Checking in with… Andy Lamb of Union Loafers

In our new column, Checking in with…, 
we’re catching up with local food industry employees to find out how they’ve been affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

One of the joys of being a bread-obsessed person is the thrill of heading to your favorite local bakery on a whim, walking in the door, and finding out whether your favorite loaf is available. For many St. Louis residents, Andy Lamb is the face they associate with that experience. A baker-turned-front-of-house guy, Lamb has worn a lot of hats at Union Loafers; now, as the coronavirus pandemic continues to change the way we get our bread, Lamb is part of a team that’s trying to forge a new paradigm. We talked to him about his history as a Loafer, what dish he’s been obsessively cooking, and when that damn beet sandwich might come back.  

What’s your title at Union Loafers?
Isn’t that a good question? I’m technically the wholesale manager, but I’ve been so many things in the past five years that I don’t know that we’ve ever settled on a title. I jokingly refer to myself as the “OG Loafer.” I was the first employee and the only one to stick around since we opened. 

So you were there at the start?
Yeah. Ted and I worked together at Urban Chestnut… oh boy, seven or eight years ago. When he opened the place, I jumped ship from where I was and came over to help him get it open.  

You were back-of-house when you started, right? 
I came on as basically the production manager – a glorified prep cook. I helped get the recipes figured out, and once we had them figured out, we got into a cycle and started making a schedule and refined everything from there. I did that for three and a half years, and then my hand started acting up and I had to stop cooking for pain reasons. It’s hard – if I got to choose, I would definitely still be cooking.  

What were you doing during the time that you guys were closed? 
Honestly, I think I read every book that I own again. I went through the cookbooks that I have. I got really into making terrible tamagoyaki – that Japanese rolled omelet. A sweet, savory omelet. You see it a lot in sushi. That’s a fun little treat to mess up repeatedly. [laughs] I read through Fuchsia Dunlop’s Land of Fish and Rice. It’s a really good book. She’s got one for each of the five regions of China. She’s a great author.  

You guys have come up with a pretty unique model for running a bakery during the coronavirus epidemic. I think it’s been successful. Is it sustainable? How do you see things going in six months?
Ted and Sean have talked about this, and then as a group as a whole we kind of talked about it a bit. We got very lucky in that, one, they were smart enough to see this coming far enough down the road that we could start preparing for this, and two, we were pretty uniquely situated to turn to this. Indo just opened up, I know, but it’s a lot easier for us to market “Come pick up bread” than it is to be like, “Come pick up raw fish.” I’m stoked to see them back. We were very lucky in that we have a product set that is designed to be market items, basically. Obviously we had to cut back staff. I think we lost about 80% of our staff in this process, but I think this is something that could be maintained in the long run if necessary. 

Would you guys start up your lunch again, like sandwiches? 
In the stages of us reopening, that’s probably going to be the very last thing. To give you an idea, we’re running the current market crew with five front-of-house people, two bakers, one prep cook and five pizza crew members. To do sandwiches, we would need to hire 10 cooks back on. We would need to double the staff. Then, front-of-house would need to come back, too, which is another 10 to 12 people. The sandwiches are really where the heaviest labor costs are, because there’s so much backend work. With a pizza, we’re taking pretty much raw ingredients and putting them on other raw ingredients and then cooking them, whereas with the sandwiches, somebody’s entire job was to come in at six in the morning and cut and wash the lettuce that we’d use for that day. We’re not even talking two or three days out – we’re talking day of. We’re going to go through all of that lettuce. 

Internally, how different is the process now from how it was six months ago?
It’s a lot more controlled. There’s definitely some issues that we’re still working through. Before, with pizza, like any normal restaurant, you don’t know what’s coming in. It’s just going to hit you when it hits you. With this, we’re very luckily sold out by like 3 every day. So when 5 hits, we know what pizzas are going to be coming, we know exactly when they’re due. Once they start, it’s just three hours of going non-stop. I think the bread side has really not changed much, because that process is the same whether you’re doing it for a live audience or for a pickup. 

What do you miss about getting to greet people every day in the restaurant?
It definitely feels different, what we’re doing now. It’s nice to be back. A lot of the regulars, I’ve actually come to be friends with. I never really had that opportunity in the back of house. It really is quite a cool thing, to get to see the same group of people every week. I’d like to see some of them again.

What do you miss most about life outside of work?
I certainly miss sitting down at a bar somewhere and having a nice cocktail. My wife and I really enjoyed picking a random weeknight and going out, sitting somewhere that wasn’t our home, talking without the distractions of a TV or cats or phones. I’m pretty keen for that to start up once it’s safe to do so again.