Independent bakeries across Canada open their doors to reveal their signature baked products
By Colleen Cross
Join us on an end-of-summer road trip without leaving your bakery. Stops include a ship’s chandlery and fish processing plant on Nova Scotia’s south shore that houses a charming café and sells breads and other goods wholesale, an Etobicoke, Ont., that celebrates the humble butter tart by offering many varieties – all with gluten-free counterparts – and a bakery in Red Deer, Alta., where longtime staff make a staggering 155 dozen cupcakes on Valentine’s Day.
Canada’s independent bakeries are as diverse as its geography and, in their own way, as enterprising as its resourceful early settlers. Here we highlight their ingenuity and perseverance in baking their signature products both sweet and savoury, sharing their skills and creating places where Canadians can enjoy high-quality treats and soak up the local flavour in unique but universally welcoming settings.
Four Decades in the Baking
After 40 years in the business, Theo Korthof no longer hides his love of baking. That mindset is transferred to the care that goes into the bread and pastries produced at Korthof’s London, Ont.-based The Artisan Bakery.
The bakery’s small team – including Anne Roche, Ana Maria Hack Hunt and Christine Price – work out in the open in front of customers as they create a total of 19 kinds of bread, both sourdough and regular, including specialties like their famous dill pickle bread as well as red beet, green kale and Swiss chard breads.
“We hand craft every loaf of bread. Our dough gets proofed naturally and we bake with a simple two-deck oven. No computerized buttons are pushed,” Korthof said.
Artisan bakes 1,000 handmade loaves of in-house bread every week, each with no chemical additives or preservatives.
Before emigrating to Canada from his native Netherlands in 1980, Korthof practised his culinary craft as a chef in his home country and Switzerland. Settling in Mississauga, Ont., with his wife Gerda, Theo worked for Hilton hotels and the University Club in Toronto. While there, as executive sous chef and later as executive chef, he prepared meals for a number of luminaries and politicians, including former prime ministers Brian Mulroney and Jean Chretien, classical ballet dancer Karen Kain and Paul and Albert Reichmann, founders of real estate development company Olympia & York.
In Mississauga, the couple operated their own catering company before making the move to London. Korthof was retired by then and, as the story goes, he was bored at home when he decided to start selling apple raisin cinnamon cakes from a modest table at the Western Fair Farmers’ Market.
When demand picked up, the couple rented a booth under the name Flair Pastries, installed an oven, and started baking bread on-site.
The first loaf Theo ever baked was a challenge from Gerda, who didn’t think he could do it. That loaf captured the olfactory senses of a passing Swiss chef, who left with it under his arm. From then on, word spread, sales rose, and the Korthofs were in business.
While bread is Artisan’s specialty, those with a sweet tooth need not worry as they also bake cakes, tarts, pie, doughnuts, strudel, cookies, cinnamon rolls and brownies. Varieties of sausage and cabbage rolls, quiche, crab cakes, pizza, soup and chilli are also on the menu. Those in a hurry can take home ready-made meals of lasagne, pot pie, shepherd’s pie, tourtieres, sandwiches and soups. There is a small area to dine in the bakery for customers who have a little more time to linger.
If the bakery team is not busy enough, they also offer hands-on instruction with workshops in cooking and baking at the Dundas Street East location.
Customers can also find the team at the Western Fair farmers’ market every Saturday morning, as well as at London’s Covent Garden Market and the farmers’ market in St. Jacob’s.
Even after four decades in the kitchen, innovation is still on the menu for Theo Korthof.
“(There) is always something new and (there is) never a dull moment. Our minds never stop creating,” he said. – Chris McGregor
‘They Wanted Our Cupcakes Before We Had Ovens’
“Before we opened people were trying to buy our products. It was a unique experience that people were just starting to see in places like Calgary and Edmonton. Before we had the ovens installed, people wanted to try our cupcakes,” says Andrea Fox of Babycakes Cupcakery in Red Deer, Alta.
For Fox, formerly a registered nurse, and Diana Knapton, previously a dental hygienist, their new career had to be both fun and provide a service that put a smile on their customers’ faces. This autumn the company celebrates its seventh anniversary. It’s been busy since the beginning; in its first year, Babycakes won Business of the Year, followed by local Red Hat awards and the Golden Fork.
Fox explains that every cupcake comes with its own “story”; for instance, each week, there are 11 or 12 cupcake flavours and styles baked plus one to three features per week. Fox says she is not much of a full-sized cake decorator, but with cupcakes, she likes to make every single one different. You can order a dozen, and no two are the same for the adventurous cupcake connoisseur.
One of the not-so-secret secrets is that their ingredients are fresh. They use no artificial colouring or flavour, just the juice from natural local fruit to provide a flavour and colour for icing or batter. Additionally, they keep up with current dietary trends and concerns. Gluten free and nut-free cupcakes are easily available in the shop.
“The first month we started we had to talk each other through it. We did the baking which could start anywhere between 2 a.m. And 5 a.m., then we’d be in the shop between 6 a.m. and 8 a.m., and open for business 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. We decided we had to stop, so we found a baker who comes in and does the baking for us before we open,” says Fox. Cupcakes are baked the same day they are delivered for events, weddings and corporate functions.
All the staff members at Babycakes Cupcakery have been there from the very beginning. Fox alludes to them being like a family. Customer response has been enthusiastic since the start. On Valentine’s Day they make 155 dozen (that’s 1,860 cupcakes) and have to close after five hours because they are gone. Many business offers have come in, Fox says. Using a well-thought out and careful approach to business, Fox and Knapton anticipate a brightly, and naturally, coloured future ahead. – Yvonne Dick
Back to Basics
When Gael Watson first saw the building that now houses the LaHave Bakery on Nova Scotia’s South Shore, it needed a lot of work. The back of the building – constructed in 1896, and which once housed a ship’s chandlery and fish processing plant – was falling into the LaHave River situated just behind it. A working wharf connected to the building had long since collapsed. But Watson saw something more in the historic, rundown space.
“It was magnificent,” she recalls. “It was one of those places that drew you to it.”
Watson, her husband and two friends purchased the building.
Each had an idea for a business that could fill the space, but Watson knew a bakery was her first choice. Watson lived off the grid in a home in the woods where the cook stove was always on, boiling water for tea and baking more bread than she could eat on her own.
She quickly became known for her bread-baking skills, often giving away loaves to neighbours and selling others to local markets. Six months into reconstruction, her business partners backed out of the plan. The Watsons opened LaHave Bakery on July 2, 1985.
Homemade bread remains a staple of the bakery’s offerings. The recipes are still Watson’s creations. She uses local ingredients including eggs, honey, milk and wheat. She will often add other ingredients such as potatoes, onions and fresh herbs. “The idea was the bread itself would be food instead of something to add to a meal,” she says.
The LaHave Bakery grew beyond the former chandlery building. Watson opened a smaller bakery in nearby Mahone Bay in 1991. And between 1995 and 1997, she sold baked goods from her family’s 96-foot boat. But the work took its toll. Besides operating the bakery, she was raising two young children, Sadie and Jessie. In 1997, she reassessed her workload.
“I thought if I don’t stop this degree of labour, it’s going to affect my whole body, life, everything,” she says. “I’ve grown to love it. At first, it was very hard work.”
With a staff of 28, Watson now sells the breads and other goods wholesale to local markets such as Sobeys and Superstore. Besides bread, the staff make granola, muffins, cookies, croissants, cakes and squares. In the café, they serve brunch and lunch, with a variety of homemade pizzas, sandwiches, paninos, burgers and soups. In the winter when the bakery slows down, the staff produce jams, mustards and marmalades. Watson’s son operates a skateboard shop on the second floor. There is also a craft co-op in the space.
Watson continues to make improvements to the building, including to the 100-foot wharf out back. There, boaters can dock and come into the bakery for lunch, making the visit an experience of the river itself. “We wanted that to be a highway, a door to the river,” she says.
She also credits the community for her success. “It couldn’t survive without the community,” she says. “Right from day one, they’ve been supportive.”
Now in her 60s, and still living in her off-the-grid home in the woods, Watson says she hopes her daughter, 32, takes over one day. But for now, she keeps logging full days, six days a week.
“I’d like to keep it as long as I can,” she says. “It’s a part of my life.” –Suzanne Rent
Walton’s Bake Shop, Riverview, N.B.
Established by Gilbert and Dora Walton of Cape Tormentine, N.B., in 1975 and purchased by current owner Fred Crawford in 1995, this Moncton-area bake shop does a brisk business five days a week.
Nestled in a mini mall on the side of busy Coverdale Road, Walton’s Bake Shop sees lots of traffic. Enticed by the aroma of freshly baked bread and other delicious goodies, the shelves empty pretty fast. Walton’s bakes about 400 loaves per day, and some of that bread makes its way out of the province – and the country! There are diet white and whole wheat breads, regular white and whole wheat, raisin, rye, French, flax, multigrain, whole grain and harvest grain.
“The diets and the grains have taken over the (regular) white bread because of so much flak in the papers concerning how bad white bread is,” Crawford says. “The (regular) white bread has probably dropped to about half, but on the weekends it picks up. People say the hell with it, we’ll have our special stuff.”
Walton’s also offers a variety of rolls (single, sheet and pan) and buns, including hamburger, hot dog and sub buns. Its cheese buns are in great demand, and the secret to the buns’ success is that the cheese is incorporated right into the dough – not just sprinkled on top. There’s also cinnamon rolls and sticky buns in the product mix, along with tea biscuits, cornbread, sweetbreads, squares, carrot cakes, éclairs, tarts, cookies, doughnuts (no bagels or full-size cakes), muffins, beans, chili, garlic cheese bread – and Walton’s famous meat pies.
“We do a big volume of meat pies, pot pies, which are chicken, potato, carrots and peas with a real gravy. I make a real gravy for them (pies). There’s also beef pies with the same vegetables, and periodically turkey. We do a five-inch deep and a nine-inch deep.”
The recipes used at Walton’s are old family favourites, tried and true. Baking begins at 1 a.m., Tuesday through Saturday (closed Sunday and Monday), and everything is counter-ready by opening time at 9:30 a.m.
Crawford kept the original electric ovens, but has added additional units with expansion to the bakery’s present size of 2,300 square feet – most of which is production space. His products are also wholesaled to a few local clubs and like establishments, and to keep his costs affordable he has to take advantage of the best deals.
“Our meats we buy from Costco, “he explains. “You can’t get any cheaper than Costco. They’re cheaper than the wholesalers. When it comes time for our different pies that we do, the fruit pies – strawberries and blueberries, you can’t afford to buy them for the price they want, so you have to wait ‘til the prices drop and then buy a load of them.”
Christmas and Easter (Walton’s starts baking hot cross buns in February) are the bakery’s busiest times, and understandably January and February are its slowest.
Crawford has had a lifelong penchant for home cooking, which inspired his decision to buy a bakery. It was also a full-circle moment when he did, because it was his great-great-grandfather who owned and operated Shaw Bakery in Saint John, N.B.
At Walton’s Bake Shop, Crawford has “done everything” there is to do during the past 20 years, although now he concentrates his efforts on meat preparation for the meat pies. But he wasn’t in the bakery business very long before one basic fact became abundantly clear.
“I soon found out,” he says with a friendly smile, “that baking and cooking are two different things.” –Linda Hersey
Tartistry promotes both butter tarts and the arts
A bakery in Etobicoke, Ont., is taking the in-store experience to a whole ’nother level with its intriguing combination of butter tart artistry, vintage furniture and collectibles, and jazz music.
It all hinges on the iconic Canadian-born treat. “People have such an emotional reaction to the butter tart,” co-owner Michèle Roberts says.
The bakery’s storefront sign bows to one above it that proclaims “Butter Tarts,” leaving no doubt the sweet pastry treat is the bakery’s focus.
Michèle, who grew up baking with her mother and grandmother, nurtured a dream of baking professionally through years of working in the insurance business. She and Stephen, who has some 25 years in marketing, sales and support, finally made the leap to business owners in September 2012.
She does most of the baking, while he handles deliveries, marketing and the accounting side of the business. With the help of one full-time and one part-time employee, they are able to keep up with store traffic. The bakery is also a café but through the week a lot of their business is in pickups – “People are on a mission,” Michèle says with a laugh.
However, busy Saturdays require at least three of them in the store as customers come – and stay – for the jazz music. Every Saturday the shop plays host to four local bands who play sets of two hours each. The tradition started when a local musician needed a place for his band to play. The couple agreed to let their grand piano and drums take up residence in the shop, and with other musicians eagerly joining the lineup, a tradition was born.
Although Michèle bakes other items, the shop’s specialty is gluten-free tarts, which account for at least 40 per cent of overall sales.
They sell six rotating varieties of butter tart and one lemon curd daily, and all seven items are available in a gluten-free version. Flavours include raspberry, maple walnut and s’more.
The pair entered the gluten-free market from the get-go after one of six friends on their informal focus group praised the tarts and expressed a wish her son, who suffers from celiac disease, could enjoy the treat.
“This is a little boy who would eat a piece of bread and be doubled up in pain afterward. It was heartbreaking,” Michele says, adding that she decided then and there to develop a gluten-free tart.
Soon after opening the shop, they began approaching other outlets to sell their tarts, which can now be found in local health-oriented shops such as The Cheese Boutique, Goodness Me and The Big Carrot.
“It’s very hard to pierce through that barrier with your products,” she says. “Stores ask for an ingredient list and also a sub-ingredient list.” She attributes their success in wholesale to persistence and developing a delicious product: “Because our product is so good, we haven’t had the door slammed in our face.”
What’s next for Tartistry? Michele says she will try to develop a vegan butter tart. “I don’t know if I can do it, but I’m going to give it my best shot,” she says. –Colleen Cross