Work-life-balance doesn't have to be a foreign phrase in restaurants, but making the work part profitable enough to allow for life and balance is a challenge unless you find the right formula.
— Jason Clampet
Sometimes, success simply isn’t enough to get through the stress of being successful. Back in the Day Bakery, one of the more iconic bakeries in the southern United States, sits on Bull Street in Savannah, Ga., at the edge of the Starland district, and guests habitually form a line out the door for warm biscuits, slices of Salted Apple Cider Pie or a fresh scoop of banana pudding, and the chance to chat with best-selling cookbook authors and James Beard nominees Cheryl and Griff Day.
But as of February of this year, those guests are only lining up Thursdays through Sundays. The Days made the decision to embrace more of a life balance and change their hours, and it’s proving to be good for the business as well.
“Year 16 was a big milestone for us, and we were starting to get weary,” Cheryl says. “The team was getting tired, we were bursting at the seams and so busy. Everybody thinks that’s what you want, so the first thing we tried to do is find more staff,” she explains. That proved to be difficult — bakers hours are long, physical and early, after all — and so then the bakery owners began questioning what they really did want.
Back in 2002 when they’d opened, they did so with the idea and intent of baking with one person in mind; in other words, they wanted their food to be a connection to their customers, who became regulars, and then friends. But the fatigue of success was starting to threaten that connection, and “at some point, you have to figure out what is important,” she explains.
To the owners and their committed team members, that meant a healthy working environment that allowed time outside of work, something that was becoming elusive. “My hands are there, in biscuit dough, as well as running a business and writing successful cookbooks, and we felt like all we did was work, go home and sleep, and do it again.”
So in early 2018, the Days brought the idea of reduced bakery hours to their staff, they drafted an online note, and then they decided to take the plunge, still paying the bakers a full-time wage and filling in with FOH part-timers for the rest of the staff. “We weren’t sure what was going to happen, and if, financially, we’d have to take on classes or pick up wholesale accounts, but we’ve never needed to. Our loyal customers really wanted to show support for our decision, and so at first it was pretty intensely busy, non-stop days beginning to end.” And then once the team got their new schedule down pat, they started to see the benefits beyond the time off.
First, the staff — once pulled in too many directions to spend time together — now enjoys a family meal once a week on Wednesdays during prep. They not only get to talk shop but build a stronger work community during a time when they have the bakery to themselves (and it isn’t 4 a.m.).
Secondly, the reduced hours seemed to concentrate instead of turn off the customers, who still lined up and filled every table pretty quickly most days. And finally, the shift of hours from Tuesday through Saturday to Thursday through Sunday gave the Days an unexpected bonus — the realization that Sunday was a prime “be open” day that the bakery had not been taking advantage of.
“Before, if tourists were in for the weekend and couldn’t get to us by Saturday, then they missed us altogether, “ Cheryl says. “And we never knew that Sundays would be busier than Saturdays.” A busier work day helped offset the reduced hours, and Cheryl notes that it’s important to pay attention to the savings that come from reduced hours as well, from utility bills to staff transportation costs, to even wear and tear on equipment.
So now, not only do the Days and their staff enjoy more of a life balance, the bottom line profits have shifted very little, remaining as robust as when the bakery had longer hours. It was a commitment to the long-term sustainability of the business beyond the day-to-day sales.
“Our financials show similar profits to last year, and we’ve just concentrated our sales, not reduced them. And I have a rose garden and an herb garden. I come home to a fresh bloom that’s opened and I’m amazed. It’s something that I never took the time to enjoy before.”
Sounds like the icing on the business cake.
Stephanie Burt is the host and producer of The Southern Fork podcast and a writer based in Charleston, SC. Her work has appeared in Saveur, Roads & Kingdoms, Conde Nast Traveler, Gravy, and Paste, and she focuses on researching heirloom ingredients, interviewing passionate people creating good food, and when she’s in the kitchen, perfecting her roasted chicken recipe.