Nothing is typical in Brooklyn, N.Y., anymore, but it was just a while ago for Theresa Watkinson, chief operating officer, Aladdin Bakers. That’s when the average day began before 8 a.m. and ended around 6 p.m. weekdays, with occasional weekends at this producer of pitas, bagels, wraps, baked snacks and Old World artisan breads.

“You’d walk the bakery, you’d check the flour market, check production, visit support departments, have meetings, go over day-to-day operations and long-term goals … yadda yadda yadda,” she said. “Every day was filled with something new, but it seems so long ago. It seemed like a dream.”

In March, Aladdin Bakers found itself at the epicenter of the initial outbreak of the coronavirus (COVID-19).

“We were scared. Nobody knew what was happening or what to expect,” Ms. Watkinson recalled. “Would we all get sick? Would we shut down? What would happen to our vendors, our customers and, most importantly, our employees?”

It took a little more than grace under pressure as the bakery’s management began to fully comprehend and appropriately react to the rapidly unfolding crisis. Ms. Watkinson along with Joseph Ayoub, the bakery’s owner; Don Guzzi, chief financial officer; Guillermo “Memo” Flores, director of production, and others held daily “war room style” meetings to sort through the lack of information and miscommunication coming from everyone from authorities to the media.

“With the pandemic, we figured out pretty early that before we had time to react, things changed again,” she said. “We basically rolled with the punches, planned for what we could and shored up every area of the business.”

Baked In Brooklyn

That included ensuring the supply chain by lining up backup suppliers and backup-to-backup ones. Official daily press conferences and nighty announcements from regulators kept operations in a state of flux.

“We did the best we could to foresee what would come for the next hours, days, weeks, months,” Ms. Watkinson said. “We prepared for the worst and hoped for the best.”

Aladdin Bakers found itself with employees who didn’t want to return to work. It developed an emergency contact program, prohibited visitors to the bakery, stocked up on cleaning supplies, sanitized nonstop and handed out personal protective equipment while social distancing where possible.

Such preparation, precautions and crisis management on the fly has defined the new reality for all operations executives across the nation, many of whom share similar COVID-19 experiences from the past nine months and have adapted to a constantly shifting work environment.

“I still do all of the ‘normal’ things in a day, but now, we’re dealing with moving targets and a lot of changes on the fly,” Ms. Watkinson observed. “It could be a customer who ordered products two weeks ago and tell us today that they’re shutting down their business. Or a vendor who was supposed to deliver us something, and now they’re telling us, ‘It’s not going to come for another month.’ We just have a lot more puzzles to solve every day.”

Although Aladdin Bakers has many additional tools available and isn’t being blindsided by something it never imagined possible, long days occasionally become late nights, and the work week sometimes doesn’t end before the next one starts.

But for Ms. Watkinson, there’s something oddly rewarding about it all.

“I’ve never felt so busy in my life, but at the end of every day, I feel like I really accomplished something,” she said. “That’s sort of the beauty of all of it.”

A life-changing decision

In so many ways, Ms. Watkinson has demonstrated the leadership qualities and management skills that so many production supervisors, plant managers and other essential workers have had to rely on this year as they struggled and persevered through untold challenges caused by the pandemic. For these reasons and others, Baking & Snack magazine has named her its 2020 Operations Executive of the Year at such an unprecedented time when the industry needs to take off its hats to the frontline workers who did their jobs under extraordinary circumstances and the people who have led them.

Unlike the classic operations executive, however, Ms. Watkinson didn’t grow up in the family business, study to be a master baker or even earn her stripes from working decades in the bakery. Rather, in her previous career, she practiced as an attorney, which came in handy with the onslaught of worker safety issues that bakeries had to contend with this year.

“I can understand labor laws. I can understand all of these new COVID laws,” she noted. “They change daily, and we don’t generally have to contact our outside counsel because I understand the law that they’re setting forth and what it means to us and what we have to do.”

After attending Nassau Community College and New York University, Ms. Watkinson graduated from Hofstra University School of Law in 2005. Over the next decade, she worked at various New York-area firms representing clients, including several bakers, in complex commercial litigation. That’s where she met Joe Ayoub, owner of Aladdin Bakers, and learned about the industry.

“I became interested in overall operations of a bakery, how products are produced and the relationship between the bakery and consumers,” she recalled.

In 2015, her law firm’s managing partner began contemplating retiring, which prompted Ms. Watkinson to explore the next stage of her career. She received numerous offers from other firms, and one from Mr. Ayoub, whom she had represented and had been asking her for years to join the bakery as its chief administration officer.

“I was really trepidatious about doing something besides law, because that’s all I knew,” she said. “I had decided that I’d always be a lawyer, but not always have the opportunity to work at a bakery, so ‘Why not?’ I asked myself. I took a leap of faith, and I haven’t looked back.”

Mr. Ayoub, who made pitas by hand in the 1970s and delivered them throughout his neighborhood before purchasing Aladdin Bakers, started mentoring her about the baking industry.

“Joe built the company from the ground up,” Ms. Watkinson said. “He treats everyone with respect. He works the floor like I do, often side-by-side with others. In hard times, he’s here. During celebrations, he’s here. He has taken the time to teach the lessons of baking, business and life."

“He’s really a visionary,” she continued. “He’s teaching me about everything outside of the box when it comes to baking and business as well. Ultimately, I decided to come on board because of his passion and because I really wanted to make a difference. I know that sounds cliché, but there’s something to be said for feeding people. I felt a sense of accomplishment that I didn’t feel as an attorney.”

At Aladdin Bakers, Ms. Watkinson formalized the human relations department, instituted formal training programs, created a support network with an outlet for employees to voice grievances and developed a payroll system that eventually allowed the bakery to respond to workforce fluctuations more quickly when COVID-19 hit. She guided the bakery through SQF certification for HACCP and streamlined production schedules to garner efficiencies in the more than 100,000-square-foot bakery that includes at least a dozen production lines in 17 buildings on three city blocks.

Learning the ropes

Since joining Aladdin Bakers, Ms. Watkinson also has worked in every position on the production floor to understand what the processes are, experience what it takes to create the finished products and comprehend how the operation comes together.

“That allows me to identify areas where improvements can be made to formulate plans to attain positive change and how to execute it,” she said. “You might look at a job and think it’s easy, but every job here is difficult. Over time, people become experts at it.”

Ms. Watkinson enjoys stepping into those roles, such as hand-stretching Aladdin Bakers’ signature panini bread, where she’s connected to the product. She’s also worked in sanitation, maintenance and engineering.

“It opened my eyes to seeing employees are not just coming to work and punching the clock and pressing a button all day,” she noted. “Everybody is skilled in some fashion.”

Theresa Watkinson

As an attorney, she’s seen how businesses operate and why some companies succeed, while others make wrong decisions. That’s an advantage as COO. At the same time, she understands that it takes time to learn and be accepted in the industry.

“One disadvantage of coming in and not growing up in the bakery is that there is definitely a club,” Ms. Watkinson said. “I haven’t really broken into that club yet, but I plan to. It’s not that it’s a closed-door club, because this is the most inviting industry that I’ve seen. I just haven’t had the time to develop many relationships over the last few years, but I’m working on it.”

She said that her expanding coterie now includes local bakers, even competitors, who Mr. Ayoub grew up with in the area, and vendors such as All Bake Technologies, Corbion, Gemini Bakery Equipment, IJ White. Lawrence Equipment, Quincy Compressor and Rademaker USA.

“The people in this industry are not exclusive. They’re very inclusive, so I haven’t felt like an outsider,” Ms. Watkinson said.

A never-ending journey

Mr. Guzzi, another mentor and the company’s CFO for more than 25 years, has also taught her the ins and outs of the baking industry.

“Don is a lot more like me than Joe is,” Ms. Watkinson explained. “We think similarly in that we’re analytical in the same way. We just feed off each other. Don’s best trait is attention to detail. He wants everything to be perfect, and he gets pretty close.”

Other mentors include Mr. Flores, who taught her about the fundamentals of baking; Wendy Perez, customer service manager, and Luis Esquivel, the bakery’s chief engineer who showed her the nuts and bolts of the equipment throughout the facility. He was mentored by the late Arkadi Karachun, who was a long-time anchor of the operation holding almost every position, from maintenance to plant manager.

“I’m coming into this baking industry with little or no experience, so I’m pulling little pieces from a bunch of different people,” she said.

In the months ahead, there are still many challenges in across the nation, even as Baking & Snack conducted this interview in late October.

“Nothing will be the same after this year,” Ms. Watkinson observed. “We look at everything differently. Just this week, the infection rates are rising again. We’re a ‘hot spot.’ We’re in the yellow zone on 25th Street, and on 36th Street starts the red zone. There is no orange in between. It’s still scary, but everything we put in place since the start is going to help us going forward. I really believe that.”

Yes, nothing is normal in Brooklyn these days, but Aladdin Bakers is now better prepared than ever for whatever comes next.

This article is an excerpt from the December 2020 issue of Baking & Snack. To read the entire feature, click here.