"Two more minutes?" the student baker asked, pulling a large commercial oven door open a crack to see the trays of browning pastries inside.
"I don't know, you tell me," answered teacher Gary Norgaard, a man whom it is hard not to call crusty.
Inside an old wooden barracks at historic Ft. MacArthur in San Pedro, Norgaard, a business-owner-turned-educator, has built a bakery in which he tries to turn around the lives of high school dropouts, welfare mothers, alcoholics, drug addicts and gang bangers, along with those simply out of work.
Norgaard's bakery is part of the San Pedro-Wilmington Skills Center run by the adult education division of the Los Angeles Unified School District. Most of the students--about 45 per class--are referred by federally funded job training programs.
"Not many drop out," Norgaard says of his students. "I don't allow failures, particularly if I have phone numbers. I'll bug the hell out of them if they don't show up. They'll come back just so I'll stop calling them."
Just ask Katherine Garde, 28, and Christina Rojas, 20, of San Pedro, sisters and mothers on welfare who say that on some days it is just too difficult for them to make the 8:10 a.m. starting time.
They have no car, the $40 a month for bus passes badly strains their budgets and between them they have six children to get off to day care or school every morning.
Norgaard, they say, refuses to let them give up, sometimes even driving them to the center.
Suddenly, Garde beams. It has just come to her that it's been two years since she got off drugs. "Yesterday was my two-year anniversary," she said.
Her life had hit rock bottom, she recalled. She got arrested for drug possession and had to send her four children to live with relatives while she went into a treatment program, all of which made her determined, she said, to get off welfare and get a job for the sake of her children.
Norgaard says Garde is an extremely talented cake decorator, and he is confident she can get a job that will pay $8 to $10 an hour once she completes the training and course work, which usually takes 14 weeks.
"This is a well-kept secret down here," said Norgaard, a 58-year-old San Pedran, who used his business acumen, chutzpah and talent for teaching to set up the bakery.
"Theoretically," said Norgaard, "what we're selling down here is an education and I think we do that pretty well. But we've really been running a business."
The students operate a lunch counter at the skills center and cater various events, from weddings to Coast Guard training sessions. The profits, which Norgaard said have been as high as $50,000 a year, are poured back into the bakery to buy such things as flatware and dishes for the catering enterprise and books and aprons for the students.
Born to the bakery business, Norgaard spent the first part of his working life expanding the string of commercial and retail bakeries and restaurants his father founded in the Southland. The original bakery was called the Daily Home Bakery.
Nine years ago, though, Norgaard's life went into a tailspin. His oldest son, who was in the Army, died in a military-related accident just three days after he and Norgaard had a heated argument in which the son accused the father of having spent too much time on monetary and professional success and not enough time with the family.
The same year, Norgaard says, his marriage broke up and he suffered a massive heart attack. He sold all his businesses interests and retreated to his boat, spending months lost in grief and uncertainty over what to do with the rest of his life.
He realized two things: that he loved the bakery business and that he wanted to teach as a way of giving back to society and the industry that had been good to him.
He enrolled in UCLA's Extension vocational education program to get a teaching credential and approached public agencies and old business friends about helping him set up the training bakery.
Tony D'Eliso, an old friend and service bakery merchandising manager for Lucky Stores in Southern California, helped persuade the supermarket chain to donate $250,000 worth of ovens and other equipment. Another friend at Westco, the international baking supply house, arranged for more donations of equipment.
D'Eliso laughed at the suggestion that Norgaard is persistent.
"Gary's one of the most tenacious individuals I have ever met in my life," he said. "He is a credit to the baking industry. He's given a lot of himself."
Norgaard says he has no trouble placing his graduates. There is a demand for bakers with all the major food chains and commercial bakeries, he said.
D'Eliso agreed. "We have 138 bakeries all over Southern California," he said. "You've got an average of between seven and 10 (bakery employees) in each store."
Norgaard has rebuffed offers from industry friends to join their businesses or even create training programs for them.
He says he has found his niche--coaching those with troubled lives and imparting his can-do spirit.
Eyeing a sheet of dough that has been subjected to too much pressure, he said: "No \o7 bueno\f7 . But we're gonna make it work anyway."