EDINA, Minn. -- Jerry's Foods here has always shone the spotlight on its in-store bakery, so it seems fitting that one of its bakery managers has distinguished himself by earning certification as a Master Baker.
While hot-cross buns and angel-food cakes made from scratch may be the obvious differentiators at Jerry's, Darrell Mickschl represents a new level of distinction since he completed requirements to be certified by the Retailer's Bakery Association, Laurel, Md., as a Master Baker.
After successfully finishing a lengthy, written exam and a days-long, hands-on performance test required by the RBA, Mickschl became one of only 97 RBA Certified Master Bakers in the United States. What's more, he's one of just 10 who are employed by a supermarket.
He manages the on-site production facility and in-store bakery at the Jerry's unit here -- one of three upscale stores operated under the Jerry's banner by owner Jerry Paulsen. Paulsen also operates12 price-impact stores in the area under Cub and Supervalu banners.
Mickschl, in a recent interview with SN, talked about certification, his work at Jerry's and how he hopes to apply his new status in the industry.
"Basically, I got certified for the personal satisfaction. I didn't really have a professional motive. I just wanted to see if I could do it. And coming from a baking family, they're just beyond proud of me. That's a reward in itself," Mickschl said.
But Master Baker certification -- attained only after the successful completion of tests Mickschl said are "even tougher than I thought they would be" -- has its own professional panache. It could provide a marketing tool for Jerry's and it gives Mickschl a title that he hopes he can put to good use for the industry itself.
"I've started a dialogue with the Bloomington [Minn.] school district. I think I could use my Certified Baker status in some way to help convince youth in school that baking could be in their future. I'd like to participate in swinging the labor market around by working maybe in RBA's Switching Gears program. I'd participate at any level -- including teaching classes -- to get people interested in becoming a baker," Mickschl said.
Mickschl even envisions a work-study program that he hopes he might convince his employers to launch in the future. He said that the paucity of skilled bakery workers often makes it nearly impossible for bakeries to produce a best-quality product. He's lucky right now at Jerry's, though, he hastened to point out.
"I have probably the best production staff I've ever had anywhere. But generally, in the industry, the biggest challenge is obtaining and maintaining a quality work force. It's extremely hard to find skilled people for bakery," he said.
"At Jerry's, we work nights. Everything goes on the shelf fresh in the morning. We, on the night crew, have a certain camaraderie and I try to keep them happy. For instance, I make up the work schedule at least two or three weeks ahead. I've been a night worker most of my life and I know what's it's like to not know on Friday whether you're working on Sunday."
In a 5,000-square-foot production area in the basement of the 46,800-square-foot store here, product is turned out at a high-volume clip for this store and for one of Paulsen's Supervalu stores.
"During angel [food cake] season, which is coming up, we'll sell 100 or more angel-food cakes a day at just this store, and during the Christmas holidays we sell so much stuff it's unbelievable," Mickschl said.
He added that during the six days preceding Christmas, Jerry's store here sells literally thousands of loaves of from-scratch yule kage [a fruitcake with Scandinavian origins that Jerry's sells year-round] and cookie trays. Pretty soon, hot-cross buns will be selling at a rate of 150 six-count packages a day at the one store here, and that figure will top 200 a day just before Easter, Mickschl said.
"It's a very holiday-oriented store and also the people around here are very family-oriented. They have a lot of family get-togethers, but nobody has time to bake any more. They know they can count on us and they don't mind paying for quality," he said.
After Easter, as strawberry season gets near, the angel-food cake business begins to climb. The cakes, definitely a destination item at Jerry's, retail for $4.59 each.
"We use the largest bowl on our mixer and we'll be mixing a batch of them twice a day in the midst of angel season." In addition to regular-sized angel-food cakes, Jerry's also makes a loaf or bar angel-food cake, which he said is popular with senior citizens. "They're often alone and they don't want a lot of leftovers," he said.
"For example, apple fritters are one of our most popular doughnuts, and we've found that when they're on sale, we sell more totally if we pack them four to a pack than if we pack them six to a pack."
Mickschl explained that high-end demographics, positive word-of-mouth, and the positioning of the bakery department right up front at the head of the fresh aisle all contribute to the success of Jerry's bakery at the store. Customers by now know that most of the products are made from scratch, he said. At least 60% are pure scratch, while another 30% are made from bases and mixes.
"Then, we do some bake-off baguettes and other breads upstairs [in the service bakery]. The bakery looks great the way it's positioned in the store, and people have come to know they can count on us for quality."
Mickschl said he'd call the bakery at this store a flagship department. Indeed, the bakery contributes a higher-than-national-average percentage to overall store sales, Mickschl said.
"Most in-store bakeries strive for 4%, but we're usually at 6% and have gone as high as 7.5%. Our weekly sales total in the bakery is $22,000 to $30,000 at this one store and that doesn't include rolls and bread we make for the deli."
Mickschl's first love is decorating cakes, but at Jerry's he doesn't usually have the time for that favorite task.
"I have a decorator and a pastry chef on staff so, unless there's an emergency, I don't do much decorating here. Although, once in a while, someone will ask that I do the decorating. Our vice president asked me to do his daughter's wedding cake," Mickschl said.
His major responsibility is managing production and also acting as lead oven man, he said. His work shift begins at 10 p.m. and can end the next day as early as 7 in the morning or as late as noon, depending on what there is to do, Mickschl said.
Granted, there's less opportunity for creativity here than he's had at previous jobs, but Mickschl said he wouldn't trade it.
"Jerry's is an excellent, growing company, and they're into a high-volume situation. Job security outweighs the chance for creativity."
But Mickschl indulges his passion for creating cakes on his own time. Indeed, son Shawn, a baker at another Jerry's unit, wants Mickschl to create a particularly memorable wedding cake for his wedding in the fall. The cake sounds more like a science project than a traditional wedding cake. It will feature a working waterfall.
"The hardest part is the engineering. Getting the water to fall from tier to tier into little basins all the way to the base, and recycling it back to the top," Mickschl said.
"I'm using part of a small fountain. I have to have a pump to take the recycled water back to the top of the cake. My son and his fiancee collect turtle and frog figurines so I'll have some of those, either piped with icing or little figurines themselves. It's going to look like Yellowstone Park by the time I'm finished," Mickschl said.
Creating such cakes and perfecting his decorating techniques are exactly the things that attracted Mickschl to the industry in the first place.
It was in his hometown of Ironwood, Mich., that Mickschl found his calling -- at a local, upscale bakery shop, Rigoni's. While his job there was "more about numbers than creativity," Mickschl became fascinated by the way the owner created beautifully decorated cakes, he said.
"I'd watch him decorate cakes, and then I'd go home and practice. I'd try to duplicate a rose or a pansy and I wouldn't stop till I could do it. I see baking as an art form. I know it was the creativity that attracted me to it. And I'm a self-taught decorator."
Shortly after he started to work for Rigoni's, Mickschl began freelancing on the side as a cake decorator, making cakes for family and friends for special occasions. One of the most memorable cakes he's created was a groom's cake in the shape of an alligator.
"The groom was from Louisiana and he wanted an alligator. I made it so realistic it looked like it was going to crawl right off the table. It took some time to get the icing colors right," Mickschl said.
Later, Mickschl came to the Twin Cities and worked in management positions at plant level and at retail for McGlynn's and Foster's bakeries. Then, five and a half years ago, he came to Jerry's as bakery manager.
When he joined the supermarket arena, his responsibilities changed a little, he said. "There's more accountability for gross-profit margins and labor percentages. But one of the best things is that I get to deal more with customers on a one-to-one basis," he said.
His varied background served him well during the RBA's Certification testing, Mickschl said. His 23 years of experience gave him a head start in some of the problem-solving parts of the certification process, he explained.
"We knew we'd be given [recipes] we'd be unfamiliar with and that we'd be using equipment that wasn't familiar, but there were certain conditions that added to the difficulty. For example, when we made a laminated Danish, the butter was hard. In ideal, mass-production conditions, the shortening has already been tempered."
But Mickschl solved the problem by mixing the butter on a mixer "to introduce warmth and to make it easier to roll in." He also took his own oven thermometer to the certification practical. He said it's important also to keep a close watch on how fast the oven heats up "because chances are it differs [in that aspect] from the one you use every day."
One of the recipes he was required to follow during the practical resulted in such an interesting product that Mickschl said he'll give it -- Bohemian kolachi -- a test run sometime at Jerry's. It's a sweet dough pastry, with cheese and apricot filling.
Particularly on the parts of the two-day practical that dealt with sanitation, Mickschl said his work experience was a boon to him. He had managed bakeries in Bloomington, Minn., a city that has very stringent health department regulations.
"In Bloomington, there are such rigid inspections for restaurants and bakeries. That was beneficial to me. When it came to sanitation on the practical, I didn't even have to think. It was automatic. I was thankful that my experience had prepared me," Mickschl said.