How the death of sourdough taught me the value of thank you

by | May 3, 2018

I have a long history with sourdough bread. Just thinking about it makes my mouth water, but it also makes my stomach do a little flip. Here’s why:

About 20 years ago there was an incident – a sourdough incident. It still pains me today, but the good of the lesson learned outweighs that pain – mostly.

Summers during college were spent in the Outer Banks. Summer AFTER college was also spent at the Outer Banks, because why start a “real job?” I found myself as the head baker at The Wine Shop in Duck. You read that right—I was the baker of the French bread, the wheat bread, the white bread, the pizza crusts, the Naan. If it was a dough product, it was made and baked, by scratch, by me.

The Wine Shop was the only place in the OBX that could proudly claim had fresh sourdough bread made from our very own starter. I was the keeper of said starter.

A quick REALLY HIGH LEVEL sourdough starter 101: you grow a starter using yeast. It requires feeding, watering, temperature taking, dumping out (my technical term), the right amount of light, proper cleaning of bowl and utensils, and all of this done on a strict schedule. It’s like a baby. (Or what I would imagine a baby to be like if I had one. Which I do not. Which is probably a good thing when you read on about what happened to the starter.)

There I was, back in the kitchen of the shop, rocking my cutoff shorts, Wine Shop tie-dyed t-shirt, the socks and Birkenstocks look, and my baseball cap, as all bakers do. The alarm dinged, and it was time to dump then feed the starter. Dumping commenced.

Then I looked down and realized…dumping had not ceased. I HAD DUMPED THE ENTIRE STARTER DOWN THE DRAIN.

You know that feeling you get when you hit “reply all” when your snarky email response was only supposed to go to your friend? Or that feeling you get when you are about to change lanes and at the last possible second you realize someone is in your blind spot and you swerve and save yourself from a full on crash at 80 MPH? When your stomach drops, and you almost throw up, and your legs go numb and there is a vein in your head that starts throbbing and you think your head is going to explode? That. That’s where I was as I stood over the sink looking back and forth between the empty Pyrex plastic tub and the drain. Staring in disbelief. What had I done?

I walked out to the front of the shop where my boss was working the wood-fired oven. He turned and looked at me, and knew something was up. “Ren…” (His nickname for me.) “What’s up? Why is your face greenish-white?”

I told him. “It’s gone.”

Now Tom was a calm, steady, solid sort of guy. His eyes did this thing where they would get really big, like REALLY BIG and he would open them wider and wider if you were telling a funny story, if you were telling a horrible story—that was his reaction. I’d never seen his eyes so wide. His cheeks flushed pink…another one of his tells.

We walked in the back together. Just as I had done, he stared down into the sink seeing only the final drippy, greyish-brown remnants of what had been the Outer Banks’ only sourdough. He looked up at me, eyes WIDE open, and smiled in disbelief. “Ren?????”

The rest of the day was a blur of trying not to hurl, cry, and/or quit. When finally it was time for me to put away the flour and go, I went to say goodbye. Birkenstocks shuffling, head dragging, fully pathetic, I found Tom. I apologized once again for the dumping. Tom’s response?

Thank you.

Wait, what? I reminded him I had dumped the entire starter down the drain and it would be at least a month before we would have sourdough again. Thank me?

He went on. “Ren…you come in here everyday, from 5 AM to 9 PM. You work hard. You do what needs to get done. It was a mistake. Mistakes happen. So yes, thank you for coming in, thank you for being here day after day, and thank you for doing all that you do.”

Shock #2 of the day.

The pain of dumping that starter still makes my stomach cringe a little bit. The more lasting lesson, of saying a genuine thank you, has impacted me daily since that day.

When I started my “real” job in restaurant management, I brought Tom’s lesson with me. Every day, to every one of my team, I said a genuine thank you when they finished their shifts.

There were some days, to be clear, that I wanted to wring some necks or say, “Thank you, the door is that way!” However, remembering the dumping, I always managed to find something they had done that deserved thanks and I made sure I said it to them individually.

I can feel the eye rolls and I’ve heard the rumblings. “You want me to say ‘thank you’ to my team just for walking in the door and showing up? That’s their JOB. You want me to say thank you when someone makes a mistake? Are you kidding me?” Correct. Especially if they make a well-intentioned mistake.

I am not one for giving out gold stars just to give out gold stars. I am one to say acknowledging your team with a genuine thanks for being there, a genuine thanks for what you did today naturally leads you to see what they are contributing. It leads you to look for accomplishments and successes. You’ll find, as I have, that you get more of what you acknowledge and appreciate.

As far as mistakes go, the dumping is a perfect definition of a mistake. Tom knew I was beating myself up, punishing myself, and admonishing myself enough for the both of us. His “thank you” was a show of faith, of belief, and of support of me and all of the hard work I had done up to that point and would continue to do. 

That “thank you” from Tom was a game changer. The next morning, I got out of bed, put on those Daisy Dukes, and got back into the shop willing to work HARDER, do more, and be more committed to growing the strongest, most delicious sourdough starter the OBX had tasted.

Questions for comments…

  1. Who has a sourdough story out there that can top “the dumping?” Or your favorite sourdough tale…
  2. Where have you had your most delicious sourdough experience?
  3. Is there an area in your life where The Sourdough Strategy might be helpful?
  4. If you reply to a mistake with a “thank you”, I’d love to know how that works out for you and for the “dumper”…or perhaps better stated the one who made the mistake.





  1. Christine Weddle

    I love this story — thank you! I don’t have any answers to any of the above questions. However, when I am grateful, whether a specific thank-you to someone or to something in life in general, life always feels better and goes more smoothly overall. But this particular story is especially amazing! It’s so wonderfully gritty!

    • Erin O'Malley

      Glad you enjoyed it, Christine! You’ll have to go in search of a delicious sourdough experience.

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