Bakers Journal

Baking in Alberta 1940-2010

March 11, 2010
By brian Hinton

With Flemming Mathiasen reflecting on the development of Ontario’s baking industry, we turn to another veteran baker for some Western perspective

A salesperson stocks bakery products in rigid plastic containers at a Safeway in-store bakery. This photo by Brian Hinton appeared in the April 1987 issue of Bakers Journal.

With Flemming Mathiasen reflecting on the development of Ontario’s baking industry, we turn to another veteran baker for some Western perspective.

If we turn back the clock 70 years in Alberta to when Bakers Journal was born, we see an entirely different baking industry.

Bakery products were produced – and consumed – locally, in a fashion now described as “artisan.” The province also had its own selection of flourmills large and small, giving the baker a choice of specific flours with which to craft his own signature bread.

The trade had three levels of bakeries: retail, devoted to the smaller community; small wholesale, providing local stores with baked goods; and the larger national bakers targeting the white bread community.

During the late 1940s and early ’50s, immigrants from war-ravaged Europe, many of whom were skilled bakers, flooded into Canada. Working in the trade wherever possible, they started to change the baking scene, and once they opened their own businesses, Alberta experienced a wealth of European breads and pastries. Nearly every country was represented by these ethnic bakeries, and their cultural impact could be seen in the changing taste, shape and size of the Canadian-ized products. A classic example is basic rye breads: The use of stronger Canadian flour, when blended with rye meals, produced a lighter, high-volume loaf unobtainable with the weaker European flours.

The grocery stores at this time had started to expand along with the population, and in-store bakeries were in their infancy, mainly being found in the larger stores where they concentrated on basic bread, buns and pastries. In the 1960s, several bakeries started to expand into the doughnut and sweet goods category. Calgary had Mrs. Wilman’s, while Edmonton had Sunrise Bakery, founded by Gerry Renzenbrink and Hank Bodewitz, who had purchased a local bakery and started selling to the neighbourhood grocery stores.

At this time, a typical grocery store had 20 or more bakeries stocking the shelves, their choice virtually limitless. Simultaneously, flour mills were developing mixes and bases for bakers, expanding on the doughnut mixes that had been around for 30 years.

Uniform quality, lower skill needs and cost control became a plus for bakers. It also gave rise to competition. In the 1970s, bakery franchises appeared as business entrepreneurs saw a niche in the marketplace and worked closely with millers to produce complete turnkey operations. Some of these included:

  • Bunsmaster and Bun King, makers of large chewy breads and buns
  • MMM Muffins, makers of large jumbo muffins in a huge variety of exciting new flavours
  • Grandma Lee’s homemade breads, to be used the same day for sandwiches
  • Tim Hortons and Robins Donuts, purveyors of coffee and donuts.

Bakers’ associations in Edmonton and Calgary held conventions and I fondly remember attending my first such event in Edmonton in 1977. The industry worked together to promote baked goods in the marketplace, but only the Calgary group would survive (becoming the Southern Alberta Bakers Association,
or SABA).

The 1980s saw rapid growth of suburbia and the shopping centre with its dominant grocery anchor. During this era, Safeway acquired Woodwards stores and opened Food for Less before the government stepped in to limit its growth. Like many bakers, for me the 1980s ushered in a career change, from in-store bakery manager to technical service manager for Maple Leaf Mills’ Western Canada division. For five years I travelled across Canada, opening new bakeries, solving technical problems and speaking with bakers about future business strategies. The dominant new trend was toward less scratch and more mixes and concentrates – and how to maximize sales in the changing bakery scene.

Part of my job description was to ensure bakery mixes supplied during store openings performed to specification. This involved a week of 12-hour days, deeply discounted baked goods, and teaming with other companies’ tech squads. Sales records were broken with every in-store bakery opening, but what happened after we left? The grocery chain had just taken significant market share from every bakery in the area.

Meanwhile, skilled bakers were becoming hard to find. The Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT) received accreditation to deliver a baker apprenticeship course and Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) was asked to make more places available. A full-time commercial baking course was also offered with the student paying full tuition, compared to the apprentice who received employment insurance plus no-cost tuition.

As we moved into the 1990s, normal growth proceeded and a calmer, more harmonious atmosphere embraced the industry. Companies even worked together for a common cause. SABA orchestrated a celebration of baked goods based on a theme borrowed from the Retail Bakers of America (RBA). Breadfest was born with the tagline “Double Up On Bread.” Twenty bakeries signed on for this one-week promotion of baked goods, held to coincide with September’s harvest time.

The ’90s saw a personal milestone as my wife and I purchased a small retail bakery. It was British-themed at first, but after five years we changed to cater to specialty diets. The skilled and innovative staff made the bakery into a recognized niche player in the Calgary market. Meanwhile, SABA became part of the amalgamation of associations across Canada that resulted in the formation of the Baking Association of Canada (BAC). I was honoured to become the BAC’s first retail co-chair.


Calgary, with its large nucleus of dynamic bakers, hosted BAC’s Congress 1999. Despite being a smaller market than Toronto or Montreal, it was well attended and of a high quality.

During the ’90s the baking trade was given the Red Seal designation and its ensuing funding from Human Resources Development Canada (HRDC), with Ontario acting as host province. Although not a compulsory trade, national recognition would later benefit any baker’s apprentice applying for a federal grant.

As the century drew to an end, focus shifted to Y2K, when the world’s computers would be considered at risk. However, as a small retailer our exposure was limited to a few invoices, which we hastily printed off ahead of time. The World Wide Web and cellphones were still in their infancy, but as the new millennium ushered in a rapidly changing electronic era, customers were able get instant access on their computers and even smartphones to limitless information. Diet fads tended to come and go each January after the Christmas binge, but none would compare to he Atkins diet that started in the early 2000s. The demands and questions wouldn’t quit, and, I racked my brains for the solution.

Meanwhile, bread sales were plummeting, and a trip to a natural products show in Anaheim, Calif., saw me checking the Atkins stand – and meeting the man himself. Some quick reverse engineering of the ingredient list was all I needed to launch our own line of Atkins-friendly products. What a wild ride it was. There were no product presentations – “Just send me anything low-carb you have,” our clients would say. Meanwhile, the mainstream industry was trying to solve falling bread sales. But Dr. Atkins died in May 2004 and many said the diet died with him.

Sadly, closures of many small and mid-size bakeries plagued the new decade, caused by competition, high rents and retirements. The grocery chains, preferring to protect their in-store bakeries, have eliminated outside products. Frozen and ready-to-use (RTU) products – long considered too expensive – have been integrated into the in-store bakeries. Thaw and serve is now the fastest-growing category – will the showcases and shelves start to look the same?

Now the latest craze – cupcakes – shows no sign of slowing, but where is the retail baker in all this? The fittest shall survive. Many bakeries have diversified into other categories, selling ice cream, sandwiches, RTU meals or just simply making the highest quality at the right price. The challenges get bigger every day.

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