Jobs in the Weedconomy: The Baker

Jul 30, 2014 at 7:13 AM ET

As Colorado’s $1 billion marijuana market coins first-time millionaires and creates thousands of new jobs, we trailed five different workers to collate snapshots of this new world of legalized weed. This is the third job in the series. Check out parts one and two as well.

Aside from the 50 pounds of weed on the counter, the superfood-green butter and the whole place being enveloped in a ganja bouquet, this bakery is really just like any other bakery. Indeed, it smells like happiness in Love’s Oven, a marijuana edibles kitchen in an industrial sliver of Denver and the lead baker, Hope Frahm, a 30-year-old blonde with a tattoo of the Love’s Oven insignia on her arm, is hugging a 2-pound bag of trim, saying, “Oh my God, this does smell good.”

Even though legal commercial weed edibles are only six months old, most bakeries have already streamlined their processes to use hash oil, which is extracted through butane or CO2. But as Frahm says, Love’s Oven is one of the few bakeries left in the state that still use naturally infused cannabutter: “We think this is more natural and gives the product a unique taste. Some people swear hash oil is the way to go because it doesn’t leave a taste.” She shrugs, “Different strokes.”

As Frahm takes me around the kitchen, the afternoon shift just getting started, she says with that 50 pounds of green they’ll be able to make enough butter for two weeks’ worth of edibles—or some 27,000 products. To that end, a worker in the corner is stirring a tub of liquefied cannabutter atop an ice bath—the result of 4 pounds of trim—and it looks like green tar, or some kind of alien lava. Another worker is cutting a tray of Magic Bars (graham cracker crust, sweetened condensed milk, coconut, butterscotch, walnuts, chocolate chips…THC) into individual segments. And another is sharpening a large knife.

Back in 2009, Love’s Oven began as an at-home, single-worker bakery operating on the fourth medical marijuana edibles license awarded by the state. When the regulations changed, the team switched to a commercial kitchen. When the rules changed again in 2010, they moved to where they are now—a plain white storefront without signage next to a highway underpass and an energy plant. And since Jan. 1 of this year, Love’s Oven has already expanded from two to 17 employees.

Openings circle the community largely through word-of-mouth, but Craigslist is how many arrive at Love’s Oven. Rather than hire people who’ve learned baking skills through home-based experimentation, owner Peggy Moore recruits people with professional culinary experience. Indeed, Frahm found her job on Craigslist and landed it because she’s a classically trained pastry chef from the Art Institute of Las Vegas. She worked on the Vegas Strip—sharing kitchens with celebrity chefs like Gordon Ramsey, Wolfgang Puck and Thomas Keller—before moving to Colorado. “Hope trained and worked in high-volume bakeries,” Moore says. “The products are not just tasty, they’re uniform. They’re exceptional.”

Which is to say, there are only minor differences between working for a regular, high-volume gourmet bakery and one that happens to push products infused with THC. Salaries for chefs range from $28,000 to $40,000—comparable to pastry chefs not working in the marijuana industry—and kitchen assistants and packagers make around $11 an hour, a little higher than the food industry standard, says Moore. But mostly, the difference has to do with the excitement that comes from looking at the counter, seeing bags full of marijuana and remembering that no one’s breaking the law.

Frahm says: “I never worked with edibles before Love’s. I was always curious about it when I lived in Vegas, but was too scared to actually make any with it being illegal. Now I get to work with pot legally? What? I don’t have to hide and be all shifty? It still blows me away.”

In a cruel twist of irony, while Frahm bakes all this amazing stuff—s’mores, Parisian macaroons, homemade caramel sauce, baklava, blueberry love bars, white chocolate macadamia cookies, you get the idea—she has no sense of taste whatsoever. Working as a mechanic a number of years back, she burned a third of her body in an accident involving hot anti-freeze, and in the process ruined her taste buds. So now she relies on the smell, the texture, and perhaps most importantly, what she calls “the science” behind a perfect cookie—skills she mastered in school and amplified to include cannabutter.

That she can’t taste matters little in this environment, anyway. Because of regulations administered by Colorado’s Marijuana Enforcement Department (MED), Love’s Oven is a decidedly sober place. Yes, 4/20 is a paid holiday. Yes, they bake medicated birthday cakes for people like Redman. Sure, most of the employees are self-proclaimed potheads. But if workers sample even a crumb while on the job, they’re fired on the spot.

In this new world of legalized marijuana, industry employees are banned from medicating at work. MED tracks all marijuana products from “seed to sale,” and any deviation in tracking can result in penalties as drastic as shutting down an entire operation. There are cameras mounted in every corner of Love’s Oven recording the day’s events, and the recordings must be saved off-site, for months, in case the MED wants to perform an audit.

Employees who want to eat their own edibles have to purchase them through a dispensary—although they do get them at cost. “It’s kind of weird,” Frahm says, dolloping white chocolate hearts onto chocolate-covered graham crackers, each one around 2 inches long and infused with enough THC to get you utterly fucked up. “We work with weed all day, but we can’t sample even a speck of our product here.”

Regardless, they’re still inundated with applications from people looking to enter the industry. “We always have people applying,” she says. “If I wear my [Love’s Oven] jacket out, people ask for a job.”

But here’s this caveat: The uninitiated need not bother. “A baker needs experience,” says Frahm. “If somebody comes in and has zero experience in a professional kitchen, it’s not going to happen. I’m sorry, but there’s many more people who have it.”

Bryan Schatz is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul. He’s written for Mother Jones, Pacific Standard, GOOD and others. Follow him on Twitter @BryanSchatz.