Innovator of the Year
May 13, 2011
By Laura Aiken
Her entry caught my eye right away. Aside from being a poignant
nomination, it came from Uxbridge, Ont., where I spent 17 years of my
Her entry caught my eye right away. Aside from being a poignant nomination, it came from Uxbridge, Ont., where I spent 17 years of my childhood. Uxbridge has grown from a one-horse town (I literally rode my horse to town in 1988) to a sophisticated place with big-box stores, McDonald’s and premium golf. On the food front, it’s been a meat and potatoes pub town from my earliest memories. As I read the nomination, I became intrigued to learn more of this specialty bakery born of tragedy.
When Donna van Veghel-Wood’s entry for Baked at Frankie’s got her shortlisted among our group of judges, a trip back to the “bridge” was in order. Christine Mattear, senior manager with contest sponsor Fuller Landau, and I travelled about an hour northeast of Toronto to find the bakery in a great location, nestled among new and long-standing boutiques on Brock Street, the main heritage vein of town that swoops down into a gentle valley.
We stepped inside Baked at Frankie’s, unsure of where to look first or next in surprise at the sheer variety of products. The left wall is lined nearly floor to ceiling with dark wood shelving stocked like a grocery store of gluten-free goods. House-made cookie and waffle mixes, baking soda (which doesn’t inherently have gluten but, as I later learn from our winners, is guaranteed to have been processed in a gluten-free facility), tea, egg replacer, baggies of snack mix and a variety of 100 per cent brown rice pasta that the bakery brings in. Upon closer reading of signage, I see that it isn’t just a gluten-free bakery. It’s also corn-free, soy-free, dairy-free, nut-free and makes limited use of eggs. To the right, treats ranging from sticky toffee bites to butter tarts and chocolates are displayed. For people with all types of allergic sensitivities, Baked at Frankie’s is a safe haven they can trust.
We found Donna behind the counter in the open kitchen, where she welcomed us with the kind of instantly warm smile your grandmother might bestow upon you. She introduced us to her husband Frank, a carpenter now turned chief bakery bread maker, and her son Joel van Veghel, right-hand man and restaurant manager. We sit down to chat over little plates of goodies with great cups of coffee, and suddenly I find room in my previously full stomach.
Donna is a chef by trade, but her cooking professor told her she’d never make it as a baker after her one baking class. Imagine his surprise to run into her post-grad at a party and find her there as Jamie Kennedy’s pastry chef. However, what she always truly wanted was a Mediterranean restaurant. Two-and-a-half years ago her ideal location came up at the foot of Brock Street. It seemed destined to be. Then life doled out far more than lemons.
Within a month of finding that perfect spot, her son Frankie died in an auto accident. Life crashed to a halt.
“He was killed and we just shut down everything,” says Donna. “When we got back to doing things, it just had to be gluten-free because he was a severe celiac.”
The restaurant was going to be just a regular place, but its menu and motive changed in honour of their late son and it opened up as a completely gluten-free restaurant. The bakery was born in the back, where Donna made bread and desserts for the restaurant, a foray that grew a clientele just coming in to buy the bread.
“We would have people lined up at the till while the servers were trying to wait tables, so they booted me out,” she says, laughing. Down the street, and one year ago on Valentine’s Day, the bakery got its own location, now known as Baked at Frankie’s.
The last year-and-a-half of operating Baked at Frankie’s has been an eye-opener for the family in discovering the many food allergies plaguing consumers today. Originally, their flour mixture used in the restaurant was a corn/rice mix. But when they opened up the bakery, half the people who came in said they couldn’t eat corn.
“It took two months to get rid of the corn and make a flour that would do the same thing. That was one big step,” she says. “The next one was no soy, no nuts, but then people would come in
and say I am allergic to carrots, or whatever else. We’re very careful that way with sensitivities.”
Frank pipes in with an ironic smile: “We’re finding our limits.”
|At Congress 2011, from left to right: Brandi Cowen, assistant editor of Bakers Journal; Tatyana Sabitova, director of marketing for Fuller Landau; Christine Mattear, senior manager for Fuller Landau; Frank van Veghel Sr., Donna van Veghel-Wood, Joel van Veghel, all of Baked at Frankie’s; Stephanie Jewell, national advertising manager for Bakers Journal and Laura Aiken, editor of Bakers Journal.
Life in the bakery is an ongoing experimentation in what can be done successfully. Donna’s approach is that, if given the time, anything is possible. Many things are done by the seat of their pants without formulas. One day a lady came in and asked for ladyfingers, and Donna said “give me two days.” She concocted the ladyfingers and says her customer loved them. Another customer asked for gingerbread, so now they have gingerbread. She made a small jar of non-peanut peanut butter that even stuck to the roof of your mouth. The sampling feedback was good, but when she made a bigger batch it just didn’t turn out the same. Donna says she’ll revisit the un-peanut peanut butter when she finds the time.
“We will at least make the effort. It’s doable and it’s a great challenge,” says Donna.
They introduced sugar-free Thursdays, with a line-up of goods that have no sugar added. This was popular enough to go commonplace in the bakery. As it was, Donna says she cut half the sugar in all her recipes and no one even noticed. She uses applesauce and banana as sweeteners instead. They don’t use nuts, and at one time the word “nut-free” graced the window alongside “gluten-free,” but they decided to take it down after a woman came in and said that if someone who had just eaten a peanut butter sandwich came in here and then her son touched the same door handle as that person it would kill him. The liability just didn’t seem worth it, even though they don’t use any nuts in their facility.
“We’re wheat-free, corn-free, soy-free, nut-free, dairy-free and sometimes egg-free. What will be out there left to eat? I don’t know,” Donna says, shaking her head in pondering the burgeoning population of restricted eaters.
Running the business
From their all-purpose base, they tweaked the flour to come up with their own specialty mixes, such as waffle and cookie, for sale on their shelves. Their “all-purpose” flour is about seven times the price of wheat flour, says Donna, and Frank adds that they’ve got it down to a little less than that by buying more direct. They are also diligent in controlling waste – baguettes become crisps, which are then bagged and sold on the shelves; leftover bread becomes croutons. They even make dog biscuits.
The business has also found revenue in catering, doing birthday parties and even completely gluten-free weddings. Being sensitive to celiac children feeling left out after having two of her own; Donna likes to make the same products gluten-free that the rest of the children at the birthday party are having. If the other children are having pie, so will the celiac kids.
The bakery has two staff and they are looking to hire another one or two people. The bakery is its own entity, but on paper it’s tied to the restaurant and all payroll and business functions are done through there, managed by Joel, who calls staffing the biggest surprise of the whole business venture.
“Everybody can work but it’s finding that one person with the perfect amount of charisma and drive and ready to go. It’s almost there,” he says. “It’s nice. We cherish all our staff but we’ve gone through a lot [of staff] since opening the restaurant.”
Tech-savvy Joel posted a detailed survey on their website, where customers can also order products online. The survey asked questions about everything from their impression the moment they walked in to the restaurant and/or bakery, to the quality of the food and how long they waited for it. He got 150 anonymous responses that were all glowing; and he was shocked that there wasn’t one negative comment.
Frankie was a computer whiz on the brink of big software success when he was killed. His genetics are clearly shared by Joel, who co-ordinated creating a customized POS system at a fraction of the usual cost that did just what they wanted without unnecessary bells and whistles. They are truly a family of creators – Joel, a non-drinker, nonetheless counts wine-making among the hobbies he’s had. Donna and Frank have two other children. Daughter Ginny operates Elemi Organics, just a few doors down from the bakery. One of her products, called Friggin Lip Balm, was part of the Grammy swag party this year. Another son, Jason, is a chaplain.
Their late son Frankie, who was just six months old when he was diagnosed a celiac, used to have a cooler in the back of his car and just take his food wherever he went. The odd time the family ate out, Donna says he ordered so carefully and particularly that he’d say, “I would like a steak, no salt, no pepper, and if there’s anything on it when it comes out I will send it back. Cooked on a clean grill, if there are any other marks on it I will send it back. He was very, very celiac. When people say it’s all in their head it just makes me angry, but what can
It truly must be a tough task accommodating such serious physical consequences to eating certain foods, but they are making a go of it. Extreme caution with cross-contamination is a necessary and serious aspect of the operation.
“Every day is opening our eyes a little bit more,” says Donna, who goes on wistfully to say they should have kept a guest book to track where their customers have come from, some from as far flung places as England and New Zealand.
“I’m not ashamed of anything,” says Donna of their fare. “Everything tastes delicious . . . . Celiacs deserve to eat better.”
Joel notes that he does see those who don’t want to try something that has no wheat in it, but they win people over with samples. Food made by Baked at Frankie’s restaurant or bakery is natural and healthier in approach than many other foods. The restaurant has no deep fryer and the menu changes with the local growing season. All restaurant meals are made to spec when the person orders, so ingredients can be customized. The philosophy of individual accommodation is followed in the bakery as well.
Joel, his husband Jamie Myslik, and Frank and Donna all took a break from the hectic pace of the foodservice life to join Bakers Journal and Fuller Landau staff at the BAC’s Congress in Montreal to receive their award on May 1. We were warmed by the many family stories in
our time with the family enjoying a leisurely dinner at Gibby’s in old Montreal, from Joel’s eagerness to go morel mushroom hunting to their fond memories of Frankie.
Frank has a cochlear implant to hear and Donna wears glasses. Joel remarked while walking around old Montreal that between them he hears no evil and she sees no evil. I smiled a little at this statement and felt it really was true when I considered the nurturing way they took on the troubled eaters, working tirelessly and speaking so graciously of their clientele that humbles them with gratitude. It is seen in their gentle nature underscored by the steely strength needed to move forward after losing a child. Many congratulations to the Baked at Frankie’s family for capturing our inaugural Innovator of the Year crown and wearing it with such grace.
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