Bakers Journal

Bakery Showcase Spotlight: Artisan baking panel

June 4, 2024
By Bakers Journal Staff

Panel of artisan bakers find sustainability means greater stability

In general, despite the challenges of climate change, product affordability and accessibility, panellists expressed optimism about the future of the industry while emphasizing the need for sustainable and ethical practices. Photo: Denizhan Ilcayto for Bakers Journal

Artisan bakers dedicated to the preservation of artisan baking techniques and the cultivation of high-quality ingredients explored the people, products and processes of artisan baking. Karen Bornarth, executive director of the Bread Bakers Guild of America, who has had a varied career at such bakeries as Amy’s Bread and who is deeply involved in workforce development, led the lively talk with Simon Blackwell, owner of Blackbird Bakery, Toronto; Issa Niemeijer-Brown, owner and co-founder of Gebroeders Niemeijer, Amsterdam; and Dawn Woodward, co-owner of Evelyn’s Crackers, Toronto.

Here are just a few highlights of the conversation. Bornarth opened the discussion: “We’re here to talk about the past and the present probably more than the future and what those things mean for the future of our industry and our craft. How has your bakery adapted to changing conditions over the last few years?”

“Operating a bakery coming out of the pandemic was quite difficult,” Blackwell said. “For anybody who’s in the business, you’ll see rising costs of all your ingredients, rising cost of labour. We shrunk our product line a little bit. So we could streamline operations, increased wages across the board, which has been really helpful in trying to maintain staff. Looking forward, we’re thinking of moving more towards our retail model instead of wholesale, because we’re struggling with the costs of making all the deliveries, vehicle costs, fuel costs. We would like to move away from that and concentrate on our own retail shops and on quality. Future thinking involves all parts of your operation.”

Woodward said: “For us, we were busier than ever during the pandemic with home deliveries. And the farmers markets had shut down. So that allowed us to remain in business. We hired people at an increased wage and now with vacation pay, which is a first for us. This is also our first time hiring a completely full-time person. As for the supply-chain hiccups, we were already sourcing local grain, so our prices remained stable. And it just kind of reinforced my belief that the smaller the supply chain, the better. So we’ve been trying to use even more maple syrup and more honey and not rely on imported sweeteners, diversifying even more of the grains we use and looking for other local farmers. We have an environmental ethos behind what we do so trying to support sustainable producers and local producers as much as possible. And usually, hopefully, they’re one and the same.”

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Niemeijer-Brown said: “We’re trying to make as few changes as possible and to stick with what we’re doing. At the same time, we have to face the labour shortage. The labour market is totally different in the Netherlands and it’s a really good thing. It means it’s very easy for people who are looking for work and it’s very hard as an employer to find people. And it means that, for baking, nothing changed. But for the café we had to limit our menu. We kept the menu simpler to keep on doing the things that we do in exactly the same way. I’ve also learned to be more flexible, because we had to adjust to different regulations every few months. We had a lot of policy changes and a lot of adaptations to make from one day to the other. And it helped me realize that our business is a very sustainable business. It’s very strong. And if something is different for a while, it’s OK. If something doesn’t go right, it’s OK. If there were to be a machine breakdown, it doesn’t stress me out as much as it would have done before.”

Blackwell described going to a shortened work week: “I think we’re a very people-focused business where we put a lot of faith in our employees and the team. We try and treat everybody you know, with respect and pay them as well as we can. We recently moved to a four-day work week for all of our pastry chefs, bread chefs, including the management team. I think people really like that they can work a four-day work week, 10-hour shifts on full-time work, and then take three days off, which is so important where you work hard, you work overnights. It’s exhausting work.”

Niemeijer-Brown: “Because of the labour market, everybody works exactly the hours they want to work with us. It’s kind of tricky, because you want consistency. You want people to be there every day, you want to rely on them. But for the people that are working, I think it’s a great benefit.”

The panellists expressed optimism about the future of the industry, but emphasized the need for sustainable and ethical practices. Climate change and affordability were seen as challenges. Woodward weighed in on the cost of packaging, especially when selling at the market. “How do you just encourage people to bring their own packaging to combine things are introduced the policy to charge extra for boxes? And then just the labour involved in packing pre-orders: how do you charge for that?”


Watch for extensive coverage of this and other Bakery Showcase education sessions at bakersjournal.com and baking.ca.


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