On March 14, COVID-19 was declared a national emergency in the U.S., hand sanitizer profiteers made headlines, and states had yet to issue stay-at-home orders. It was also Pi Day — that is, the date 3/14, which is often cheekily observed by baking or eating pie. The date stands out to Martina Pochop because she’s a baker and because when she went to work the next day, she noticed a flood of new calls and emails. Pochop works as a baker support specialist at King Arthur Flour’s Norwich, Vermont headquarters, and part of her job is answering calls on the company’s Baker’s Hotline, a number anyone can call for advice on their doughs and batters. “It was literally overnight,” she says. “Everything just started tumbling down an endless path in search of flour.”
King Arthur Flour quietly launched its Baker’s Hotline in 1993. While it may not be as well known as the Butterball Turkey Talk Line, it displays a level of homespun commitment not seen in other culinary help lines. The Baker’s Hotline is staffed by 15 people who answer calls and emails for eight to 12 hours a day, 357 days a year. Most have culinary degrees and worked as professional bakers, chocolatiers, and chefs before coming to King Arthur, where they generally work in education, recipe-developing, or product-testing roles in addition to answering the hotline. They’ve picked up the phone so many times that many can recite their opening line as if in their sleep: baker support specialist Maggie Perry recently answered a call from her child’s pediatrician with, “Hi, this is Maggie at King Arthur.”
The holidays and summer (baking contest season) tend to be busy for the Baker’s Hotline, but those pale in comparison to the pandemic. In April, queries to the King Arthur hotline surpassed the four busiest weeks over the winter holidays, with a total of 10,406 calls and 7,740 emails, requiring six additional bakers working in other departments to step in and answer emails. It hasn’t let up: King Arthur’s staff has experienced unrelenting call volumes for three months, and during this time, the hotline has become a magnet for lonely, anxious human behavior and lots of questions about sourdough.
The baker support specialists have seen a few patterns emerge. Before the pandemic, most calls came from regular bakers on the older side, with some “frequent fliers” who called mostly just to chat. But in March, they started hearing from more beginner bakers who couldn’t easily ask family members for advice about old recipes or about the difference between all-purpose and bread flour — sometimes it was because they’d recently lost someone, other times because they lived far away and couldn’t reach them by phone. Perry also noticed that once schools shut down, parents started calling about homeschool baking projects. “[Baking is] one of those magical things. It’s science, it’s math,” she says. And more people were asking about finicky projects like pâte à choux or macarons, recipes whose long timelines newly appealed to those working from home or looking for weekend time-sucks.
As grocery store shortages went beyond sanitizer and toilet paper, calls about ingredient substitutions flooded the hotline. When grocery stores ran low on bread, people called in to ask for recipe suggestions, solutions to rising issues, and once, if it was possible to bake bread on a grill because it was too hot to turn on the oven. Callers looking for a challenge tried out sourdough, “which, for people who have never baked before, is quite an adventure, to say the least,” Pochop says. There were more calls about cookies, but ones baked with alternative flours, since all-purpose was scarce.
More time and fewer options at the grocery store have indeed made baking more popular than ever, and King Arthur’s sales have gone up as much as 600 percent accordingly (as have hits to its website). But it’s not the only thing driving thousands more callers to the Baker’s Hotline. According to Pochop, who has been with the company since 2017, “in the last couple of months, people have seemed the most lonely.”
Baked goods in particular are so often tied up with nostalgia and relationships; people seem especially anxious about messing up recipes that their loved ones usually made, or just want to talk to someone — anyone — about how much a recipe means to them. A caller may technically be asking about how to halve a recipe, but what they really want to talk about is how they’d usually make a full recipe to share with their grandchildren. “You can’t actually give them everything that they need,” Perry says. “You can just let them know that you’re there and that a lot of other people are calling with the same feelings.”
King Arthur baker specialist and customer support shift lead Amanda Schlarbaum recently spoke to a woman who broke down crying after asking a yeast-related question. Her parents lived far away and she didn’t know when she’d see them again. “She was like, ‘I can’t even believe I’m crying over bread.’ And I’m like, you know, that’s where we all are right now.” The caller ended up spending $55 to send her parents a homemade loaf.
In retrospect, the Baker’s Hotline was primed to be a source of comfort during quarantine. King Arthur has a reputation for its teaching culture; its resources are notably beginner-friendly and easygoing. “If you have a process you’ve successfully followed before, then hey, stick with it. Or try this one and compare. All good,” PJ Hamel writes in the company’s oft-recommended primer on sourdough starter. On King Arthur’s social media platforms, bakers have always felt comfortable posting panicked photos of explosively large doughs or asking extremely specific questions. And when bakers tag @kingarthurflour in photos of their finished products, the company responds like an enthusiastic friend. “What a lovely bundt, Marilyn!” reads a reply to one user’s tweeted creation. “Pairing ingredients and recipes is like putting two partners together for a dance. Will they fluidly tango? Your stunning Kaiser Rolls clearly answer that question!” the company replied on Facebook when a baker paired King Arthur’s bread flour with a Cook’s Illustrated recipe.
Hotline staffers are armed with all of King Arthur’s online resources and cookbooks, as well as fat binders of their own creation filled with handwritten notes on questions that have been asked before. And they’re game for questions that extend outside the baking realm. In late April, Schlarbaum picked up the phone to a stranger who wanted to know how much extra sauce she should make if she’d bought an extra pound of oxtail. “She was so nonchalant about it,” Schlarbaum says. As Easter in quarantine approached, Pochop received a few questions about ham and potatoes.
Even non-baking questions are usually culinary in nature, so if they can, the staffers try to answer them. After all, imagine you can’t leave your house, see your more cooking-inclined family, or even get through to most customer service lines — but there is one line that promises, seven days a week, to connect you with an actual human who will earnestly try to help you out, no matter how specific your problem. “On a daily basis we hear from people who just don’t know who else to call and they saw our number on the bag of flour that they have in their hand,” says Pochop.
As unprecedented as the volume of calls has been recently, the questions are the same as they’ve always been, just modified by the constraints of a global crisis. People still call about wedding cakes, but they’re making a miniature version because the couple is celebrating without family and friends. Schlarbaum called fellow hotline staffers to discuss a mascarpone filling for her own quarantine birthday cake. People are baking to relieve stress, just as they always have done, only now the stress and the baking have increased tenfold: “You’re looking for something that you can accomplish,” Perry says. “You’re looking for something that feels good and can take care of other people.”
People are maybe a little more emotional if their buttercream isn’t mixing properly, but Schlarbaum jumps into therapist mode, advising deep breaths and walking away for 15 minutes. “I tell them when I make buttercream, I’ve ruined it every single time.” Most calls end with a relieved baker and sometimes a few extra minutes of chatting, just because the caller doesn’t want to hang up yet.
“Right now, people are bored and anxieties are running high,” Schlarbaum says, “and I think people just need someone to be like, ‘No, no, the bread will be fine. Just let it rise another half an hour. It’ll be okay.’”
Erin Berger is a freelance writer and former culture editor at Outside magazine, based in Santa Fe, New Mexico.