Saskatoon’s The Night Oven Bakery takes bread to heart
By Brandi Cowen
There’s no question Bryn Rawlyk had his hands full when The Night Oven Bakery opened for business. In addition to managing day-to-day operations at Saskatoon’s newest production bakery, Rawlyk was also faced with the challenge of perfecting processes to keep his operation stocked with wood-fired breads made from flour milled in-house.
The Night Oven, which celebrated its first anniversary earlier this year, is located in Saskatoon’s North Downtown neighbourhood. The bakery draws many regular customers who work in the area; walk-upon customers are rare. At first blush, the location may seem a little unorthodox, but step through the door and one of the reasons behind the choice soon becomes clear: “The building was suitable for the wood oven I wanted to build,” Rawlyk explains.
He’d been drawn to the idea of baking with fire for a while, and had already built four Alan Scott-style ovens for backyard and community projects. When he decided the time was right to open a bakery, Rawlyk knew he wanted to bake his goods in a wood-fired oven. He sought advice from Cliff Leir at Fol Epi in Victoria, who helped troubleshoot design ideas and offered practical insights based on his experiences baking with a wood-fired oven.
Today, Rawlyk’s oven, with its nine-foot dome and two-foot arch in the middle, is a showpiece in the bakery. The oven can be fired from an external firebox, or from a fire inside the oven itself. It holds approximately 42 loaves of bread at a time.
On Friday nights, that oven also churns out delicious wood-fired pizzas. The weekly “Night Pizza” event was inspired by customer requests for pies to enjoy on their lunch breaks. Rawlyk explains that, from a heat management standpoint, making pizza right after baking the day’s breads wouldn’t work well; cooking up pies just before beginning the Saturday bake is a much better fit. The pizza nights have been a hit, giving existing customers another reason to stop by the bakery and introducing The Night Oven to a new clientele.
“It’s definitely a different crowd on Friday nights, but that’s great because they want to know what the bakery is all about,” Rawlyk says. “They turn into customers who then stop in during the week.”
The Night Oven’s open concept design allows customers to watch as staff prep and bake every morsel. They can also see The Night Oven’s mill in action, as grain grown by local farmers is transformed into the flour that is key to the bakery’s mouth-watering goodies.
An eye-opening experience
A few years ago, during a trip to the Salone del Gusto and Terra Madre slow food expo in Italy, Rawlyk and his wife met food producers from around the world. Bakers from places such as California and Australia bemoaned their ongoing struggles in sourcing quality, locally produced grain. These conversations opened Rawlyk’s eyes to the possibilities offered by a place like Saskatoon, with its proximity to countless sprawling grain farms.
“I realized that we have such an amazing resource; these farmer are growing all of this grain that usually gets shipped off. Why not showcase that and use that product right here?” Rawlyk says. “I’ve developed connections with those farmers and have great sources for a variety of different grains.”
The Night Oven typically mills a couple bags of wheat every few days. Although he tries to stay ahead, milling a day or two before the flour is needed, Rawlyk admits there have been times when a staff member is measuring out freshly milled flour for a recipe as the mill is working the grain.
“It’s a dynamic product and consistency isn’t 100 per cent sometimes, but it’s a variable I’m willing to put up with because of those relationships,” he adds.
Both the mill and the wood-fired oven have sparked a lot of curiosity in customers. They’ve proven to be good jumping off points for conversations about the product the bakery puts out, and how that product gets made. Pulling back the curtain on production processes dovetails nicely with one of Rawlyk’s aims in establishing The Night Oven.
“One of my not-so-subtle goals is to really let people know where their food is coming from, both ingredients-wise and in terms of the labour that goes into making it,” he says.
“That’s one of the challenges that we have with our customer education. We do everything by hand, we use fire to heat our oven and we use freshly milled flour, so there are times when those variables don’t necessarily line up as nicely as we may want. Bread may be late or we may not have some pastry because the oven was too hot or too cold. I see that as an opportunity to share with people: ‘I hear you, and this is why. I want the bread to be out on time too, but the oven was too hot.’ It’s a good conversation starter with those customers.”
Rawlyk’s dedication to unique production processes and specific ingredients (he prioritizes organic options) isn’t just attracting curious customers – it’s also attracting great staff. In fact two staff members, both interested in working at a bakery where they could do innovative things, packed their bags and moved to Saskatoon to join The Night Oven team. And so, at a time when other businesses are struggling to find staff, eager and engaged prospective team members are reaching out to Rawlyk about employment opportunities.
“I’ve been really privileged that way – that people have come to me expressing an interest in wanting to work here rather than having to search people out,” he says. “We have a really great team right now.”
Establishing connections and building relationships is an important cornerstone of The Night Oven’s philosophy, and, perhaps more importantly, of Rawlyk’s approach to business. He’s a big believer in the value of sharing information within the industry, and isn’t shy about striking up a conversation to pick another baker’s brain about the systems and processes in place in their businesses.
And, as word spreads about what Rawlyk and The Night Oven staff are doing in the heart of the country’s breadbasket, he’s paying that willingness to share forward.
“A lot of people are curious about milling their own flour and there isn’t a whole lot of information out there about what the options are and what works. Having done all that research myself, I love sharing with folks,” Rawlyk says.
Interest has far surpassed what he anticipated back when The Night Oven Bakery was still just an idea. Balancing the hands-on demands of the baking with the day-to-day managing of the business has been challenging at times; bringing great staff on board has helped with that. Still, if Rawlyk could go back and give himself one piece of advice prior to opening the doors, it would be to plan better.
“I talked with lots of bakers before I opened and they said to plan for getting busy and plan for having staff. I thought, ‘Sure, I have a plan,’ and I did have a business plan that I had written out. But in that business plan, I had ‘think about hiring a staff member at six months’ and two months in I was sleeping at the bakery and working all the time. I needed to hire people,” he explains. “I would say to plan for even moderate growth better than I did.”