Our annual peek inside bakeries from sea to shining sea.
From Hogging to Baking
The owners of Nova Scotia’s Country Bread Basket haven’t looked back after making a very successful switch from farming to baking.
By Jane Ayer
It goes without saying there are many differences between running a hog farm and running a bakery. But there’s also one great big similarity, says Franklin Isaac: the smell.
“When you have a hog farm you have a distinct smell and with baking, people also talk about the smell,” says Franklin.
He should know. He and wife Sheila, along with their five children, ran a hog farm for years before launching into the bakery business. It all began when their oldest daughter started helping to sell vegetables at the farmers’ market in Tatamagouche, a small town on Nova Scotia’s north shore. Eventually, she began making bread to sell along with the vegetables, recipes such as brown bread or white bread that mother Sheila made on a regular basis. Demand for the bread grew and grew, until Franklin and Sheila contemplated the idea of opening up a bakery.
“We were originally planning on doing both (farming and baking), but it got so busy over here,” says Franklin.
By over here, he means the bakery that sits in front of their home, a bright white building that contrasts well with the greenness of the fields around it and the blueness of the sky above it. The couple considered buying a location right in Tatamagouche, but the idea of building a bakery on their own property, on Brule Point Road just outside of town, appealed to them more. The Country Bread Basket opened on Thursdays-only in the winter of 2000. But Thursdays weren’t enough to satisfy the bakery’s customers: they wanted more days for purchasing the Bread Basket’s bread, and soon after opening, Saturday also became a day of business. By spring of the following year, more days were added. After the first summer, the Isaacs decided the bakery needed a café, and that fall, the Country Bread Basket expanded to include more production space and a coffee shop with seating for a couple dozen customers. That includes a screened-in patio, where customers can sit in the fresh country air without risking mosquito bites.
The location is isolated, even during the blue sky and fluffy cloud days of summer. But local cottagers and meandering tourists keep the staff of 12 employees (in the summer) busy. And wholesale accounts with local convenience stores, along with year-round residents, sustain the bakery throughout the long, cold winter months. In the summer, the Country Bread Basket often sells out of products, using about a ton of flour a week.
“We’re going flat-out,” says Franklin.
They’re going flat-out making the sort of bread you might expect to find in a country bakery: huge loaves of brown bread or white bread or raisin bread, the kind you’d see cooling on your grandmother’s kitchen counter. The kind you just need to have a slice of…or maybe a loaf of. Light lunches, such as soups, sandwiches, and baked beans and bread are also on offer. And then there are the sweets: date squares and cookies and fruit pies made with seasonal or frozen fruit, the fillings made from scratch. Although tea biscuits were not part of Sheila’s roster of recipes, they’re something of a tradition for Maritimers, and so are now part of the Country Bread Basket’s product line-up.
As for trends? Franklin says low-carb reared its head for a little while, with some customers reducing their bread purchases, or simply not coming into the bakery at all.
“We didn’t bow to the pressure,” says Franklin, “and eventually they came trickling back.”
He says he’s noticed some customers asking about trans fats and use of hydrogenated shortening and he’s not sure what will come of that, but “we want to bake what customers want,” he says.
That includes doing a little bit of organic baking, but the bakery isn’t certified organic and doesn’t have any plans of going in that direction.
I ask Franklin if mixes or premixes ever make it into any of the Country Bread Basket’s products.
“No,” he replies. “We wouldn’t be a scratch bakery otherwise. I’m a die-hard scratch baker.”
And that’s the way he and Sheila plan to keep it. It’s what their customers have come to expect and what the bakery has become known for. And Franklin has no desire to make the bakery known for anything else other than quality, friendliness (many of the customers have become regulars and friends), localness.
“We’re not looking to grow, but we would like to improve efficiency,” says Franklin. “We could produce more products, but payroll is always a big expense. And bigger is not always better.”
Not Just Any McBakery
For 25 years, the owners and employees of McBuns Bakery have worked to set it apart from the competition.
By Jane Ayer
After their bakery blew up on a June night in 1996, McBuns Bakery owners Robert and Carolyn Caron sat on the curb in front of their Moncton, New Brunswick-based business for half an hour, staring at its charred remains in shock and disbelief, unable to move. Just after 9pm, a defect in the bakery’s gas oven had caused an explosion which leveled the property. At the time, Carolyn was in the bakery’s showroom and a baker was working in the production area. Miraculously, neither was seriously hurt.
Finally, the Carons shook themselves out of it, got up from the curb, and started calling staff to come into the bakery’s Riverview location, across town.
“I told them we’re out of business unless they wanted to get out of bed,” recalls Robert Caron. “Some people worked for 18, 20 or 26 hours straight, but we never lost a commercial account because of it.”
Deliveries still went out on time the next day and Robert says when they finally rebuilt and reopened two months later (this time with an electric oven manufactured for them by G. Cinelli-Esperia), it was like they had never been closed.
“We never missed a beat,” says Robert.
The story says much about Robert and Carolyn and their insistence on sticking to it, not giving up, despite the odds. It says much about the expectations and sense of ownership the Caron’s try to nurture in their employees.
And it also says much about why the business, going into its 25th year of business, is healthier and stronger than ever.
When the two got into the bakery business, Robert was working as a banker and Carolyn was a stay-at-home mom. Although he had worked with a few bakers in his years in the banking world, Robert didn’t have a spot of experience actually running a bakery. And Carolyn may have been a great cook and home-baker, but she’d never set foot inside a bakery’s production area, let alone mixed up dough for hundreds of loaves of bread. But, after financing many bakery businesses over the years and ready for a challenge outside of banking, the idea of opening a bakery appealed to the Carons. They took the plunge, both of them training in a bakery owned by a friend. Robin Hood technicians offered more help with formulating products and actually setting up the bakery. And in October of 1982, McBuns opened the doors of its 1200 square foot bakery to the public. The business had two employees besides the Carons.
“At the time, there were mainly Mom and Pop shops making two different products and that was that,” says Caron. “Here we were making a whole range of products and we didn’t have the restrictions of the franchises.”
All the same, it was a struggle, especially with the grocery store around the corner selling bread for 40 cents a loaf.
“We didn’t pay attention to the bottom line, and we kept expenses such as packaging down to a bare minimum,” says Robert.
The focus, he says, was on encouraging customers to shop at McBuns for their bakery purchases instead of Sobey’s or the Superstore.
“Give them the best product for the best price and they’ll come. Eventually things will get better.”
And eventually, they did. When the lease expired on their original location, McBuns moved to a larger location that had formerly housed a Sobey’s store. But it wasn’t until eight or ten years into the business, says Robert, that the bakery started showing a healthy bottom line. That’s when McBuns opened its second location (which ran for eight years, until the Carons sold it in 1999). What kept McBuns in business, struggles and all?
“I think I was going on a fear of failure,” says Robert, “and Carolyn was really passionate about it.”
Business really started to grow when it expanded into new areas of business.
“Over the years a niche appeared out of the blue: commercial accounts who only needed a few dozen rolls or a few loaves of bread.”
And so began the delivery side of McBuns, with Carolyn’s parents filling their Volkswagon Rabbit with baked goods to deliver to local restaurants and sub shops. Sub shops are still big business for McBuns, with the bakery supplying most of the independent sub shops in the Moncton area. Wholesale accounts now make up for forty per cent of the bakery’s business.
Another element of the bakery’s success, says Caron, was some well-received and well-timed advice.
“Somebody said to me, ‘Listen, you’re not a baker, you’re a businessman. Take your head out of the bowl and start being a businessman. So I’m a businessman who runs a bakery.”
Part of being a businessman involves people management: McBuns now employs 35 staff members. Many of the employees have been with the company for years.
“We preach to staff that if they want to make a good living, then they have to make a good product,” says Caron.
All of the production people are trained to handle other areas of production, so they can step in if a need arises or simply if they’re looking for a change of pace. Because of the challenge of finding trained employees, Caron says he mostly looks for people who love to cook or bake – the rest they can learn on the job. Production is staggered throughout the days so that products are always fresh when customers stop in throughout the day.
McBuns products are very typical of what you’d find in other Maritime communities. Brown bread, white bread, bags of soft rolls, donuts, cookies, cakes and squares: McBuns squares are very well loved amongst its customers and the bakery makes 4000 squares each week. Fairly new additions to the line-up are such things as home meals, and take-and-bake pizzas. Beans and soup are also staples. And McBuns’ Diet Bread has caught on like wildfire, especially within the Weight Watchers community in the province. The bread is made with, “flour, water, yeast, a hint of salt and one secret ingredient,” which Robert will not divulge.
He will, however, divulge one of the key things he believes sets has made McBuns a success.
“We are consistent. Our rolls, dougnuts, and squares will be the same day in and day out or my name isn’t Mr. McBuns.
For the Love of Bread
The owners of Montreal-based L’Amour du Pain have found success in their passion for good bread and their customers’ curiosity.
By Joel Ceausu
On what could be Montreal’s hottest summer afternoon with the humidex reading in the high 40s, a warm bakery is the last place most people want to be. Unless that bakery is L’Amour du Pain.
Inside, owner Riccardo Arnoult runs a finger along the deep, asymmetrical, long and irregular air pockets in a ‘retro’ baguette, noting the yellow colour of the soft interior and the perfect golden crust. A French artisan baker, Arnoult loves to talk about bread and in rapid-fire French explains why this baguette – his bestseller – is so delicious, with some intermittent cursing at the extraordinarily high humidity that is playing havoc with his crusts.
These baguettes fly of the shelves all week long, about 1200 just on Saturdays. This, in addition to a host of smaller baguettes, batardes, fougasses, and every type of bread, from Le Verger – with apricots figs, and walnuts – to ginger and wild rice blends, and einkorn and quinoa loaves.
Arnoult and his Quebecer wife, Annie Beausoleil, set up their artisan bakery six years ago, dominating a small strip mall in Boucherville, just south of Montreal. Known for its baguettes and buttery croissants, L’Amour du Pain, with seating for 44 people, also serves a strong dine-in clientele, who come for upscale sandwiches, quiches, pastries and fine cheeses.
With several bakings daily, up to six on Friday and Saturday, the store sells 90 percent of its goods to in-store customers, with the remainder to foodservice and area restaurants, although Arnoult refuses to deliver.
“If people want to buy my bread they come and get it,” he states. “I don’t need the hassle of delivery costs.”
And he knows a thing or two about costs: Arnoult imports all but three of his flours from France, at a cost four times more than using local distributors. But it is worth it, he says.
“This reflects my personal taste. Besides, I deal directly with the flourmill. We are in constant contact and I get excellent flour I need for my recipes.”
They have seen the difference in the reactions of his clientele.
“When a French port was blocked last year, we had no French flour for three days,” says Beausoleil, “and our customers instantly saw the difference in the taste of the bread we baked. I was sold.”
The rye, kamut, retro and other flours make up a 16,000-kg container shipment each month. That kind of load makes space a premium for Arnoult, who wants to expand his 3600-sq. ft. operation to include more storage space, possibly permitting him to double his shipment size. He also imports a lot of Belgian butter, which he says is less humid and more elastic than local products, and less than half the cost of the local supply.
With 36 employees, including some seven bakers, the store has grown considerably in the last few years.
“Artisan baking has really grown,” says Beausoleil, who saw a regional demand for this type of quality product. “The demand and appreciation for it by local consumers have grown tremendously,” she says.
Despite the reliance on French and Belgian ingredients, the storefront is chock-full of local foods for sale. Beausoleil has busied herself sampling and merchandising loads of local gourmet fare, from organic honeys and jams to local game and ice cream, along with fair-trade teas and coffees.
“I try whatever I can find,” she says. “If I like it then we sell it.”
The store’s printed bread bags detail their entire bread selection (about two dozen) along with ingredients, a handy reference for curious shoppers, and, says Annie, an excellent marketing tool.
The duo acts as its own sounding board for new product trials.
“We come up with new specials every week,” says Annie, pointing to this week’s hit the Noémia, a white flour bread with cocoa powder and dark chocolate bits, inspired and loved by her own toddler.
“If we don’t love something,” says Arnoult, “I won’t sell it. In the end it’s all trial and error, but I have to be true to my own personal tastes.”
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