Perseverance: Icing on Cake for Pastry Chef

Meet Bruce Dodds

Bruce early in his cake manufacturing career
Early Career

Bruce admits he was a poor student at North Dakota’s Fargo North High School. Book learning was not his thing. The social part was. Hands-on learning trumped books, always.

Yet, he found unconditional love and support from his parents who weren’t deterred by his poor attitude and poor grades.

They understood with time and finding his passion, Bruce would thrive. And, how right they were.

At age 50, Bruce retired as Vice President of Research and Development in a business he helped build. Then sold.

Here’s Bruce’s Story.

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Rich Texas Life

Bruce is completely content with his life’s path. “I’ve been blessed beyond my wildest dreams. I couldn’t possibly wish for anything else.”

He and his wife of 39 years, Teresa (Wickenheiser), a registered nurse, are both retired and living in  Texas. They’re the proud parents of two adult children and five grandchildren.

Most days Bruce awakens early and takes his two Labradors out to train for field trials. “It’s stress-free fun that gives me a reason to get out of the bed in the morning.  My dogs just love it.”

Hunting in North Dakota

Afternoons are spent in his pottery studio “throwing clay on the wheel or hand building pieces.” He doesn’t sell any of his many works. “One day my kids will have to figure out how to get rid of it all.”

He does get the parallel between cake baking and clay. Cake baking and pottery design both require immense amounts of creativity. Each begins with raw ingredients eventually shaped into a finished product-a cake and a beautiful functional art piece.

When not creating, he’s planning repeat trips to remote parts of the world, like Africa, to see wildlife and scenery not found in the USA. Or, he’s hunting in his home state of North Dakota and polishing up his photography skills.

Path to Texas Via New York

Education

Bruce’s NDSU West Dining Center boss is to thank for his career path. As a high school student, he worked there after school and during the summer. Early in his senior year, work peers asked about post-graduation plans. “I shrugged my shoulders and said I didn’t have a clue.” The thought of that question made him sick. “I knew I didn’t want to go to college.”

His boss suggested culinary school because he seemed to enjoy his job there so much.

Bruce sought direction from his high school guidance counselor who steered him to The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, New York. https://www.ciachef.edu/

“One look at the brochure and immediately I knew I wanted to go there, without even stepping foot in the school.” He applied and was accepted.

He started in January 1978 after quitting his NDSU job and working in a restaurant for a few months (a pre-requisite for admission).

Despite feeling lost and homesick, Bruce “loved school.” He even landed on the Dean’s List-a cause for family celebration on a school break.

He graduated in August 1979 with an Associate’s Degree taking classes ranging from Beginning Bake Shop (3 weeks) to Classical Pastry and Showpieces (3 weeks) to meat cutting to table service.

Lesson #1

It doesn’t take a four-year college degree to be successful. “If one finds what they love to do and are willing to work hard, anything is possible.”

Jobs to Lay-Off to Career

Bruce held many jobs before landing a career in the food industry.

  • Baker for 4 months at a Monticello, NY hotel
  • Pastry Chef at a hotel in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands for a year
  • Pastry Chef at a country club in The Woodlands, Texas for a year
  • Pastry Chef at the University Club in Houston, Texas for six years

Like many, he contemplated a career switch, going so far as applying to become a Houston police officer. He decided to remain in the food industry after just one interview with the department.

He found himself with “walking papers” when the oil economy and real estate market tanked in Houston. “A pastry chef is a luxury for most clubs. There are outside sources for cakes and pastry without having to pay a salary.”

On his last day of work at the Club, he grabbed the classified ads on his way out and saw an ad for a pastry chef at a dessert and coffee bar.

Dessert Manufacturing

Product Line

Bruce went to work for the owners of the dessert and coffee bar and a year later owned a small percentage of the business. It had 4-hourly employees and a 600 square foot bakery.

As the business grew, the bakery moved into a 7000 square foot building and within another year it moved into a 30,000 square foot facility. One year later, they doubled their square footage to 60,000 square feet.

Eventually, they built their own 160,000 square foot place.

When the business was sold in 2006, it had 350 hourly employees.

Bruce was the Owner, Pastry Chef + Vice President of Research and Development for 21 years.

He learned large volume production on the job and initially leaned heavily on his food scientist ingredient suppliers. “It was very stressful for me as the entire business relied and counted on my being able to formulate recipes that:

  • Mixed and baked well in large volume production
  • Tasted good
  • Could be produced efficiently and cost effectively.”

250,000 Cakes

Overnight the company grew from 5-6 hourly employees to 75 employees to fulfill their first large volume club store company order: 250,000 9-inch, 3-layer black forest cakes.

“We were so naïve. We really didn’t know what we could or couldn’t do in production. We may not have had a darn clue but we needed the business and figured it out.” Most of the time, things worked out fine. “It was stressful at the time but quite humorous today.”

Lesson #2

A strong work ethic is huge in achieving success.

“Don’t be afraid to work hard. In fact, if you don’t, you likely won’t succeed.”

Lesson #3

“If you fail at something, pick yourself up, shake off the dust, learn from the mistake and keep pounding away. Sooner or later, it’ll all work out. You’ll be richer for it.”

Family Matters

The food industry is physically demanding and can be all consuming, thus taxing on the home life. “We eat and sleep the business. A supportive family sure does help.”

Teresa, his wife, “held down the fort at home” and was supportive of Bruce’s work. “She was, and is, my rock. Without her it would all have been for nothing.”

Lesson #4

Those who succeed in this industry, like most, “work hard and grind it out, daily.”

Work Life Balance

Bruce thinks a work life balance is important but easily admits “I found it to be pretty difficult.” Work consumed him both at the office and at home. Test kitchen and production deadlines were always looming and the phone rang constantly, even during the middle of the night.

“I’d say, if one is able to close the office door and go home to enjoy his or her family without thinking of the work sitting on the desk, you are better for it.”

Accolades + Awards

Bruce’s proudest achievement to date is his family.

Forced to cite professional awards, he lists being able to retire at age 50 as his greatest professional achievement. “The sale of our company was the ‘award’ my partners and I strove for and fought for all those years.”

Along the way, he

  • Survived in a household with two older academic and athletic brothers. One a dentist. The other an ear, nose and throat (ENT) doctor.
  • Won a Bailey’s Irish Crème food competition in Houston
  • Appeared on the cover American Airlines’ American Way magazine behind a 5-tiered wedding cake prepared for his final project at CIA.

3 Principles + Values

What always guided Bruce toward these achievements were the three principles and values learned at a young age.

Lesson #5

Timeliness is important in business and everyday life. Be on time for meetings and appointments. “Being late is rude and shows you think your time is more valuable than the people you are to meet.”

Lesson #6

Preparedness. Always show up well prepared and knowledgeable. “Nothing bothered me more than having folks show up ill prepared and clearly not ready for the meeting.” This is inconsiderate and shows laziness.

Lesson #7

Exceed Expectations. Learn all you can about your customer’s business, including their customer base. Knowing this makes it possible to meet or exceed expectations. Bruce made many trips to see grocery store bakery buyers from all over the country. “If I was asked to bring a certain product, I did. But I also brought variations of it as well.” Many times, customers don’t quite know what they want. Offering options shows you did your homework and went the extra mile. “This was always appreciated.”

Future

“I can’t think of a thing I’d like to accomplish yet in my life. I am content and happy.”

Finding what he was meant to do and fulling that calling were hallmarks of Bruce’s success and path in life.

Not surprising, his go-to song today is Lauren Daigle’s, “You Say.”

Listen

“When we think we are worthless and don’t recognize our strengths. God sees them.”

And many thank God for helping Bruce discover + understand his greater purpose.

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©Copyright. May 2019. Linda Leier Thomason
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Linda Leier Thomason writes freelance business and travel stories, along with feature articles. Her work experiences include a Fortune 500 corporation, federal government, entrepreneurship and small business.
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