NEW YORK — The lingering labor shortage has bakers of all sizes struggling to fill essential roles, and it’s led them to take a closer look at less common employee recruitment methods, including open hiring.
Open hiring is the practice of hiring anyone who applies for a job, without concern for their past, educational background or experience. And while many bakeries are exploring this unfamiliar territory for the first time, for some, such as Janie’s Life Changing Baked Goods, it’s how they’ve always done business.
“That idea of having faith in someone when they can’t have faith in themselves can change the whole trajectory of their life,” said Janie Deegan, the bakery’s founder and CEO and inventor of the popular pie crust cookie. “I’ve seen that working in my life over and over again.”
More than seeing it, she’s experienced it. Just 10 years ago, Janie was homeless, penniless and struggling with alcohol addiction. By age 25, she had hit rock bottom.
“A common characteristic of addiction and alcoholism is a lack of confidence, self-love and self-esteem,” Janie shared. “These were tools I never developed as a kid. So, when I was 25 and starting my journey of getting sober and climbing out of homelessness, I wasn’t gaining back my confidence — I never had confidence to being with. I was building my life from scratch.”
Janie turned to baking cakes, cookies and pies to keep her mind calm and her hands busy. She shared her creations with friends and family, building self-esteem and confidence with each success.
Along the way, Janie met a friend who saw her potential.
“She put her money where her mouth was,” Janie said. “I baked for her for an event, and she told me, ‘These are so amazing. And not only are they so amazing, but I also want to monetarily compensate you for this work of art.’ She had faith and trust in me that I did not have in myself. It was just so instrumental.”
That person planted the seed in Janie’s mind that perhaps she could sell her baked goods. She let that seed grow and officially launched Janie’s Life-Changing Baked Goods in 2015. Janie continued baking at home for a few years, never forgetting how she got her start.
By 2020, the business had grown enough that she needed more space. Janie moved into a shared commercial kitchen and was soon ready to hire employees. She knew she wanted to extend the same faith and trust in others that had been granted to her.
Potential vs. experience
Janie operates from the philosophy of hiring for attitude and potential.
“When someone comes for an interview, we’re looking at the person you’re showing up as today or this week — the person you are right now, not the person you were a year ago or five years ago,” she shared. “We’re not necessarily looking at experience. It’s about a person’s potential and their desire to find joy in life and be a part of a team. I look for those attributes and characteristics.”
Janie’s very first employee was a community college student who needed internship credit for an entrepreneurship class. She had minimal work experience and no customer service or bakery experience.
“She liked baking, and I’m the one who responded to her request,” Janie said. “She was so shy and lacked confidence. She reminded me so much of myself. The first couple of months were hard, but she’s been with me for almost five years now. Just seeing her grow, come into herself and find something she really loves and that she’s good at has been so amazing. I count on her every day.”
Janie met her second employee while working on a holiday project for a local community center.
“Her energy and hard work drew me to her,” Janie shared. “She’d been in the country for a long time and had just earned her citizenship. It was her first real job, and she’s still with me.”
Not everyone Janie employees has a non-traditional background. Prior to joining the bakery, one employee worked in marketing. Like many people, she started baking during the pandemic and decided she wanted to make a career change. Janie’s open hiring helped with that.
“This person walked in my door and said, ‘Please give me a job. I’m going to go to pastry school full time. Give me a chance,’” Janie said. “A year and a half later, she graduated from her culinary program and now she’s my general manager. It’s just so cool to see someone who comes in with no experience really want this to be their career.”
The challenges and benefits of open hiring
While Janie’s first two hires were successful, open hiring can present unique challenges, especially for a small retail baker. She acknowledges there’s been a lot of trial and error as she navigates open hiring. Factors such as irregular attendance and a negative attitude can impact the business — and the team — significantly.
“We’re very understanding, and we’re flexible,” Janie said. “But recently, my managers and I have had a conversation about whether the message we’re sending is, ‘We’ll hire anyone regardless of your ability to show up to work.’ Because we don’t check references, we don’t know if someone has the want and ability to show up for work when and where they’re needed,” she said.
Attendance is something she now emphasizes during interviews.
“Attendance has been an issue, and we’ve had to make hard decisions,” Janie said. “I’m of the mentality that everybody’s trying their best at the time. But sometimes, someone’s best isn’t enough if it’s affecting the mental health and morale of the other employees.”
And that brings up another challenge she’s had to address — attitudes that disrupt the flow of the small team.
“I’ve had a couple of experiences where it was very clear the employee did not value their team members or the job,” Janie said. “There were reminders and second, third and fourth chances. They were showing up, but their behavior was affecting other team members. We’re close-knit, and we have fun. Things like singing at the top of our lungs, like we’ll do in the kitchen, would stop when those employees were there.”
Regardless of the circumstances, parting ways with an employee is never easy.
“No matter how much I don’t click with a person, it always breaks my heart,” Janie said. “I think, ‘Why couldn’t we be the job that needs you?’”
Despite the challenges open hiring can bring, Janie believes the benefits far outweigh them.
“Our retention is really good,” she said. “I have eight or nine bakers, and all of them have been with me for nearly two years. We have a couple of people in front who have been with me for over a year. It’s great to see people grow.”
Open hiring as an opportunity
When Janie started baking all those years ago, she never imagined the path her life would take. At the time, she only knew she wanted a different life than the one she had been living.
Today, Janie’s Life-Changing Baked Goods has three brick-and-mortar locations in New York: the Upper West Side, East Harlem and the West Village. The young woman who was once homeless has built a business that generated more than $1.3 million in sales in 2022. And it all started because one person saw Janie’s potential and gave her an opportunity.
“Those of us who find ourselves in a hopeless circumstance but who really want to turn our lives around are willing, in general, to work hard to prove themselves to themselves and to others,” Janie said of her choice to make open hiring a part of her bakery’s culture. “It just takes one person to say, ‘I trust you to do this,” or ‘Of course you can do this,’ to make someone think, ‘Maybe I can.’”