Ian Herrington rushes out of his house and slams the door behind him. The clatter breaks the silence of his near west side street. The air is still, and the sky is a long, dark blue. Despite living in a bustling neighborhood of the city, nobody is outside. It’s only just him, and it’s 2:30 in the morning.
What’s odd about this scene is not that Herrington is outside in the middle of the night, nor that he’s wide awake. What’s odd is that he hasn’t had his coffee yet.
“I’ll drink the work coffee,” he says.
To say that Herrington is brusque is understatement. He doesn’t suffer fools, and his words are terse. Dressed to work in unfashionable New Balance shoes, a revolving wardrobe of undershirts, and a pair of jeans stained gray from flour, Herrington is a study in utilitarianism. His ordinary tastes, however, bolster a commitment to substance over style that is evidenced by his kinetic job as a baker at On the Rise Artisan Breads in Cleveland Heights.
“I like knowing that I am good at my job and that I work in the best bakery in the city,” Herrington says. Lately, he calls his style of work “impossibly productive,” a phrase he picked up from Cleveland Scene’s “Best of Cleveland 2015” list, in which On the Rise was named the best bread in Cleveland.
In the kitchen, Herrington sips his coffee and jumps into production. There is little verbal communication between him and his coworkers, but there is a symphonic grace to the way they work around each other. He checks a French dough’s tension with a tap of his finger, then impudently flicks flour onto the mixing table and folds the dough upon itself to shape it into a smooth, small dome. He passes the dough to a coworker, who arranges the domes in groups of 12 on a pan to rest. There’s a window to hit the sweet spot of dough tensity, and it closes in an hour.
This is assembly-line work, but there’s nothing mechanical about it. Herrington and his coworkers are dedicated to making the best product possible, and they bring a human touch to everything they create, from the sticky buns to the rosemary focaccia. Every single loaf that leaves On the Rise each morning has been checked and rechecked by any of the six pairs of skilled hands on deck.
Herrington sprints to the back of the kitchen and checks the color of the loaves baking in the oven. He clatters each of the eight doors as he shuts them; then it’s back to the mixing table. He does this all in a matter of minutes, repeating the process with an unwavering level of focus as the weak morning light fades into midday sun.
Herrington took his first baking job a few months out of college at a larger wholesale baker in Cleveland. He had the tolerance for the early-morning call times, but he didn’t anticipate falling in love with the craft. “I just thought it would be an ordinary job,” he says.
Herrington found the quick and nimble workflow at the wholesale bakery gratifying, but the product wasn’t great. He wanted to work with the best, so he applied to On the Rise.
“I knew that adjusting to On the Rise would be tough, but I wanted to actively learn how to bake,” he says. Herrington brings a cerebral intensity to the team at On the Rise. He never stops learning, and he doesn’t stop thinking about bread, either. His seeded semolina sourdough concept, topped with red pepper flakes and fennel, is herbaceous and savory. The toothsome sourdough was offered three years ago as a special and is now a recurring Thursday feature.
Beyond the specials, the daily output from On the Rise matches the highest culinary standards in the region. Every morning by 11am, the bakery will produce bread that’s served in many of Cleveland’s top restaurants. It takes a special combination of technique, drive, and human ingenuity to produce loaves that can stand up to the city’s best dishes.
Team Sawyer’s unctuous foie gras steamed clams at Greenhouse Tavern is served with thick slabs of On the Rise’s rustic Italian table bread. The Black Pig’s decadent toad in a hole, topped with black truffle shavings, is anchored by On the Rise toast.
The work looks frenetic. Yet, to Herrington, the job is rote and task-based. For him, every day is an exercise in finding a routine that will be the most effective and efficient. He is always thinking about how to do the job better.
“It is all about timing,” he says. “You need to have speed and efficiency to be able to do this job well. If I think about how I can save 20 seconds on one task, then another—those tasks eventually build to hours of saved time,” he says.
He notices the impact his hard work has on Cleveland’s diners, and it gives him immense pride.
“The thought that people across the region, people I don’t know or will ever meet, are eating bread that I’ve made—that is gratifying,” he says. “I make an honest product.”
As the day wraps up, Herrington looks forward to lunch. It will be more utility food that will get him to bed early, around 9pm. Sleep is the priority, at the cost of spending time with his friends and roommates, who have regular work schedules. In the absence of social concerns, he has leaned into a more fundamental, human drive to create.
I have a memory of him from two summers ago. He was always tired and always thinking about sleep, except when he was working. I was chiding him for being a crank, but he didn’t care. He looked at me through black plastic frames that were flecked with flour, and he grinned.
“The bread doesn’t bake itself.”
For more information about On The Rise, call 216.320.9923 or visit OnTheRiseArtisanBreads.com.