The most important bakery no one knows about

By Jazmine Pendleton

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It’s a regular Tuesday night at Hampshire Dining Commons, and a pan of crumb cake sits on the counter waiting for the first student to grab a piece. One after another, students quickly pile the cake onto their plates. Yet, as they indulge, many are unaware the tasty dessert comes from a bustling bakery tucked away underneath the C-Store unknown to the average University of Massachusetts college student.

Anyone walking through the Hampden Bake Shop would be quickly invigorated by the heady aroma of fresh baking bread and chocolate fudge brownies. The room is filled with large revolving ovens, dough mixers and worktables pasted with stains of spilled flour and other ingredients. Men and women adorned in white, chef coats and puffed hats quickly bustle around: measuring flour, washing pans, spreading frosting, or kneading dough. Trays upon trays of rolls, muffins and other pastries sit ready to be shipped out for the day.

The Hampden Bake Shop, located below the Hampden Dining Common in the Southwest Residential Area serves 20,000 to 25,000 people on campus every day. The bakery provides baked goods for each of the four dining commons on campus, all retail operations and catered functions.

On top of this feat, head pastry Chef Simon Stevenson personally caters for the chancellor’s VIP gatherings, which can range from five to 300 people, with the university patrons to the governor.

Many believe the deserts come out of pre-made, packaged boxes; a misconception Stevenson would like to debunk.

“We make everything handmade here, from carving the fruit to whipping the frosting on the cakes, the bakery produces it all,” he said, gesturing as if he were molding an imaginary pastry. Yet, many students are unaware of the preparation, skill, and time put into these everyday desserts, which can range from mascarpone cheesecake to lemon bars.

The bakery reflects Stevenson’s passion for the quality work he and his staff try to produce every day. In his small office, filled with clutter of new menus, plaques of recognition and culinary degrees cover the walls. Books to better his craft fill the shelves, along with a plate of chocolate shoes that sits for display. It’s a pair of shoes he completed at a chocolate 101 course he taught the week before.

“What do you think are the biggest complaints we get from students?” Stevenson asked. Quickly he responded, “The students want healthier choices and variety.”

Little do they know, there are 30,000 combinations a student can eat for lunch, and the bakery has a rotating schedule for 21 days, which allows a student not to repeat desserts for quite a while because the menu never repeats, unless it is a special for the day.

Many students at UMass; however, do not recognize the work put into these dishes.

“I never eat the desserts in the DC,” said Vanessa Laine, a senior at UMass. “It’s like the same every day, or they don’t have anything I like.” Imagine, everyday a student can experience a different dessert if they only realized this was possible.

The bake shop follows by its own set of Ten Commandments. One of which explains how to act as if you are baking for three people: yourself, your mother and the local food critic. If you then could not serve the product to them, the dish cannot be sent out. Stevenson stresses that the students of UMass “are our guests,” and it takes time and dedication to put out quality food for them. When the bakery was testing out a new baguette, it was tested six times so they could improve it before they sent it out for their guests to eat.

“We care about what we produce here,” Stevenson said as he shared a hot, freshly baked roll. “It is such a personal experience, we pour so much into the food, we touch it, manipulate it and alter it, and the finished product ends up inside someone’s body, how much closer can you get with someone?”

Two bakers share over 25 years each in experience in baking. The shop also includes a gold medal baker, who is one of the few to obtain this achievement for baking. The staff consists of one assistant pastry chef, eight more bakers and 25 students. “The atmosphere is great here, everyone is friendly,” a student worker, Rachael Mroz, pointed out. The senior staff and students work together to make the bake shop work. Many bakers arrive at the bakery as early as 3 a.m. to provide, fresh muffins and pastries for the students at breakfast.

As you bite into that bagel, remember The Hampden Bake Shop is not providing bread from some store, but rather, the hands, dedication and love from a group of people who really want to produce the best for you.

Jazmine Pendleton can be reached at [email protected]