $30 cake operation does, but they can make lots of money in the same way a high-paid lawyer does - basically a very high hourly rate for their work.

Closing a $6,000 deal with a decision maker at a big company is different than closing a $30 deal with my grandpa. Getting on the radar of the decision maker at a big company is a different skill than getting my grandpa’s attention.

The difference has very little to do with the cake.

A fair number of high-priced wedding cake makers just use boxed cake mix. It’s the decorating and the security that they’re not going to fuck up the wedding day.

I don't know about the NBA but if you look at the stunning difference between Mike Trout's salary (35 million/year) and an AAA minor league player's (700/week) you might be even more stunned by the difference between their batting averages (ie, around .100).

Point is, once someone gets "in the game" and isn't just playing for fun, valuations get really strange. As another example, I am impressed by the salaries at Facebook when it is still just a particularly herky-jerky Myspace clone, or at Youtube, which is the same website it always was 10+ years ago ("But now with TWO types of annotations no one asked for.") What are all those geniuses doing? They aren't even batting above average as far as I can tell.


As for baking, I knew a professional baker when I worked in a restaurant. Man, that guy was miserable and weird. He made nice-looking stuff third shift for the next day, but knowing him, I wasn't about to eat any of it.

> you might be even more stunned by the difference between their batting averages (ie, around .100).

You have to account for both sides of that equation, though, and consider the skill of the pitchers being faced by the minor leaguer.

You are right, but I think it applies in smaller increments.

To get back to bread, selling fancy cakes for 10$ and not 4$ might not seem a big deal, but it can be enough to upgrade all the ingredients while staying in your comfort zone skill wise.

The competition gets smaller, and while you’re now priced the same as some superstar shops, you clients will still be happy if it’s clearly better than the 4$ cakes next door.

In a way NBA is a regulated market, most markets don’t behave that way.

I’ve been only on the customer side but can concur.

We were buying “fancy” bread and cakes a lot at a nearby bakeries, but clearly the bulk of the customers and sales where kids on their way from school to home, and people buying bread for the dinner and next morning.

Of course quality mattered to a point, but I don’t think it made a difference wether it was 70% good instead of 99% good.

At a point we were waiting the croissants at a store that was won the best award that year, and behind us the local residents were pretty bitchy about having to wait 5min for the next batch, and ended up going to another store farther from there.

This is definitely a cultural thing, in France for instance, when I've visited. Every tiny village has a great bakery and possibly a patisserie as well. If you don't arrive at 8am or whenever, you won't get to choose what you want. People deal with it and the bakery still gets a lot of attention, in some cases the supermarket doesn't even sell bread and you have to go out to the bakery.

> Also they often didn't even like "fancy" bread, and would complain about anything different from just regular sliced grocery store foam.

Great Harvest seems to do well enough. The one in my area is always busy. They have a FAQ for potential franchisees:


Are Soft Pretzels in the bread or cake category? I.e the type from Auntie Anne's.

Anyone know how are the margins with a Pretzel stand / your typical Auntie Anne's?

technically, it's a yeasted bread. The only thing that differentiates a pretzel from any other bread is that pretzel dough gets dipped in a basic solution before baking to create the brown crust

I was a mixer general grunt at a bagel shop, also worked at a donut shop, but I have a feeling you are looking to jump in a little above that.

In general in the culinary world, schooling is like 90% a scam. You dont know how many culinary graduates I trained when I was just someone two years into the industry with a philosophy degree. People do get value out of it, and the debt is relatively small compared to regular college, but unless you go to like CIA you are going to be in the same boat as someone just off the street.

That said, the job market for pastry/bread is more competitive, they are special jobs in the whole domain. and you will likely have to prove yourself as a general cook before you can get to work with bread. Any bakery is not going to take a chance with someone without experience, so you need to get your experience in a kitchen.

Things in food service are not going to be "careers" the way you want them to be. you will not have any benefits, and you will find there is very little room to progress beyond taking the plunge and doing your own venture. in the united States at least, if you work in a kitchen/food service, you are usually in near constant precarity or you are working over 60 hrs a week. there is little reward beyond the camaraderie of your team and the satisfaction of making things on your feet. and the beer at the end of a shift.

I had some great times, but if you are presumably doing Dev work so far in your life, get ready for physical/mental/emotional challenges like you have never imagined. Coding is a million times easier than anything I had to do in food service

Ditto. But eh... My bagel place was large enough to be industrial park warehouse sized and served the state of New Mexico with outlet shops and probably the bagels you find in the bulk bins at the grocery stores. They hired anybody breathing. It's a fun hacker story.

I applied and they told me I was overqualified so I played the "starving actor" card. I do computers and stuff but need a blah blah job to pay the rent. Bagels on that mid-industrial scale are more assembly line like engineering. Cut the dough, feed it into the former, put it on a tray, freeze or proof and bake, coat with things if needed, fill boxes... it's more of just a process.

A few weeks later the boss comes out for like the third time for a gripe session complaining about all of the wastage happening during the proofing process. Engineer brain piped up and blurted out "your doing it wrong". Gah! do it this way. The boss turns to the floor manager and promptly sends him out shopping for a list of items and the next day my procedure was implemented and all was well. A week later the boss calls me into the office with the owners. They can't do much but slip me a goodly amount of cash under the table.

Not to long after I was the mix-master coming in at 3am with the boss to get the work started and prepare the days production run and we'd bash out a significant amount of product in the couple of hours that it took for the rest of the workers to come in for their shifts. Then he'd go to the office and I'd just mix up new batches of dough or go make some boxes.

Pretty much walked out every day with enough bagels to fill myself and my housemates.

I would agree in the end, that sort of "baker" is pretty much dead end. There aren't really advancement positions much beyond mix-master or floor manager, it's a sparse field.

I actually found "baker" trivially easy compared to Dev/CS work. Same with "residential dining" or "warehouse management". If it's large enough it's just another procedure/process problem that you can hack into shape just like programming.

i am curious to know details of what you told them to change.

this story shows that it pays to have engineers work on the ground to understand the operations and find ways to improve them, even if it happened by accident here.

i occasionally bake at home, and friends tell me they are intimidated by baking, but it's really just applying a recipe. scaling that up is pure engineering.

> the debt is relatively small compared to regular college,

Unfortunately the pay is also relatively small when compared with the kind of jobs a college graduate might apply for. It's not bad once you get your own kitchen, but I've known some very skilled cooks who started at $10 an hour at their restaurants. Culinary degree and all

That sounds most accurate, read Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential for more detail :-)

Not a baker but very close to one.

Bakery is learned as apprenticeship in my home, i.e. 50% school with other young bakers and the other half in the bakery which took you in. This is a very classical education type for trades called "Ausbildung". It takes 3 years and afterwards you can work or become a master/"Meister" which takes two more years. A Meister extends his knowledge and some years ago it was mandatory by law to have finished your Meister to open your own business. Personally this is a very good way to learn professional crafts and you even get payed for it - even when in school.

The job market is not so nice as there are mainly bakery chains which don't even hire bakers by education primarily due to higher labor costs.

However, there are some bakers who create their own small shops where they do everything by hand in contrast to the prefabricated and highly optimized bakery chains. The small shops make traditional bread, and you can taste it. Your stomach and digestive system will probably like it, too.

Yes, it is a good career if you dare and risk opening your own store. You will attract people by the quality of your product who will, in exchange, not only become loyal customers but being the supplier for bread in Germany is a highly valued profession - an institution.

Good people get help by other good people. This is basic human law. I feel having a platonic relationship with the baker I know and he never has IT problems for long. :)

> but being the supplier for bread in Germany is a highly valued profession - an institution

You are making a good point here. Different countries will value quality bread and other types of baking much more than others.

Not a baker, but I recently started a business that I hired a professional baker. We currently bake brownies, gateaux/butter cakes, cup cakes, and macarons.

> Did you go to school for it or learn on the job?

Well the baker I employ has a formal diploma, and it indeed helped a lot. It takes time to develop ones own recipes, but having some practice from another chef makes a huge difference.

> What is the job market like?

Speaking from the employer's perspective, it really wasn't that difficult to find our current chef. However, each chef certainly has their own touch, and it would be difficult for us to change our current chef and expect the same quality from someone else. The rates we negotiate are competitive, and my highest cost so far.

> Do you consider it a good career?

I think so. Our chef certainly enjoys his craft, and I find it to be a very rewarding art myself too. However, it doesn't fall into those lucrative jobs that brings a ton of money unless you become a head-chef of a bigger business.

If you were to run the business by yourself, it still can be as not as lucrative because we found it a bit difficult to make ends meet until we build up a good customer base. It takes us nearly 2 cakes and 12-24 brownies sold a day to break-even the rent, depreciation, utilities, staff costs, etc. Any month below this threshold is a loss-making month.

However, when things are busy, it tends to be stressful.

Things like Macarons are rather risky to bake as they are more fragile and even small changes such as a change of color and shape needs us to redo the entire thing. They also need to be made afresh for almost every order. We try to offset this repetition with items like cheesecakes and gateaux cakes, which can be safely frozen for days. Brownies, which we can bake and keep for three days, etc.

At our worst days, we had the chef working nearly 12 hours a day, and me driving for better half of the day making deliveries. We could of course optimize all these, but I suppose there will always be packed days once in a while.

I'm a software architect, and I find software industry and the baking industry to be different as day and night.

A cake and 2 dozen brownies a day to make rent eh? What’s in them brownies?

My family owned and operated a full service bakery. That means they did everything from breads, to cookies, to cakes, to weddings and special orders, as well as seasonal favorites.

Being a baker is hard. Your staff has to be there nearly all the time prepping, proofing, baking, selling, you're competing with not only supermarkets but also operations like Costco/Sam's Club which can produce high quality baked goods at very low prices, etc.

Also remember that your operation is like a factory where you're always dealing with storing supplies, which expire in a matter of weeks sometimes, and then your produced goods expire in a matter of days.

Also, you'll be dealing with customers whose only experience is supermarket bread, which doesn't go stale, doesn't mold, etc. and they will think your product is inferior if it does.

I think things have changed since when I was a kid in the 80s, but if I were to start a bakery now, I'd be thinking about niche products- focus on a tiny market segment, specific to specific groups- health conscious, gluten free, specialty flavors or some other segment that is going to be willing to pay for a premium product. Do not try to compete on price.

I'd be thinking about marketing heavily, and I'd think about creative outlets for both producing and selling.

For example, maybe sell at a farmer's market instead of a storefront. For production, rent a commercial kitchen instead of fronting the money for making equipment, selling online or subscriptions as well. Basically cut your costs as much as possible while you do your proof of concept.

I don't doubt for a minute that being a small bakery business is super hard, and competing against supermarkets etc is frustrating, but i don't think it's because the quality is the same. Supermarket cakes, etc, are absolute trash. I don't know any of them that use butter, which makes their cakes taste awful.

The problem is, people just don't have the time or energy to go to separate bakeries, or don't have the mindset to do so. also if you bake a good cake there's likely no way you can compete with supermarket prices.

So there's no doubt in my mind you can easily out compete supermarkets on quality, unfortunately, it doesn't seem to matter.

Curious, why doesn't supermarket bread go stale as quick as bakery bread? Is it because they use some sort of preservative (I could not find anything obvious in the ingredients list)?

According to google: Some common bread preservatives include calcium propionate, sodium benzoate, potassium sorbate, and sorbic acid.

Also, last I read about it, there is some trick or loophole that allows them to use additives for bread making that don't need to be listed in the ingredients list. Google bread making enzymes, that's their umbrella term IIRC.

It's a combination of factors. First, as the other replies mentioned, there are preservatives and stabilizers in supermarket breads.

Also, any bread in a plastic bag won't go stale as quickly, but it can grow mold due to the presence of moisture, but factory bread contains things like calcium propionate that inhibit mold growth.

Bread without preservatives and kept out of a plastic bag will go stale in a short time (a couple of days maybe).

It depends on the flour. A friend of mine baked bread, but he also made the flour (and everything really. Not for mass production). His bread took a week to go stale. It was also amazing to eat (not an expert).

He grew his own wheat and had some very specific requirements when making the flour (he didn't own the grind, but he was friend with the owner).

That's all I know. Of course no GMO.

Stand it on the cut edge and cover it with a thin dish towel.

I don't have much to add to this but it reminded me of this blog article about running a bakery business on Postgres and Emacs https://bofh.org.uk/2019/02/25/baking-with-emacs/ there's also a few more articles on that blog about his transition from Software Engineer to Baker. I have no idea if he stuck with it, maybe you could reach out to him?

Edit: although the website is down the Twitter and Facebook pages for the business still seem active.

I used to be. I completed my 4 year apprenticeship (plus a 1 year pre-apprenticeship and a few years just working in a country bakery)

25+ years ago.

I got bored of the same daily grind every day and changed career to IT... am still in that space now.

I have considered going back but not really. the money is too good and the job is alway ALWAYS a challenge.

(Australia btw...)

A day in the life of Lloyd Squires, Vermont's 'best' bagel maker


From a close friend who has been a baker for decades:

The margins on flour, water, and salt (bread) are thin.

The margins on sugar (pastries) and meat/vegetables/cheese (pizzas) are better.

She doesn't bake bread these days, but makes a good living off of pizzas.

This seems backwards.

The flour (say 500 grams) for a basic loaf of bread should cost something like 50 cents, looking at U.S. prices. Water, yeast and salt a fraction of a cent each. You should be able to charge at least $3 for the resulting loaf. If you know what you're doing and are in the right area, maybe as much as $6? 6-12x markup over ingredient cost.

The same bread ingredients would make the dough for a rather large pepperoni pizza, which you could maybe charge $20 for? A very conservative (I think) $2.50 of cheese and $1 of pepperoni would leave you at a 5x markup. Never mind tomato sauce, or the extra labour involved.

It may seem backwards, but it is forwards:

Total ingredient cost for a $3 loaf is about $0.75. Adding in cracked grains or seeds brings it to c. $1.50 for a $5-6 loaf. Total ingredient cost for a $20 pizza is about $3. This is for a "good" pizza. A Pizza Hut-grade pizza is probably $1.50-$2.00 in ingredients and sells for $9-10.

Now: bakeries do not sell every loaf of bread they bake. Quite a bit of bread goes stale, gets made into breadcrumbs, thrown out, sold at discount, donated to food pantries.

Pizza has much less spoilage because of the process: most ingredients, including the dough, are refrigerated. The dough needs 48h (could be as short as 24h) to ferment, but then stays good in the fridge for days. As long as you have a big enough fridge, the inventory problem is pretty simple to manage. Cured meats (sausage, pepperoni) have a long shelf life with refrigeration, as does cheese. Vegetables also last for days. The end result is that (albeit with some added costs from refrigeration) you're able to make the products on-demand as the orders come in. With bread, the product must be prepared well in advance and there's more waste.

A well-run pizzeria is pretty lean on labor, too. Plenty of pizzerias get by profitably with one or two men in the kitchen and one man at the counter.

But if you don't believe me, believe the market: most bread is produced industrially, sealed in plastic, and shipped to retailers on trucks. Small profitable pizzerias are ubiquitous.

I'd love to see how one comes to these number. $0.75 is either very expensive flour, or a very large loaf sold too cheaply. Adding seeds (at what, 5-10% of the weight of the flour?) to a loaf doubles the ingredient cost? Glancing at bulk commercial prices, sesame seeds added at (the unrealistically high) 20% of a loaf made with 500g flour should be about $0.29. Poppy seeds almost gets you there if you use the unusually high 2018 price, at $0.65.

$3 of bulk part-skim mozzarella is generously something like 250g worth. That's skimpy for a large pizza. The rest of the ingredients for this "good" pizza are free?

A bakery that's throwing out too much is baking too much, or there's no market for their bread. That's nothing to do with the margin on bread being thin. Small profitable bakeries are ubiquitous where there's a market for them. See: France.

Typically the method used to get these numbers is arithmetic. HG flour is $22 per 50# wholesale, bulk, delivered. Organic HG is $48 for the same. A bag of flour is about 30 loaves (we scale recipes to the 50# bag). Typically the artisanal seed stuff will get the higher grade flour.

Shredded mozzarella is $52 per 20# wholesale, bulk, delivered.

Et cetera.

Certainly if you are in a different market, the economics could be different.

Hope this helps you understand.

Okay. What I'm gathering from this is that if one tries to sell artisan bread at prices competitive with Wonderbread, and overcharges for bottom-barrel pizza cheese, one might fall under the illusion that low margin items are high and vice versa.

Excuse my spiciness, but you did just hit me with that arithmetic quip.

A 5 buck loaf is certainly not in the wonderbread territory. Its both a mix of far more expensive and smaller in size.

A $3 loaf was described above. 50lb bag of flour making 30 loaves. At a pretty standard 60% hydration, the resulting loaf is both heavier and cheaper by weight than a loaf of Wonderbread usually is.

I suppose it could end up substantially smaller in volume if poorly made.

The cheese is good quality. These are the real economics of the market in a major USA East Coast city. My friend's been profitable for decades. Grocers out here sell pretty good loaves as loss leaders; you can call something artisanal all day long, but if you're charging too much, you're not competitive.

When I worked at in an in-store Supermarket Bakery years ago the target gross profit was 70%. So a $1 loaf would have 30 cents worth of ingredients.

The ingredients are not the only cost. Labor (time), rent, etc. all go into margin.

A loaf of bread bakes for 30-60 minutes. A pizza bakes for 3-10 minutes, so you can bake a lot more pizzas than bread loaves in a day. You can probably also sell more pizzas than bread loaves in a day.

Margin on ingredients specifically was mentioned. Anyway, I contend that pizza is more labour intensive than bread.

You can fit many loaves of bread in the oven space of one pizza.

No doubt that in some circumstances, pizza is a more viable business model than bread. I'm just skeptical that the margin on a pizza sale is typically better than bread.

For prep work, you can store pizza dough as little balls, or pre-flatten them and put them on racks, freezing many more pizza doughs than bread doughs. Preparing a pizza crust is as easy as using a press, but to make consistent bread you need a complicated machine that's annoying to clean. Bread also needs a proofer if you're serious about mass producing it, hence needing more space. Otherwise you can enjoy handcrafting your bread and cultivating yeast, which is another art and science all to itself.

While less pizzas fit in a pizza oven than bread may fit in a bread oven, it's easier to prepare pizzas, easier to hire for, and people pay more for them.

Pizza dough is bread dough, the process is the same up to a point. In making loaves, you will have them portioned as balls at some point, same as pizza. You will shape them and put them on racks, same as pizza (pizza stacks/packs more efficiently here, but that seems irrelevant. Bakeries aren't in the habit of mass storage of shaped dough). Shaping a loaf can be a few seconds with your hands, same as pizza. Labour saving devices, like a dough sheeter for pizza, is just that in either case: labour saving. Bread loaves can be made with or without a proofer, as can pizza.

Preparing and hiring for something like Pizza Hut or Domino's is undoubtedly easier. But at an independent bakery, I really don't see the case for pizza being a higher margin item.

Pizza dough typically has oil and sugar, bread dough does not.

Pizza dough is typically bulk fermented cold for 2-12 days, bread dough is usually bulk fermented at room temperature for 1-4 hrs. Rye breads are a bit different and the fermentation is staged over about 36hr, at room temp.

>Margin on ingredients specifically was mentioned.

Ingredients were mentioned as classifications for product types.

>You can fit many loaves of bread in the oven space of one pizza.

Not really. Maybe 2-3 decent sized loaves in the footprint of one large pizza, but you can also bake pizzas in much less vertical space, so you can have double the baking surface footprint for pizzas in the same oven volume.

In reality, dedicated pizza ovens are tall enough fit most styles of bread. The necessities of air circulation means you can't shrink the vertical space as much as you might like to.

Anyway, it seems to me the important metric in this regard would be how many items per unit time a baker can effectively manage. Pizza requires some amount of attention more or less constantly. I doubt one baker can manage more than 5 at time, even if the oven could fit many more. Meanwhile that same baker can set a timer on an oven containing many dozens of bread loaves and forget about them until they're done.

You'll burn the top of the loaf if you try to bake a typical artisan batard or boule in a commercial pizza deck oven, due to radiative heat from the top of the oven. You could probably get away with focaccia or similar short flat-top breads.

Items per unit baker time doesn't really matter. 5 pizzas takes say 15-20 minutes of baker+oven time and gives you (using your numbers from up thread) $76 revenue (net ingredient costs). 3 dozen loaves takes a similar amount of baker time, 3x as much oven time (and probably at least double the required oven volume), gives you similar revenue, and is much harder to sell.

A sandwich loaf baked in a pan should be made in a different style of oven, but the types of bread you're talking about are ideally made in the same style of deck oven as pizzas.

To achieve that speed of pizza turnout would be quite the feat I think. Is this factoring in assembling pizzas? Checking/rotating pizzas partway through baking? The oven would have to be running much hotter than for the bread (admittedly no idea of the costs here). You'd probably have to use 5 separate decks to avoid slowing the bake when loading/unloading, 5 decks that could be packed with loaves rather than a single pizza.

Meanwhile, I don't see why it should take more than 10 minutes to load an oven with 3 dozen loaves. During the bake time, the baker can be mixing or shaping another batch or any other task. The pizza maker realistically can't be doing anything but assembling/baking pizzas.

Separate from baking, pizza necessitates the added labour of grating cheese and making sauce, or paying a premium for prepared versions.

No argument that 36 loaves is a harder sell than 5 pizzas. That's sales volume though, not margin.

Margin is zero if you can't sell it.

Could a bread oven pack more efficiently than a pizza oven? It seems easier to put a bunch of rectangular prisms in a space compared to largeish disks

If you're baking rectangular prisms you're competing with $2 grocery store bread. To have a chance as an independent baker you need to go after the more expensive "artisan" type breads which are typically oblong or round (boules) and not baked in a pan.

There's plenty of "artisan" sandwich loaf, baked-in-a-pan bread out there.

Just one anecdote, but one that might temper expectations: A friend of mine with two decades of experience who'd already proven herself indispensable at a famous (and completely dysfunctional) NYC French restaurant looked around for the next step in her career. She interviewed at a highly competitive Michelen star restaurant in Manhattan and got the offer: minimum wage and an expected 60 hours a week. While they charge a typical customer 200-300 a dinner. That was before the pandemic.

She wondered what the point of striving in the field was if that's what it was like at the top. She's since moved to a state where recreational use of cannabis is legal and makes more money healing people with chocolate than she ever did baking. Has weekends again. No sociopathic or sexual abuse from coworkers. Consistent peaceful workload. Creative and high craft output instead of crank-out-that-coconut-cake-again.

This is just one story and it may not last once the industry consolidates, but now is an excellent moment for bakers' mental health to shift to producing edibles.

Edit: Beware the expensive culinary schools. They can be a lot of money and don't necessarily help finding employment. Akin to bootcamps and art institutes.

Have a friend who worked a year at a one star restaurant making basically minimum wage but then left to do private cooking/private dining. Cleared $200k last year.

Yep, I think that's the way. No matter the vocation. Cut out the management tier as much as possible between you and your customer.

Not a baker, but a local bakery popped up recently in Phoenix. It’s a high end French patisserie, easily equalling anything I’ve had in Paris.

The baker comes from Switzerland where he was previously a banker. He has no formal baking training, and yet produces the highest quality products.

Although the demand for high end French pastries is relatively low in Phoenix (there is no competition), he’s found a core customer base that clears him out every Saturday.


In a large enough metropolitan area, his formula could be replicated with great success.

This. ( Not a baker but used to work in commodity trading and Food sector )

Which is in response to the first comment. You cant compete on commodity. And you really shouldn't be. Doesn't matter which market it is you are always going to lose to economy of scale, i.e Grocery Store. You have to compete on specialty. I believe high end French patisserie is a market of massive growth. Unfortunately these type of business are unattractive to VC.

My wife went to CIA and is starting a local gluten free bakery while I keep the full time tech job and help out here and there.

We are starting very slowly; almost entirely word of mouth for now. We intend to build our base slowly.

There is certainly demand for gluten free baked goods. We will hopefully be able to hire someone soon.

My gf's uncle is a well know baker. Workaholic. Works all night, sleeps a little during the day. It's hard physical work that requires a lot of skills and experience. If it is your passion, make it your career. Don't do the same mistake as I did and make your hobby your career. God luck!

Interesting, I interpret "passion" as "my favorite hobby", hobby being something I'm interested in that is not my day job (school being the job when a kid)

I am currently one month in to learning on the job as a baker. I can’t speak for the job market, but I can say that working at this job has given me a new perspective on restaurants, bakeries and food. It gives me lots of ideas for opportunity and innovation related to my previous career / school experiences. I don’t think I plan on being a baker long term, but I find the work itself to be really gratifying so I might change my tune! It’s rewarding to see so many people immediately enjoy & be nourished by something I’ve made. Once I got the hang of things the repetitive processes have been a relatively easy way to feel a flow state. It’s also cool to create something I didn’t think I was capable of making a couple of weeks ago. I am working part time and highly recommend at least trying a part time baking gig at a place that’s willing to train you on the job. Thanks for the reason to reflect!

You may want to check out the Bread Bakers Guild of America.


When you say professional baker, are you talking about owning your own small bakery that does a little of everything each day?

Are you talking about owning a shop that does limited consumer sales but sells hundreds of loaves, rolls, etc daily across dozens of restaurants ?

A high end pastry chef?

I’m not a professional baker, but I am friends with someone who operates the second option. They went to school for hospitality- their family owned a hotel.

They sell a limited selection to super markets and restaurants. They do operate a small retail store and sell at farmers markets as well. They don’t sell pastries of any kind.

I was not a pro baker, but I worked at a culinary school for a while, so I picked up a little indirect knowledge (which now might be a little out of date). Culinary school is a very ‘it depends’ proposition. A good school will give you some good preparation for working in a commercial kitchen. It might give you a little leg up in hiring. It can be fairly expensive. Entry level wages are (or were at the time) low. Right now, with worker shortages, it might be easier to walk in and get such a job without school. Long term, you might be looking to owning your own shop, teaching, writing cookbooks, etc.

The number of professional bakers on HN exceeded my estimate by an order of magnitude (10 vs 1). I wonder what other further-afield occupations I'd be surprised are represented here.

I currently own and run a bakery. We sell breads and pastries, and generally avoid anything custom, such as fancy cakes. We have things figured out enough that we’ll hire people with no experience on the spot and train them up. We start by having them work the table, meaning they shape the dough into the final products. Its fairly safe, and as long as there is supervision its not usually hard. From there they can pick where they want to train next, be it mixing, ovens, or something else.

As for my own training, I did not have any schooling or apprenticeship. What helped me was to hire someone with experience. The baker we hired didn’t have a grasp of fundamentals (why certain things are done), but he knew enough of the mechanics to get us going. I spent a lot of time reading, researching, and learning the underlying science of things. Also I was just crazy enough to make large changes in production with minimal testing until things worked. Changes such as swapping out starter types in a dough…

As for the job market: we are having an extremely hard time finding people. In Oregon minimum wage is $14/hour but you can drive for Amazon for over $20. Trying to strike a balance with labor costs and product costs has been very difficult, especially with Covid. Last time I priced out ingredients, a baguette cost less than $0.15, but the rest of the cost is 100% people. So we spent a ton of time getting less people involved. Today we can comfortably bake about 1000lbs of dough with one person mixing, two on the tables, and one on the ovens.

One essential part of our operations is the custom software I wrote for managing the production floor. We track orders for customers in the software and on the day for baking the mixer just uses the iPad for how much dough to make, how much batter to mix, and how much of each ingredient to weigh. Then the shapers see a list of what breads to make out of each dough, and then the bakers get to see what should be baked. Because the software automatically calculates all the quantities, the production process is MUCH less mentally challenging and basically runs on autopilot. We are looking to actually cleanup and resell the software to bakeries.

And finally, is it a good career? Depends a lot. We only have one location, so as a baker there’s only so much you can climb up the ladder. If you really wanted to make a good career you’ll need to learn all the jobs and learn them well. Then make your way into management with all the knowledge you now have. If you really wanted to climb, you’ll jump over to a large company or one thats looking to become large. Be aware that large bakeries are very different in many ways from small operations. Our bakery is looking to grow a lot, and we need people to make it happen. We are projecting to open a second production facility in a few years, and we would be looking to hire all sorts of positions, including shift managers, general production managers, and there would likely also be a production manager over both facilities. The downside is that if you’re in it because you enjoy touching the products, then too high up the management ladder you climb, the less that’ll happen.

With all that said, it’s extremely hard to own a bakery, especially starting out. The capital expenditure is huge. Yes, the margins you get are pretty good. We are hovering around a 50% gross margin now which is great, but we need to increase the volume of product we move. I still write a ton of code for my other startup that we are trying to launch soon (finance, not baking). I personally enjoy baking a lot, but I have waaaay more skill with the computer, so I’m stuck balancing where to spend my hours in the day. Becoming a baker depends a lot on what you want to do with yourself.

I enjoyed this article in The New Yorker (Apr 13 2020 issue), where the author talks about his boulangerie apprenticeship in Lyon, France. Parts of it were beautifully written for my taste.


Here's a yt channel about a small sour dough bread baker. Although I think they started by buying out another one-person-garage operation. https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCPYHRKEqMycep7r5kO-1org

Knew a guy who ran bread ops at a normal bakery. He slept poorly and eventually quit because lifting was hurting his back..

My good friend is owner of artisanal bakery (as well as baker herself).

What I can see she is happy to hire people without prior experience and teach them on spot.

Is that good career? It depends on who will ask. Baking is blue collar job: pay is low and hours are long. For some it might make sense, for average tech worker probably not.

Sorry for the off topic question: Do you think specialising in one type of baked good e.g. coconut cake and offering delivery of handmade,high quality goods to a small subscriber base would work? I estimated would need to ship several cakes per day, so it does seem hard to make a living of it

the challenge would be getting your subscriber base.

i could see myself subscribing to getting a different cake every month or even every week, but not the same cake over and over again. that makes more sense for bread.

maybe if you have a cake of the week, you could churn out the same cake for all subscribers for a week, and then make a different one the next.

A former coworker of mine was a professional pastry chef before she switched to software development. She said the salary ceiling was quite low (40k-50k in a hotel) which is one of the reasons she moved. IIRC, she’s now writing software for a major investment firm, making bank.

I can only bake Raspberry Pi…

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