Keeping the bread rising in northeast Ohio

Philip DeOliveira, Great Lakes Baking Company
Employee Philip DeOliveira, right, kneads dough as he helps prepare the bakery’s offerings on Wednesdays.

For 27 years, attorney Corina Gaffney helped shape the lives of clients as she assisted them with everything from adoptions to criminal charges.

These days you’ll find her shaping something she finds just as satisfying: All manner of breads and pastries for her own bakery.

“I’d always dreamed of having a bakery,” said Gaffney, who in 2018 bought the Great Lakes Baking Company in the Akron suburb of Hudson. She’s been running it ever since, whipping up cream puffs, baguettes, bagel rolls, lemon bars, scones and a long list of other artisan goodies for the people of Summit County and beyond.

Gaffney’s great adventure

Her love of baking came from her mother, who was born and raised in Germany at a time when learning to bake wonderful pastries was part of a woman’s upbringing.

“In Germany there’s a tradition that in the afternoon you take a break and have a sweet and some coffee so that you’re refreshed for the rest of the day,” Gaffney said. “I baked as a kid, and when my daughters were growing up, I made bread at home.”

Corina Gaffney, Great Lakes Baking Company
Corina Gaffney

Baking, she said, is her “love language,” something that brings as much joy to her as to those she’s baking for. So when she was laid off from her job as an assistant prosecuting attorney with Summit County during the Great Recession, she began planning her next great adventure.

Great Lakes became available when its founder decided to sell after 20 years in business, so Gaffney started with an established client base. She’s continued the bakery’s tradition of using locally sourced, natural ingredients and has expanded its offerings extensively to include tarts, hand pies, German pastries, specialties such as cheesecake bars and “twice as many cookies as before.”

Health insurance option for employees

One problem she didn’t have was finding health insurance to offer to her 14 employees. Because she’s a member of Ohio Farm Bureau, she’s been able to provide coverage through its Health Benefits Plan for those who need it.

Dan Rapp, senior director of health services development with Ohio Farm Bureau, said the organization began offering the insurance so that members who work in farm-to-fork Ohio industries could have reasonably priced coverage. It’s self-funded and is specifically for small businesses. The average use is for about three employees, but it can be used for as few as one and as many as 99 employees, Rapp said.

The program, in its fourth year, insures nearly 2,500 people from almost 500 businesses through a variety of plans.

Gaffney shopped for a year before she found the Farm Bureau plan.

“I was really excited to offer as good a plan as I have, given that I’m a small business and have no bargaining power,” Gaffney said. “It’s very good coverage for the cost.”

The plan’s availability and affordability gives her one less thing to worry about during a year where her business has been turned upside down by COVID-19.

COVID-19 impacts

State mandates led her to close the bakery in March for a short time before reopening with online orders and curbside pickup. As of mid-November she was open to the public Thursday through Sunday for walk-in business and had employees working in the kitchen on Wednesdays.

Tina Rininger, Great Lakes Baking Company
Bakery employee Tina Rininger, left, shapes rolls during bakery prep day. The employees at the small business have their insurance coverage through the Ohio Farm Bureau Health Benefits Plan.

She cut out two days of public business hours so that her employees have fewer days when they could be exposed to the virus during sales hours.

While business hasn’t increased when compared with 2019, it has remained steady.

“People come in and they say, ‘I just need to treat myself because I’ve had a really bad day,’” Gaffney said. “It’s a comfort thing; they can’t do this or that, so they think they may as well comfort themselves with baked goods.”

Gaffney is thankful that the pandemic didn’t hit during her first year owning the bakery.

“I would have told myself it was time to move on,” she said. But 2019 gave her time to create a team that has been pulling together to get through the challenging times. In terms of the day-to-day work, Gaffney said baking is much more difficult than lawyering.

“People have a tendency to think that working in a bakery is a nice, fluffy experience and everything is super easy,” she said. “It’s not. Physically it’s 150 percent harder than any job I’ve had before. You’re on your feet 13 to 15 hours a day and you’re lifting and pouring 50 pound bags of flour.”

But what keeps her coming back, often in the wee hours of the morning when baking must begin, are the customers.

“There’s a lot of satisfaction in giving people something that makes them happy and helps them celebrate,” she said. “When you get to hand cookies to little kids, there’s nothing better than the smile that comes across their faces.”

Kathy Lynn Gray is a freelance writer from Columbus.