Since opening as a retail shop in Park Slope in 2006, Colson Patisserie has grown into a formidable Brooklyn wholesale operation while retaining its heart and staying true to the company’s history. A Hot Bread Kitchen hiring partner and member of our inaugural Quality Jobs Initiative (QJI), Colson has hired women from our culinary training program, making a point of offering employees flexibility, training, and opportunities for career and personal growth. With Executive Chef Natalie Abrams’s involvement in the first cohort of our QJI Lab, Colson is continuing its efforts to be a model employer and actively working to improve the employee experience.
To get a sense of how Colson maintains its warm company culture and high production targets—and, of course about their partnership with Hot Bread Kitchen—we spoke with Chef Natalie and baker Nafissatou, a Hot Bread Kitchen member who works on Colson’s bread team.
On Colson’s approach to staffing and kitchen culture
Natalie: We’re looking to find people who will be happy with us in the longer term, for ideally three, four, five years. To keep folks, it’s simple: we try to recognize that people have lives. As much as I want everyone to show up for every shift they’re on, it’s more important to me that in a year they’ll still be coming to work on time. Food businesses tend to have a hard time keeping enough staff on so people can take vacation or call out sick. What we like to do is cross-train people on various stations so that we can all cover for each other. I think solving the jigsaw puzzle of getting products made while our staff does what they need to do, like dropping off or picking up their kids, is my job as a manager. It’s on me to say, “You have a real life and we can figure out a way to make that work.”
Nafissatou: It was great to be able to take time off and go home [to Burkina Faso] for four months. I was thinking I would have to quit my job just to go, but Colson gave me the opportunity to go and come back. Now I’m in nursing school and Colson has been very supportive of that. They’re giving me shifts that help me go to school and work at the same time. Even before I started nursing classes, I was taking an English class that was during the first two hours of my Thursday shift, so I was able to come to work with my computer, take my class, and then start my shift when it was over.
“I think solving the jigsaw puzzle of getting products made while our staff does what they need to do is my job as a manager. It’s on me to say, ‘You have a real life and we can figure out a way to make that work.‘”Executive Chef Natalie Abrams
On maintaining high production standards and high morale
Natalie: We really try to be transparent with everyone about the goals we’ve determined after talking with staff about what they can handle. We don’t want people to burn their bodies out, but we do push. From a teaching and training perspective, it’s helpful to say, “Here’s where we are, here’s where we need to be.” There’s a lot of training that happens in our kitchen. It’s a slower approach than finding people who come with lots of experience, but I think the attitude that we get from people who haven’t spent years and years working elsewhere is better. We have more people staying with us and being flexible with our training method.
Nafissatou: I’m on the bread team. For me, it’s great working there. It can be hard sometimes because I work long shifts, but it gives me more time to take care of what I need to do in the rest of my life on other days. I enjoy the freedom. Not having somebody over me who is telling me “you have to do this” or “you have to do that.” Moving at my own pace, I really like that. It also felt really safe for me as an employee [at the height of the pandemic]. They didn’t want too many people to interact at the same time in the workplace, so we had two teams working in staggered shifts.
On Colson’s partnership with Hot Bread Kitchen
Natalie: Previously, we had a pretty homogenous kitchen because we had a culture of employees referring people they knew. With the introduction of more Hot Bread Kitchen staff, our team has become a lot more accustomed to training new people who don’t necessarily speak Spanish or English as a first language, and that has helped our staff become more accepting of difference overall. Broadening our culture was and still is an unexpected gain from our partnership.
Nafissatou: When I started, I was the only Black person and most of the team spoke Spanish. Especially for me, because there was nobody there but me on the bread team… I had to take initiative and do things by myself. I feel like that has benefitted me, to be able to work on my own. I feel more self-confident.
Natalie: We’ve leaned on Hot Bread Kitchen quite heavily for our bread team, and have found that the graduates who come in are really motivated. They are people you turn to when something new or challenging comes up. We’ve had several Hot Bread Kitchen members like Nafi who are looked to as points of trust, backup, and dependability, who fell into a role where I lean on them a little more heavily than I lean on other staff because I know they can get it done. I’ll try to help them when they need help, and they do the same for me.
Nafissatou: Hot Bread Kitchen prepared me so well [for my role at Colson]; I’ve learned everything from there. Hot Bread Kitchen was my first real job experience. When I was doing my training, I was used to doing things by myself. When your manager trusts you and knows you can do it, they just trust you and let you do it.
On creating opportunities for employees to grow
Nafissatou: Last year, we started getting more customers and the bread demand increased. They had me train another lady on the team how to make bread so she could help me. From training her, I’ve learned to be more patient and to manage. I feel more comfortable leaving stuff for my team to work on and making decisions, things that I wasn’t comfortable doing before. I’ve enjoyed training people and teaching them how to make bread.
Natalie: It depends on the person, but if they do what many Hot Bread Kitchen members have done—show up and be someone I can rely on—then I start counting on them more and more, and eventually that conversation turns into, “Would you like to lead this program?”
On what Colson hopes to gain from the Quality Jobs Initiative
Natalie: As bakers and chefs, we are trained to strive for the pursuit of perfection. We search for this in the ingredients we receive, in what we produce, in how clean we keep our kitchens. What we tend to gloss over is striving for the same exacting standards in how we hire, train, and support our teams that are tasked with creating all this food; it’s less of a skill taught along the way. By giving owner/operators, managers, and leaders a chance to explicitly learn and discuss how to do better for the teams we employ, we expand our definition to include not just what we produce, but who and how we employ. I hope at the end of our participation in the QJI Lab to find a sustainable way to continue improving our operations and team, to help our company run profitability while also providing rewarding, engaging employment.