When I started my first post-college job as the manager of a bakery, I thought I had it made. (Come on, doesn’t everyone want to run a cupcake shop?)
Fast forward a year later, when I was applying to higher-level corporate jobs, and I realized that the intricate skills I’d learned—like how to pipe frosting, neatly arrange a dozen cupcakes in a box, and set up a killer wedding display—didn’t quite prepare me for the advanced career I had in mind. I suddenly started doubting the year I’d spent behind the bakery counter. Was it all a waste?
Turns out, once I spent some time really evaluating my cupcake shop days, I realized that I’d learned a lot more than how to make the perfect red velvet cake. In fact, I gained skills there that I still use today.
So, if you’re currently working at a job that isn’t quite at the level you want it to be—or are struggling with a job from your past—read on for some of the invaluable skills I learned at a bakery, and how they’re still serving me well today.
1. Excel Can Do Way More Than You Think
As an undergrad, I’d taken one course that specifically taught me how to use Excel—but to be honest, I really only used it to organize information into a neat, gridded table. No math, no v-lookups, and no fancy formulas.
That all changed when I started managing a bakery. Want to know how many chocolate, red velvet, and carrot cake cupcakes to make on a Wednesday in December? A well-made Excel spreadsheet helped me calculate that, as well as how much buttercream frosting and how many staff members I’d need each day. I can’t say I made the genius spreadsheet from scratch—the owner of the store helped tremendously—but learning those skills certainly gave me an edge when I started in a more corporate environment.
2. Staying Organized Is Essential to Your Success
Despite the awesome daily production Excel spreadsheet, my bakery wasn’t very high-tech. When we received a next-day order, the details were hand written on a sheet of paper, which was then tucked into a binder for the next day’s 5 AM team.
I remember one situation in particular when I took an order over the phone and tossed the order sheet in a stack of papers to organize later. The next day, after all the orders had been picked up, a woman came in and told me her name, waiting expectantly for her daughter’s birthday cupcakes. I nervously walked to the back, knowing full well that there were no pink-frosted birthday cupcakes there. I frantically shuffled through drawers and papers, wondering where the order form went. After a few minutes, I found it—it had fallen behind the counter. The order hadn’t been made, and since the bakers had already left for the day, there wasn’t much I could do.
So, I offered the customer her choice of the cupcakes that were in the front case, but it wasn’t the same. And it felt terrible.
Translate that to my job today, and you can bet that with higher-risk clients (i.e., people who invest hundreds of thousands of dollars into software, rather than $100 in a few overpriced cupcakes), I take great care to make sure I know my project deadlines, keep them organized, and don’t—ever—let them fall behind the counter.
3. Patience Is a Virtue
It took me about two days working the front counter at the bakery to get tired of explaining the difference between a plain chocolate cupcake and the “King Chocolate” cupcake. (Answer: King Chocolate had crushed Oreos mixed in.) Every customer in the door meant going through my spiel of all 14 cupcake flavors—then starting again, because the next person in line wasn’t paying attention to the first six.
Answering the same questions over and over again was irritating, but it taught me a great deal about patience, with both customers and employees. You see, no matter what industry you work in, you’re going to have a few common issues among your clients. In my current job, it’s invoicing issues regarding our cancellation policy. And if you become a manager, you’ll find that no matter how many times you answer the same question from your employees, they’ll keep asking it—and you can’t just blow them off.
Answering endless cupcake questions helped me learn to treat each customer interaction as a separate experience—the customer who walks in the door the minute you’re about to close up shop deserves the same amount and quality of attention as the first in the door that morning. Retail environment or not, that kind of patience and dedication to customer satisfaction will help you make your clients (and employees) happier.
4. Cupcakes Make Networking Way Easier
If I ever had cupcakes left at the end of each day, I had two choices: Throw them away, or bring them home to my roommates. Well, it didn’t take long for my roommates to start asking me to not bring them home (truth: You can only eat so many cupcakes)—but throwing them away seemed like such a waste.
So, instead of dumping the perfectly good pastries in the trash, I started packaging them up and delivering them to nearby stores and restaurants.
I thought it might be awkward (“Um, you guys want some free cupcakes?”), but really—who says no to a free cupcake? It was an easy conversation starter, earned me some free frozen yogurt at the shop next door, and helped get the bakery’s name out among all the nearby shops. Most importantly, it helped me get more comfortable with networking, which served me well in my next gig at a startup company.
Looking back, that year in the bakery taught me far more than I thought. Including a lesson for anyone: It can be hard to come to terms with the less-than-impressive jobs you work on your way to your dream gig. But as soon as you stop referring to them as “less-than-impressive” and really evaluate what you can learn from them, you’ll realize that you’re probably much better equipped than you thought.