Forty-one years ago when Tom Lehmann signed up for his senior-year high school classes, he checked "world economics" on the list of offerings.
Or so he thought.
On his first day back from summer break, Lehmann strode into the assigned classroom only to realize that something wasn't quite right.
He was the only male in a room of 30 students.
"Apparently I'd signed up for an economics class without reading the class descriptor," said Lehmann, 58, director of bakery assistance at the American Institute of Baking (AIB) in Manhattan, Kan. "It wound up being home ec, rather than world ec."
That gaffe, however, turned out to be a good one, a blunder that exposed his talent for baking and set him on course for a career in an industry he's never left.
Following graduation, Lehmann began working full-time in small bakeries. In 1965, while working for a large wholesale bakery, he enrolled in a 22-week resident program at AIB, studying baking science and technology. (The not-for-profit institute, which provides research for its baking and pizza industry members, was then located in Downtown Chicago.)
His instructors also were impressed with Lehmann's extracurricular work, and offered the 22 year old an AIB staff position before he finished the program.
"I was a kid in a candy store," said Lehmann. "I did a lot of contract research for clients, and a lot of investigative research on my own, just for fun."
The Doctor is in
In more than four decades in baking, Lehmann has become a dough savant. So skilled is he at diagnosing and solving dough quandaries that a Mexican client branded him El Medico de la Masa, The Dough Doctor.
Ever since, the Doctor has been on perpetual call -- on the phone, online answering e-mail or in the air traveling to a remote corner of the world to right some dough maker's wrong.
It's a busy life, he said, but a gratifying one that's never dull. A regular speaker at AIB seminars and pizza industry expos, Lehmann typically spends hours after his classes have ended, positing remedies for recalcitrant recipes.
"It doesn't get boring for me," said Lehmann, a son of Chicago's South Side. "I just like helping people where I can."
Throughout the late '60s, he worked primarily as a researcher and consultant to the commercial baking industry, but spent his spare time visiting pizzerias and offering AIB's help. Not long after, the phones began to ring.
"In about 1970, we started to get some calls for advice from independents," said Lehmann, adding that in that same year, AIB moved to Manhattan to be closer to the grain industry. "That also was the time you started to see the chains showing really positive growth."
Over the next decade, he began to publish his pizza-related research in technical bulletins, which led to more contract and specialty work within the industry.
In 1982, his reputation as a dough dynamo reached Gerry Durnell, a pizza shop owner who was organizing the first Pizza Expo. Durnell wanted Lehmann to lead a dough-centered seminar at the Expo, but Lehmann declined the invitation to instead go deer hunting. As much as he loved pizza, he loved his annual vacations in the wild even more.
"It's too easy to give up your life -- even to something as much as I love as my job and the pizza industry," said Lehmann, whose annual excursions last two to five weeks. "In order to balance my enthusiasm for the pizza industry, I have to have time for myself, and I jealously guard that personal time."
"(AIB) allows me the conduit to work with people who need help, and there's a lot of personal satisfaction that comes with doing that."
By the mid-'80s, the annual Pizza Expo was scheduled in the spring and Durnell called Lehmann again.
"Gerry made a joke about saying he'd changed the dates just for me," Lehmann recalled. "So how could I turn him down?" Nearly two decades later, Lehmann remains a regular at the trade events.
Lehmann also accepted Durnell's request to become a quarterly columnist in his magazine, Pizza Today. But when the magazine began receiving complaints about issues lacking Lehmann's advice, Durnell asked him to contribute monthly. The title of his column became, not ironically, "The Dough Doctor." Today he also writes a column called "In Lehmann's Terms," for Pizza Marketing Quarterly.
Tim Huff, manager of bakery flour technical services for Minneapolis-based General Mills, said Lehmann's identity in the pizza industry is rooted in the instant rapport he develops with pizzeria and bakery operators; they know he speaks from real-world experience.
"Most bakers don't respect you unless you can roll up sleeves and do it, and Tom's able to do it," said Huff, who has attended multiple AIB seminars led by Lehmann. "Tom's also quite the storyteller, and he likes to expound upon his adventures in teaching others. It makes him enjoyable to listen to."
And keeps him in demand as well. Each day at the office, Lehmann receives at least 25 e-mail queries and a half dozen phone calls asking for help. But sometimes even the Dough Doctor himself gets a question he can't answer, which drives him back to the lab.
"I'll still occasionally go out into the shop and do some research on a problem, and after awhile I'll call them back and say, 'Try this,' " Lehmann said. "And I'll usually get a call three or four days later saying it worked. That's very gratifying for me."
Lehmann's boss at AIB, Maureen Olewnik, vice president of research and technical services, called him an analytical thinker with a zeal for helping others.
"People really look to him for guidance, which is why he gets so many technical assistance calls," said Olewnik, who has worked with Lehmann for 20 years. "That work has allowed him a fair amount of visibility in the industry."
Such industry visibility hasn't gone unnoticed by companies who'd like Lehmann's expertise in house. But despite what he called "some very good offers" to work for some well-known firms, he has no plans to leave AIB. He loves Manhattan's small-town lifestyle, not to mention its proximity to wilderness areas where he stalks bucks and bass. He also believes that working for a company producing a limited variety of products would too narrowly focus his career.
"(AIB) allows me the conduit to work with people who need help, and there's a lot of personal satisfaction that comes with doing that," said Lehmann, whose contract service fees all are paid to AIB. "If I were to go work for a large company, I'd lose a lot of that individual contact with people. I'd just be a little contributor to a big picture, when I'd rather be a big contributor to a little picture.
"I'd rather take a guy who says, 'Tom, my business is failing, it's falling apart. Can you help me?' And two years later he calls me back and thanks me for all the help, tells me he's added a second store and is considering a third store. For me, that's satisfaction."