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As Temperatures Rise, Bakers Are Feeling the Burn

Bakeries have always been hot places. Now, climate change is making them even hotter.

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Bread bakes in a red-hot oven. Through the oven door we see bakers sweating in the heat. Illustration. Molly Magnell/Eater

In Everett, Washington, Nechirvan Zebari, the owner of Alida’s Bakery, is putting pita on a 500-degree disk that rotates in the open-front oven he uses to bake flatbreads like pita, naan, and za’atar manakish. A fan blows on him, and there’s lots of water for staying hydrated, but no air conditioning. It’s been a temperate summer in the Pacific Northwest, but in 2021 Zebari had to close the bakery because of a heat wave. “I spend about eight hours a day in front of the oven,” he says, “I’ve hired people who could not handle the heat, including a man who had worked in a bakery in Iraq.”

Across the country in New Orleans, Carla Briggs has finished making sweet potato rolls. At 10 a.m. it’s already 88 degrees, and the humidity is at 60 percent. “I’m intentional about the number of products I make and have reduced the types of bread in production,” says Briggs, the owner of Viola’s Heritage Bread. The commissary kitchen where she bakes is climate-controlled, but this summer, the air conditioner has been doing overtime, as has the refrigerator compressor. In July, the city set temperature records, reaching 101 degrees on July 31.

Briggs worries about rent increases to cover rising energy costs. “I’m in a commissary kitchen so for now those costs are absorbed by the owner and manager of the space,” she says, “but I’m mindful of how I work and turn equipment off.” She wants to own a production space, but covering the expense of building sustainably — with energy sources and equipment like solar panels and heat-efficient ovens — seems like a pipe dream. “I was having a conversation about efficient commercial kitchens and what the EPA is doing to promote electric,” says Briggs. “Global warming is shifting the norm and we need to adjust.”

In New York, Mel bakery founder Nora Allen has learned to make certain adjustments to manage the heat. “Sourdough is happiest between 74 and 83 degrees, and I have to manage all sorts of environmental factors,” she says. “Volume on a hot day makes me nervous. I have to monitor the dough to ensure it doesn’t climb into the high 80s.”

Bakeries have always been hot places, but this past summer, the hottest ever recorded on Earth, forced many bakers to reckon with the increasingly unavoidable effects of climate change. Extreme heat can cause a host of problems for a bakery, ranging from life-threatening health conditions among its workers to inferior products and lost revenue.

“It’s challenging to make good bread in a really hot environment,” says Karen Bornarth, the executive director of the Bread Bakers Guild of America. “I’m sure rising temperatures result in tons of product waste.” If bread dough gets too warm, it becomes sticky and hard to work with, which can cause its gluten structure to collapse and inhibit oven rise, or impart a yeasty, beer-like flavor to the finished product. Heat can also cause dough to over-proof, which results in gassy bubbles that turn into big holes when the bread is baked. If you’ve bought a baguette full of holes lately, chances are you’re seeing the effect of climate change.

Bakeries operate on slim margins; most can’t afford to lose precious loaves to heat. Nor can they afford the potential costs that rising temperatures pose to their workers, such as dehydration, heat stroke, and even death. Then there’s the effect extreme heat can have on productivity: One report estimated that in 2020, labor lost to heat exposure cost the U.S. economy $100 billion, while other research has found that worker productivity decreases by 25 percent at 90 degrees, and then plunges 70 percent once the mercury hits 100 degrees.

The topic of heat protection for workers gained more visibility this past July, when President Biden announced new measures to protect anyone working in extreme heat. Only seven states have heat-related public health regulations, and critics say that without the creation of federal occupational health and safety legislation, Biden’s initiatives can only do so much. Already, business groups and lobbyists have successfully pushed back on state and federal attempts to enforce new workplace heat protection measures because new equipment, energy-saving investments, and caring for employees’ well-being in extreme heat whittles away at the bottom line.

“Without huge expense, I don’t know how you can control the heat,” says Bornarth. Still, she sees adaptation as crucial, particularly for attracting people to the profession and for employee retention: “Something we think a lot about at the Guild is the business case for making these jobs better for people because bakeries are such an important part of our communities and economies.”

It’s true that adapting a business to higher temperatures — by installing solar panels to reduce dependence on fossil fuel — does cost money that a lot of bakery owners don’t have. “It’s hard for early-stage companies to raise financing for their core business, let alone for investing in sustainable capital projects,” says Austin Whitman, CEO of Climate Neutral, a globally recognized organization that tracks greenhouse gas emissions across businesses. “It’s a challenge to put $80,000 into a new oven and have capital costs amortize over many years.”

On top of the cost, it’s a challenge for time-strapped bakers to search for grants and incentive programs for climate-related infrastructure and capital projects, then deal with all the paperwork it entails. There are also potential disruptions to production that making climate-related improvements entail, and, if a baker wants to take the extra step to seek Climate Neutral certification for their business, the challenge of meeting those exacting standards. “Many companies claim carbon neutralization around small pieces of their operation, like carbon-neutral shipping. But it’s too small as a chunk of the total,” says Whitman. “It’s a bare minimum when globally shipping accounts for a couple of percentage points of emissions.”

Still, “we are now expecting that to reach net zero by 2050, [so] every baker in the world is going to be not just a bread maker, but also an expert in climate change,” Whitman adds. “Voluntary action by companies is important because government regulation has not moved in step with the problem.”

If bakers are looking for a model for the future, Bread Alone is a good one. The bakery, which was founded in upstate New York in 1983 and now produces 30,000 loaves a day from its three locations, has the distinction of being the first bakery in North America with Climate Neutral certification. Its CEO, Nels Leader, cites Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard as a role model; since he rejoined the company a decade ago, Leader has overseen a number of sustainability measures that include the installation of state-of-the-art Heuft ovens, which use energy-efficient thermal oil as a heat source; the ongoing conversion of all the bakery’s facilities to solar power; and a new chilled filtered water system on the production floor to encourage employees to stay hydrated. The company will likely be early in meeting its goal of sourcing 100 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2030. While government agencies and politicians of all stripes scramble in the face of rising temperatures, Bread Alone is ready. “The heat stretches are unlike anything we have encountered before,” Leader says, “We have fully entered the adaptation stage in relation to climate change.”

The comprehensive certification framework from Climate Neutral gives Nels Leader a clear snapshot of the business impact on the environment. “If we don’t know what our benchmark is,” he says, “how are we going to make improvements?”

At this point, sustainable infrastructure investment is mostly limited to legacy or industrial bakeries. “For bakers who don’t have the resources to update their facilities, their options are limited,” says Bornarth.

When she baked at Mel, which is now temporarily closed, Nora Allen decreased the amount of levain — natural yeast — in hot weather and was never without a Thermapen, a small digital thermometer used to monitor dough temperature. Before leaving at night, she filled Cambro containers with water to be refrigerated for making the dough first thing in the morning. Water that’s colder than tap produces a cooler dough, slowing down the proofing process. In the heat, it buys the baker time. Allen is in the market for a new production and retail location and dreams of having a doser connected to the water system to deliver water at a set temperature and measurement so she can stop lugging heavy Cambros to the refrigerator.

Adaptation and innovation is happening in retail bakeries, even in the absence of big bucks to invest in substantial infrastructure and certification processes. Just as bakers race to control a warm dough, the industry is racing against the effects of rising heat on its bottom line. And at this point in history, creating a sustainable workplace is about more than just infrastructure — it’s about addressing other immediate human needs, too. Taking a cue from her colleagues in Europe, Allen made a practice of closing Mel during the month of August. “Beyond the environment,” she says, “culture is taking care of self and the team.”

Deborah Reid is a writer and chef based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Civil Eats, and Fine Cooking magazine.
Molly Magnell is a Brooklyn-based illustrator trying to befriend every local bodega cat, one BEC at a time.

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