The Tough Boss
Our teenage employee, Rachel Spanbauer, lost her battle with brain and spine cancer last week. It was a heck of a battle. She was a warrior, an inspiration, courageous and strong beyond her years…beyond what I can ever imagine being. She faced the world with a smile on her face even with the grimmest of prognosis, and blew me away with her strength. Rachel’s persistence and optimism were absolutely beautiful to watch.
At Rachel’s funeral I was told repeatedly how much she loved to work for me, and I was humbled. In many ways those words warmed my heart, but they stung at the same time. Because, unlike Rachel, I am not a perpetual optimist. I am not always smiling, and I honestly know that I was tough on Rachel, like I am on all of my staff.
I grew up in a lower middle class family, in rural northern Michigan. My father worked ridiculous hours all of the time to provide for my brothers and I, and the foster children we took into our home. As soon as I was old enough, at the age of 14, I started my first “real” job at the Roscommon Dairy Queen. I loved to work, and absolutely loved my job. I begged for hours and worked as hard as I could when I was there. My first boss, Mr. King, was tough. Standing around was absolutely unacceptable, there was always something to be done. Cleaning, dipping dilly bars, more cleaning, filling, back-up, whatever it took. We were not allowed to socialize; we were expected to give 100%, 100% of the time. I thought he was tough but I respected him for it.
As years went on I had different jobs (sometimes 2-3 jobs) to pay my bills in college, etc. I approached every job with that foundation of knowing I was expected to work as hard as I could. I pushed myself at work, trying to move to the next level as fast as I could, not because I wanted more pay, but because I have a personal drive to be the best I can be. I always thrived in a work place; work was my comfort zone. The only job I ever struggled with was a couple months when I worked in retail and there was nothing to do except greet people and fold shirts. I could not stand being idle. I needed a job that pushed me. I needed goals. I needed something to DO at all times.
When I first started cake decorating, I knew I had found my passion. I worked at Dairy Queen in Milwaukee while attending Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, and that is where I decorated my first cake professionally. I originally decorated cakes as a kid here and there, because my grandmother did it professionally and my mom did them for all of us and for a few customers as well. I fell in love with the art form and subsequently started to teach myself every technique I could.
My first job in a bakery was a tough one, with high expectations on speed, quality, and most important to them, quantity. I pushed myself; long days, long hours, no air conditioning, and assembly line type work. I pushed myself so that I was promoted to wedding cake decorator before the girls hired before me were. I pushed myself to be the fastest, to work the most, to be the best. And, yes, again, my bosses were tough. I could work a 12-14+ hour day, and if on the next day I was even one minute late, I was in trouble. I could decorate 100-150 sheetcakes a day, and then get sat down and “talked to” because on one of those sheetcakes the frosting cross looked like I rushed. But it made me better, it made me stronger, and it set me up for success. At the time I was beyond annoyed. I knew I made them money. I could decorate a $500 wedding cake in 2 hours, yet I did not even make $8 an hour. I worked 2 jobs at that time, and slept very little.
When I left that job it was because I wanted more freedom to design and be creative. I ended up at another bakery where they paid me salary based on a 40-45 hour workweek. I worked a minimum of 55 and often 70-80 hours a week. I took their wedding business from literally 12 cakes a year, to over 100 weddings a year. I built that wedding business up within my first year. At this point I don’t know if I would say they were the toughest bosses, because I was running that department and I was my own tough boss. I wanted to be the best, to push myself. I never turned down work, and took so much pride in what I had built for them. The breaking point where I knew I had to go out on my own was when the Packers went to the Superbowl. I had created an original designed “Packer cookie” and we literally would have lines waiting for their own Brett Farve or Reggie White cookie. My bosses would bake racks of cookies, then go home and leave them all for me to decorate. I would do them, working those looong days, but I knew I should do it for myself someday.
That brings me to the opening of my own little shop.
As a boss, I am tough. I know I can be. I have high expectations and the temper of my German-Irish grandfather. But I love people; I love my staff. I love being able to hire a person, try them in different departments and watch them grow into their positions. I care about each and every one of them and I want to know what is happening in their lives. I attend their events, musicals, pageants, etc. if they invite me. I want to see their artwork, meet their significant others, hold their babies, laugh with them, cry with them…. If they want off work for any reason I try to make the schedule work. If they aren’t happy in one department I try to find what makes them happy and what their strengths are. I have been accused of keeping people who don’t fit for too long. I hate giving up on someone, but not everyone is always a good fit for our little shop.
I love their creativity and passion for the job. I am blessed to know all of them. The ones who drive me crazy, the ones who just can’t handle the work (although it is a cupcake shop, it’s hard work, it’s long hours, it’s insanity sometimes) and the ones who continuously blow me away with how much they care about their jobs, the ones who are the back bone of my business. I try to see every person’s strengths and even though I sometimes get frustrated, I care about them. I am so blessed to share my life with them. They are my family.
Throughout the years I have been accused of caring too much and being too personal. But honestly, I cannot help who I am. I do care about every person that I have the privilege of knowing. Every person who we meet in life is put there for a reason and a part of God’s plan.
That brings me back to Rachel. Rachel was persistent in wanting a job with me. She asked, and asked, applied and continued to bug us until I interviewed her and finally hired her. I hired her as a dishwasher because that is where all of my high school students start. And she drove me crazy sometimes…. I am not patient, and she required patience (which many of my employees do, not just Rachel). She was always eager (sometimes too eager) always had new ideas (which I love) but very much a typical teenager. Things like forgetting to use the ask off calendar and at the last minute not being available…it did not happen more than it did with any other teenager and I wasn’t harder on her than anyone else. I treated her like I treat everyone. I am a tough boss.
She always wanted to do more than dishes (who could blame her) and at times I had her deliver or create cupcake flavors, but mostly, she did dishes. And she still loved her job. That was Rachel, positive no matter what circumstances.
When Rachel came to me a little over a year ago and told me her cancer was back, she told me what her schedule would be for chemo and wanted me to keep her on the schedule as long as I could work around the treatments. When the chemo made her tired, she apologized for being slow, and still very much wanted to be on the schedule. When school was starting and her body was rejecting the treatment, she wanted to be able to go to school, continue horrible treatments and still see what shifts I could find for her. She always wanted to be here as much as she could be, even though it was usually just washing dishes. On what ended up being her last shift of work here, she came in and started the dishes which were comprised of the typical never ending pile that a crazy Saturday at a bakery brings. I know how much she loved to do other things around the bakery, so I decided to send her with my husband on a wedding cupcake delivery. She was excited but right away apologized because her shirt was wet from dishes. I gave her one of our new t-shirts and sent her on her way. At this time she was struggling to walk or stand for long amounts of time, but she was so excited to do that delivery, she was beaming.
The most heart breaking part of the story for me, is that I will never know what the next chapter of her professional life could have brought. Where would her amazing work ethic have taken her? I know it is a blessing that God decided her story will continue differently, painless, safely in His loving arms in His kingdom. I was blessed to know her and blessed that she choose to join my team under the polka dots. We will forever remember Sweet Rachel. Whenever you enjoy one of our Dewberry or Brownie Thunder cupcakes please remember her too. They will always have a special meaning to every one of us under the polka dots.