Bonnie Wilkins Overcott, 11/6/2017
Current Occupation: Blogger and Writer My blog is workinginthe21stcentury.com and compiles resources and news items, and I write book reviews and editorials about work, careers, pay and benefits, and other 21st century employment issues.
Former Occupation: Besides working in a bakery in high school, I've worked many part time and temporary jobs and newspaper reporting. My professional work history includes Media Buyer for an Advertising Agency. American Red Cross, Disaster Services. Office Manager, Diversified Business Credit. Admissions, Capella University where I was allowed to write for the department's newsletter as part of my responsibilities.
Contact Information: Bonnie Wilkins Overcott earned a BA in Labor Studies and Communications, University of Minnesota. She lives in Minneapolis, is married and has an adult son. She is a member of Loft Literary Center and the 50+ Writers Group. She’s written feature stories for newspapers, including the Mille Lacs County Times, and the Longfellow Messenger and had fiction and non-fiction published in online literary journals including Across the Margin, The Commonline Journal, and the Work Literary Magazine.
The Sunlight Bakery and Mel
In the mid 1960s, in the little town of Milaca, Minnesota, 70 miles north of Minneapolis and St. Paul (“the cities”) and surrounded by dairy farms, there were no fast food restaurants or shopping malls needing part time help from high school students. I was lucky. I got my first job at the Sunlight Bakery on the main street of Milaca when I was sixteen through my mother, who already worked there. The adage “it’s not what you know, but who you know” was true.
My résumé included occasional baby-sitting for neighbors. I worked for one week during the summer as a live-in sitter for a child who had surgery and needed to be watched. I was so miserable and homesick; I refused to go back after the first week and quit giving no notice. I did farm work for my dad, driving the tractor, stacking bales of hay on the hay rack and moving them to the elevator going up into the hay mow. Personal qualities I brought to the job were extreme shyness, honesty, the kind of “make hay while the sun shines” work ethic developed on a farm and a willingness to tackle any project.
The interview process was simple. Mom, “How would you like to work at the bakery?” Me, “Sure.” Mom, “I’ll ask Mel when he wants you to start.” I didn’t need any other references. In a town of around 2,000 people everyone knew everyone often going back several generations anyway. That could be a good thing or a bad thing or a little of both depending on your family and ancestors.
The baker, manager and my first boss was Mel. Mel was a large burly man with a generous beer belly, a few strands of graying hair slicked back on his head, a grizzled face and a tattoo on his arm (when only former sailors had tattoos). Usually he had a lit cigarette dangling from his lips as he stalked around the store. Mel moved to Milaca in 1946, right after WWII, and managed the movie theater. He then went to work at the bakery and when the owner died, Mel married his boss’ wife and took over the bakery. He lived above the bakery with his wife and step-daughters. He signed checks “F. Melby.” One day my mother asked him what the “F” stood for. He told her his given name was Fauntleroy. A Little Lord he was not.
The bakery was long and narrow, squeezed in among the buildings lining the downtown business district on 2nd Avenue NE, one block west from U.S. Highway 169. On the right were racks for the bread attached to the wall and below them a work counter which held the bread slicer. There was a row of wood and glass cases showing the baked goods with room behind for employees, wearing their long white aprons and hair nets, to access the cases. On the left was a row of wooden booths smothered with many layers of high gloss paint over the years, and in those days were a light pinky-beige color. If you faced the entry you could see who was in town as they walked back and forth from Olson’s grocery and dry goods store at one end of the main street to the Ben Franklin Five and Dime Store or the Rexall or Presley drug stores at the opposite end. At the back of the store was a lunch counter lined with stools.
To the right of the counter was a door leading to the kitchen area, a rather dimly lit, dingy area. The grill, for frying bacon, eggs, hamburgers and onions, was kept hot all day. There was a commercial dish washing machine and a refrigerator. The counter inside the door was where we frosted the rolls once they were baked, and assembled breakfasts and lunches.
The very back of the bakery was like a different world. It was the brightly lit, sterile-looking, baking production area with stainless steel tables, ovens and industrial-sized mixers. This was Mel’s domain. Bins of flour and eggs were under the counters. Cakes of fresh yeast were kept refrigerated. Mel allowed customers to buy a dab to take home to do their own baking. He and his assistants spent the early hours of each day working, laughing and joking around. Always careful around me and the other younger employees, I suspected, based on its tone, the laughter emanating from the back was oftentimes the result of bawdy jokes and banter. Mel also decorated all the special occasion cakes ordered by customers. He meticulously formed flowers, leaves, piping, and lettering on the cakes with white and colored creamy frosting. In between the kitchen and baking areas was the door leading to the long, steep flight of stairs to the residence.
The bakery, open Monday through Saturday, was a place farmers could stop for a cup of coffee and a doughnut while doing business in town. A simple lunch was available. Sometimes high school students met after school for a Coke and snack. Friday nights and Saturdays were busy with customers from Milaca as well as people from the cities on their way north to lake cabins. They stocked up on freshly baked hamburger and hot dog buns, sweet rolls and bread for the weekend.
Those were the days before freeways and four-lane highways, so all the traffic went right through every little town on the route slowing down to 30 miles per hour including our one-stoplight town. Because Milaca was on the route to Mille Lacs Lake and lake country, it was bumper to bumper traffic Friday nights and early Saturday mornings to the chagrin of people fleeing the cities eager to get to their little cabins nestled in the woods on a tranquil lake up north. Children in Milaca got up early on Saturday mornings to line Central Avenue, then Highway 169, to sell freshly dug worms to the fishermen creeping by in the traffic, tugging along their fishing boats, heading north to the lakes.
The Sunlight Bakery sold rye, cracked wheat, cinnamon, and white breads. Sometimes Mel experimented with other breads like Julekake, which he offered around the holidays. If customers requested the bread sliced, we took a loaf off the rack, ran it through the slicer and put it into a plastic bag. All the baked goods, except cookies, were baked every morning. Anything not sold at the end of the day was bagged up and moved to the day-old rack and deeply discounted. Fresh bread is crusty. Stale bread is soft. Once in a while a customer would accuse us of selling stale bread as fresh because the crust was hard. Or they would go around pinching the tops of the bread and pick the softer, day-old loaf. I never knew if they planned to buy the discounted day old bread to save money from the start, if they really believed softer bread was fresher or if they were trying to con us into selling fresh bread for the day old price.
Mel used old recipes. His rolls often contained less sugar than bakers use now, but they were hardly health food. They were loaded with white flour, butter, eggs and cream or milk; not a gluten-free, vegan or sugar-free item in the bakery. Cinnamon rolls, caramel rolls, and caramel nut rolls were made using bread dough, not sweet dough, and I still prefer them that way. One of my favorites was Mel’s cherry-almond rolls. The dough was rolled flat; then spread with a cherry-almond, buttery filling. It was rolled up, jelly-roll style, and sliced into pieces. A brown sugar crumble was put on the top, one of the cut sides, of each piece before they were baked. As they baked, the center of the rolls rose up into a sugary mound. They were melt-in-your-mouth good. I haven’t found a modern bakery that competes with Mel’s bakery goods.
The bakery was open for breakfasts and lunches. Besides Mel’s chili and macaroni salad, we served burgers, malts, bottled pop, coffee and tea. A sweet roll, a cookie or pie ala mode was dessert.
The Sunlight Bakery wasn’t a forward thinking company. It wasn’t growing and dynamic. They had no marketing or personnel departments. There were no plans to expand or to franchise the brand. Their business model was to make a tasty, quality product so that customers would return.
It wasn’t a high paying job. It didn’t have the best benefits or working conditions; not even air conditioning. No one ever asked about our 5-year-goals or career path. We were paid the minimum wage, rarely received tips and then usually a nickel or dime. There was one employee benefit. We could eat and drink anything and everything we wanted on our shift.
We didn’t have titles, business cards or name plaques. There were no committees or focus groups to research market trends. Mel never worried about whether or not we were engaged. I never had a performance review. The closest thing to a staff meeting was when we had to call up the steep dark stairs leading to the living quarters to consult about a problem.
Nevertheless, as with all jobs, valuable lessons were learned and in a way I think I always compared my professional jobs with that first job in the Sunlight Bakery.
Looking back after years of working in many other situations, I realize that Mel had the innate ability to be a good boss. He didn’t have a prestigious business degree. But if you saw through the smoke constantly floating around his head from the cigarette he kept between his lips, you could see the twinkle in his eye as he tried to sound gruff and tough. If a loaf of bread slid off a tray in front of a customer while we were carrying it, Mel would pick it up and loudly announce, “Well that’s one for the trash can.” On our return trip to the kitchen, he’d dust it off and place it back on the tray with a wink. He never became impatient let alone angry with an employee as long as I worked there.
Mel always had our backs. Once, a family ate their food then told us it wasn’t fit to eat and they weren’t going to pay for it. They walked out. We called Mel down and he walked out, looked up and down the street, and told us they were probably “Hoosiers.” I’d never heard of a Hoosier before, but he meant that in the demeaning sense of the term. Mel blamed the customer. That never-ending support gave his employees confidence and made the work environment a friendly, relaxed one. I looked for supervisors that were as supportive all my working days. When I was a supervisor, I emulated Mel’s management style.
We had our share of difficult customers. When Junior came in, we gave him his coffee and put a little cream in a pitcher. If you left a full pitcher of cream out, he’d keep adding it to the coffee until the pitcher was empty. Mel gave everyone free refills on coffee, but if someone drank a quart of cream, he wasn’t making any money. Junior never asked for more cream, he’d just drink all you put in front of him.
Mel trusted us enough to leave the bakery in our care even though we were only sixteen or seventeen years old. He allowed us to make judgment calls. There was a woman who always tried to get drugs from the town doctors. Once she tried to get Marcia, my sister who also worked there, to give her money from the till so she could buy her “medicine.” Marcia’s answer was “no, that’s not my money.” Later when she told Mel about it, he told her she handled it exactly right.
The same woman always ordered a day-old roll, then she’d either dump her coffee all over it or dip it into the coffee, but she’d leave the booth a total mess. She had an uncorrected lazy eye that floated around while she talked to you making her seem even shiftier. She offered X-rated comments to my mother.
Occasionally Native Americans from the Mille Lacs reservation came into town and stopped in for lunch. I was surprised that the younger people had to interpret and order for the adults because they didn’t speak English. I realized that it wasn’t that long ago they were speaking their native languages, hunting, fishing, and foraging for their own food and living in the old ways. They often invited the community to the reservation where there was a museum and a gift shop. They performed native dances for their guests and often cooked traditional foods to share so I was used to being on their turf. It was rare to have them on my turf.
During the summer I chose the early shift. At 6 a.m. every morning, I’d get to the bakery and pull out a tray of freshly-baked cinnamon rolls. Mel and his assistant bakers already had been working for a couple of hours. With a plastic glove on, I scooped out handfuls of icing and smeared it over the top of the tray of cinnamon rolls while they were still warm. After the first tray was done, I pulled out one roll, spread butter on top, which melted and oozed through the roll, its buttery saltiness mixing with the sweetness of the roll, and poured an icy cold glass of milk to have for breakfast while I worked. Bismarcks were filled two at a time by poking them on the two injector tips at the top of the jam container. One pump down and they were filled, then on to the next two. Once a tray was filled, I repeated the icing routine smearing a thick smudge of vanilla icing on each one with a gloved hand. Gradually the cases that held the baked goods filled up.
By 2 p.m. I was done working and still had lots of daylight left to enjoy my summer. Then I could get together with friends, go bicycling, or just sit with a book in the back yard. I could also go to Allen’s Department Store to see what was new. My best friend, Karen, told me I could buy things on credit (long before everyone had credit cards and I’d ever heard of such a thing) so I could buy something before I had all the money saved, and then just come in once a week on payday to pay down the tab. My first purchase was a whole outfit that was stunning. The straight skirt was made of hound’s-tooth black and white wool and topped off with a white shirt and a red sweater vest. I loved earning money on my own and the independent decision-making about how I’d spend or save it.
I worked full-time at the Sunlight Bakery the summer after graduation from high school, then quit to go to college. A month or so later, I came home for a visit. I was in the bakery talking with some people when Mel saw me. He grabbed a long white apron, shoved it at me and snarled, “What are you doing just standing there. Get to work.” I put on that apron, took some lunch orders, cleaned up some tables, sliced a few loaves of bread and bagged up rolls and donuts for customers one more time.