Jealousy alert: I used to live within walking distance of Levain Bakery's original (and still unforgettable) location in New York's Upper West Side. If you caught the past tense of that statement, then you'll know why, in addition to jealousy, one might feel a deep sense of sadness that Levain's legendary chocolate chip walnut cookies - just one of which can satisfyingly constitute an entire meal - are no longer within arm's reach. In lieu of being there every day, in person, we're thrilled to know that someone as passionate as Jennifer is on the Levain team.
When did you know that you wanted to work in food?
I have always loved food! I grew up right when The Food Network and shows like Top Chef were really becoming popular. I spent countless hours watching episodes of Barefoot Contessa and the obsession never really seemed to die down. I liked cooking and baking, but going out to eat and finding new restaurants and new cuisines was always particularly exciting to me. I was most intrigued by what was going on behind the scenes. I would wonder about what it was like to run a restaurant, about the people preparing the food and taking my order. I found it fascinating and I still do.
How did you get your current good food job?
Because I have a pulse, I have long been a (super)fan of Levain, so when I saw the job listing on GFJ, I immediately jumped on the opportunity. I had just finished up graduate school with a degree in organizational psychology and I was having a hard time finding a job where I could continue to work in the food world, but also have a chance to grow my interest and background in Human Resources and organizational development. I was immediately struck by the thoughtfulness of the job posting and was really excited about the opportunity to work for such an established company that Connie and Pam (the owners) built themselves from the ground up. They are such an inspiration! The bakery is successful and growing (we're opening a fourth store next year!), but it still has the feel and intimacy of a small local business, where you can really get to know every employee.
How did your previous work or life experience prepare you for a good food job?
I stumbled into the restaurant industry kind of by accident after graduating college and at the persistence of a high school friend. I ended up loving it. I can be introverted and the social nature of the job really helped me come out of my shell. You also learn to toughen up a bit and develop a thick skin. Throughout my various jobs and positions, interacting with people was the common thread. I liked serving customers, but I really loved all of the people that I worked with and the bonds that we formed. When I started graduate school two years ago, I began to understand the role that leadership, management and culture play in a workplace. I use what I learned in school and my own personal experiences for the work that I do now at Levain and how I interact with my team here. I want employees to feel that they have a voice and that we care what they have to say. In my past jobs I often felt like I wasn't being heard or supported, and I never want anyone here to feel like that.
What was the greatest obstacle you had to overcome in pursuing your Good Food Job dream?
After a few years in the business, there was a period of time where I felt frustrated and a bit stuck. Restaurant work can be really thankless and it can start to eat (!) away at you. When I changed paths and decided to go back to school, it shifted my perspective on what I wanted to do and what kind of opportunities were out there. The idea that I could gain this knowledge and help affect change in an industry that I'm passionate about is really energizing.
Name one positive thing that a former employer taught you that you continue to appreciate?
It's really challenging to be a great manager, particularly in this industry. You have to be prepared to deal with literally anything. It's hard enough to keep your own stress level in check when things go wrong, but to keep your staff afloat as well is no easy feat. I had a manager who was fair, considerate and warm but also wickedly funny. If there was an unhappy customer, he knew just what to say to turn their night around or make them laugh. He put the same amount of effort into building relationships with his employees. He empowered us to trust ourselves, but was always willing to listen and offer advice when we needed it.
What can you identify as the greatest opportunities in food right now?
I think the industry is changing and evolving significantly. There is still a great deal of inequity in the industry, but I think we are starting to see a shift in some of the negative attitudes and harmful practices that have long been a part of this field. We are starting to see owners and managers who are investing in their employees and trying to create a better workplace. I think they are starting to understand that not only is it the right thing to do, but it's good business. The benefit of happy and motivated employees gets passed on to the consumer.
If you could be compensated for your work with something other than money, what would it be?
Is it too obvious to say cookies? I know everyone on here always responds with a similar answer, but like have you ever tasted these cookies?