Bakers Journal

Like a rock

August 25, 2009
By Brian Hartz

COBOURG, Ont. – Some people believe we make our own luck, usually through hard work. If that were the case with Millstone Bread, it’s easy to see how this humble artisan bakery would succeed on its own steam.


COBOURG, Ont. – Some people believe we make our own luck, usually through hard work. If that were the case with Millstone Bread, it’s easy to see how this humble artisan bakery would succeed on its own steam.

But the amount of good fortune that’s come its way since it was founded four years ago is truly staggering – and couldn’t have happened to a more deserving family.

For Doug and Jill Lawrence, Millstone Bread is truly a labour of love – and the fulfillment of a dream that started when Jill was offered early retirement from her position as a marketing manager with Bell Canada. Up to that point, Doug – who has a degree in culinary management from George Brown College – had been a stay-at-home dad. Over the years, he had grown dissatisfied with the quality of the bread he was bringing home from supermarkets when he did the family’s grocery shopping.

Convinced he could do better, Doug took baking courses at King Arthur Flour Co. in Vermont and, alongside the late blacksmith, baking traditionalist and brick oven expert Alan Scott, built wood-fired bake ovens in British Columbia and New Mexico (Scott passed away in January 2009 at age 72). With Jill able to take a year off thanks to her Bell buyout, and Doug schooled in the time-honoured ways of baking in a wood-burning oven, the former Toronto couple devoted themselves full-time to starting Millstone – and getting away from the frenetic pace of life in the big city.

Doug Lawrence pulls a tray of freshly baked chocolate chunk brownies from the oven  
Doug Lawrence checks the brick oven at Millstone Bread  
 The exterior of Millstone Bread on Albert Street in Cobourg, Ont.


They settled in Cobourg – a picturesque town on the shore of Lake Ontario, about an hour and a half east of Toronto – opening Millstone in the unheated, un-air-conditioned, smaller half of a one-story building that also houses a laundromat.

“My grandparents had retired in Cobourg,” says Doug, “and I had a lot of fond memories of it from when I was younger.”

However, the town of 18,000 had grown considerably over the years, especially in the lakeside area near Millstone. The renovation of the next-door public park – including the installation of a new wading pool/skating rink – and the construction of several phases of upscale lakeside condominium buildings has played a big part in getting customers through the bakery’s door. So much so that Doug and Jill have barely had to spend any money on advertising.

“It’s funny – we had money set aside for ads,” Doug says, “but when it became clear that it wouldn’t be needed, we used that money to help buy out our half of the building from the owner of the fish and chips shop that used to be here.”

Now, they own the building and can fully control the future of the business. But don’t expect them to get involved in franchising – Jill insists that much of Millstone’s appeal lies in its simple approach, calling it “anti-corporate” baking.

“It’s all pure and simple food. There’s nothing unpronounceable,” she says.

“We have about four suppliers, and everything is done right here in plain sight – we have nothing to hide; customers can watch their bread being made. This leads to a high level of trust with our customers. Of course, it also means bread comes out of the oven when it’s ready – not a minute before – so the customer might have to wait if we’ve run out of a certain item.”

She adds that Millstone is proud to be associated with trends such as Slow Food, eating locally, organic ingredients and trans-fat free.

“We are at the very essence of what’s known as the 100-Mile Diet,” she says. “Toronto is the farthest we go for supplies and ingredients. We use mostly organic flour – usually stone-ground – and trans-fat has never been an issue because we use only butter and canola oil.”

Millstone also boasts an excellent record of social and environmental responsibility, says Jill.

“We chose not to install heating or air-conditioning, not only to save money and cut down on energy consumption, but also because if our ancestors could make bread this way, why can’t we?

“We also give our scraps away to local farmers and all of our leftover bread and sweets go to the area food banks. On Saturdays, the Salvation Army will pick up our leftovers, freeze them, and then distribute them to soup kitchens during the week.

Doug says much thought and planning went into what kinds of breads and sweets Millstone would offer, but he still managed to do some experimenting in the first few months the bakery was open. But, with the shop open to the public only four days a week (Wednesday through Saturday), he says it’s extremely important to have a set schedule. For example, Wednesday’s lineup consists of Crusty French, Flax Rye, Coarse Farmer’s, Cinnamon Raisin Walnut and Vollkornbrot (a moist, dense, 100 per cent rye they make monthly by request).

“It still seems like we have more breads than we have days of the week [to bake them on],” Doug says. “Operationally, we’re finely tuned now, but it wasn’t easy at first having never worked in a bakery before.”

But the biggest challenge, he says, is the sheer amount of time he and Jill have to put in. They routinely work at least 14-hour days, six days a week. Their daughters help out a lot during summer and part-time during the school year, and they have two other employees, only one of whom is full-time.

“It takes a lot of prep work and time in the shop, of course, but also doing things like sourcing wood for the oven. We don’t have much room on-site for storing wood, so we have to have a good delivery system in place,” he says.
“Also, for the oven, you need to have a fire going just about every day of the week in order to retain the proper level of heat. Sunday is usually the only day of the week I don’t come in and light a fire. On Sundays I’ll make home-made marmalade for the shop, but on Mondays and Tuesdays I’ll get the oven going as we build up to Wednesday.”

When Bakers Journal visited on a Wednesday in June, the day’s bread baking had already been done earlier in the morning and Doug and Jill had moved on to sweets, such as chocolate chunk brownies and date bars.

“We can do only so much bread,” Doug says. “We’re kind of hemmed in by the size of the oven. We’re producing about 60 per cent bread and 40 per cent sweets at the moment.”

As we spoke, a steady stream of customers came into the shop to pick up their favourite loaf, or a scone or brownie to go with their coffee. Each one raved about Millstone.

“These people are fantastic,” says loyal customer Wayne Donaldson, who lives in one of the nearby condos. “And this place is great. I moved into the condos about five years ago, and I’ve been coming [to Millstone] since it opened. I always take some of their bread with me when I go visit friends in Toronto. I especially like the plain scones on Saturday mornings, and their Millstone Hearth bread is just great.”

When Millstone Bread first opened to the public almost four years ago, Doug and Jill gave away canvas tote bags emblazoned with the bakery’s logo as a way to promote their new venture. However, Jill says, they underestimated how quickly Cobourgians would make Millstone a part of their lives, and the bags soon became a much sought-after collector’s item around town.

“We have very loyal clientele,” Doug says. “You always know who’s coming in on what days. And the traffic steadily builds throughout the week to Saturday, which is by far our busiest day.”

So busy, in fact, that some customers will pay in advance for an order of their favourite Saturday loaf so they can stop by and pick it up without having to stand in line.

To sum up: No advertising; huge demand for product and merchandise; pre-payment on advance orders.

Lady Luck has truly blessed Millstone Bread, but no one could say they haven’t earned it.

On the web: Millstone Bread:
The 100-Mile Diet:

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