PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- At the nearly 100-year-old Scialo Brothers Bakery in the heart of this city's historic Federal Hill neighborhood, everything is done in the old way. Each loaf of bread is rolled by hand, the phyllo dough is made from scratch, and to make pies in the 12-foot-deep brick ovens, bakers must place an empty shell in the oven first and then use a homemade tool -- a pitcher attached to a long stick -- to complete each shell with filling.
Customers greedily gobble down the torrone, a kind of nougat, and the sfogliatelle, a flaky, clam-shaped pastry. There's just one problem: The two sisters who own the shop can't find anyone who wants to work here.
“We find that the work ethic is gone,” said Carol Scialo Gaeta, who runs the shop with her sister Lois Scialo Ellis. Gaeta herself is trim and lively; her close-cropped gray hair and direct demeanor impart a key piece of information about the bakery’s ecosystem: There is no time for slacking in this busy kitchen. “We are tired of training people.”
The sisters have been searching for another baker to join the staff of five for more than a year. Several bakers have tried out, but so far the job remains open. And it's a decent gig, paying anywhere between $10 and $25 per hour (depending on experience) with health insurance, paid vacation, summer hours and free food.
The bakery's staffing problems belie another challenge facing many long-standing bakeries confronted with an increasingly finicky American palate. The organic, artisanal, gluten-free, hyper-specialized food revolution of the last decade or so has not been kind to the type of pastries and bread that are Scialo's specialty: namely, Italian-style, white bread. Bakeries today are selling spelt donuts and boules of organic miche, or whole wheat sourdough.
"There has been a revolution in bread, and they still do old-fashioned American baking," said Richard Miscovich, a baking professor at nearby Johnson & Wales University. "I can see a young person thinking it's so square."
To be the new Scialo Brothers' baker means arriving at work at 6 a.m. -- a relatively late start in the baking world -- to hand-make pastry dough, chop nuts and scoop cookies. During the holiday high season, days can be as long as 14 hours. Many of the shop's specialties are old Italian recipes that few bakers want to make, Gaeta said, like strufoli, an Italian Christmas cake made from fried balls of dough.
The lack of extra hands is hurting the sisters during their busiest season, Gaeta said, as more than half the year's revenue comes from holiday items. The store is a destination for ordering Christmas cookies, with customers as far away as California placing orders during the holiday season, she added.
To be sure, baking is a hard job. Most in the baking industry agree that if someone doesn't have a passion for it, the job is not for them. Miscovich said he believes some bakers are also transient types, always wanting to move to a different kitchen to learn new things.
Other bakeries have similar gripes. Solveig Tofte, the co-owner of Sun Street Breads in Minneapolis, said her business remains small, with only two full-time and one part-time baker, because she just cannot find enough qualified bakers to stick around.
"Every bakery owner I know has recurring staffing problems," Tofte said in an email. "That's the overwhelming and gut-wrenching side of owning a bakery."
Sun Street’s Tofte said the challenges to the job cannot be learned without direct experience, including everything from lifting heavy sacks of flour to managing a personal life when a workday starts while family and loved ones are still sound asleep.
“How [do you] explain to your husband that you can't go to that party because you need to sleep?” Tofte said.
At Scialo Brothers, it has not been an easy road.
Gaeta and Ellis took over the family business in 1993 after the death of their father, Luigi, who opened the bakery in 1916 with his brother. The sisters knew the bakery well, as they grew up in the apartment above the shop. But as long as their father was alive, the daughters were never even allowed into the baking room. Baking, in Luigi's eyes, was a man's job. He operated the store-front shop and bakery until his death at 103, after which the bakery was put up for sale. When a buyer's financing fell through, two of three Scialo daughters stepped in to buy it.
The bakery had another near-death experience in 1994 when the shop was almost lost in a fire. The fire nearly destroyed the bakery's antique oil-lit foot ovens, and the sisters had to take out a loan to rebuild the shop and ovens. They lost seven weeks of work before the store reopened and their employees could return.
It's not just hiring that challenges the business today. There is also the price of ingredients, which have made some of the classic Italian cookies like pinoli, or pine nut cookies, too expensive to make anymore, Gaeta said.
But right now, Gaeta said, her main focus is finding the right new baker so the business can continue to grow. "We are looking for enthusiasm and willing to learn," she said. "But they need to know how to measure."
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