Bakers Journal

Northward Bound

November 11, 2010
By Nordahl Flakstad

Edmontonians may grudgingly admit something good can come from down the road in Calgary, but the repeat customers filing into Edmonton’s Prairie Mill Bakery Co. have unreservedly welcomed the southern Alberta import.

Edmontonians may grudgingly admit something good can come from down the road in Calgary, but the repeat customers filing into Edmonton’s Prairie Mill Bakery Co. have unreservedly welcomed the southern Alberta import.

Owen Petersen opened Edmonton’s Prairie Mill Bakery in late 2008 but its roots stretch further back to Calgary. (photography by Nordahl Flakstad)

Opened in late 2008 by Owen Petersen, Prairie Mill Bakery in Edmonton traces its origins to a namesake operation that John and Karen Juurlink have run in Calgary for 14 years. It was through the Juurlinks that the now 27-year-old Petersen, a native of Sundre, Alta., got the bakery bug. Hired as a temp in 2001 to make Prairie Mill deliveries, Petersen’s role expanded, and soon he literally was up to his elbows in dough.

“I just fell into it,” says Petersen, who spent two-and-a-half years baking at Prairie Mill in Calgary while learning the craft from the Juurlinks.

They had fashioned a reputation baking a selection of “pioneer style” breads made with locally produced and ground organic grains, and other natural prairie ingredients such as Alberta honey. Traditional Prairie Mill selections include honey whole wheat, honey white, Yukon sourdough, nine-grain, milled flax, sunflower, whole wheat, corn millet, muesli whole wheat, cinnamon raisin and multigrain sourdough.

In some loaves, up to 95 per cent of ingredients are Alberta-sourced. Recently, the Juurlinks and Prairie Mill were among three Alberta firms honoured as initial recipients of the Alberta Food for Health Awards. In receiving the $10,000 Premier’s Award, Prairie Mill was particularly cited for using stone-ground Alberta flour and local honey.

Like many others, Petersen took time off for world travel in his early twenties. Returning to Calgary, he tried his hand at several jobs, including the grocery, construction and restaurant industries. These stints simply confirmed his love of baking. He filled in at Prairie Mill at peak times, such as Christmas. It kept his hand in baking and opened the door for him to become a bakery owner at the relatively tender age of 25.

As an employer, John Juurlink appreciated Petersen’s qualities. He was hardworking, customer friendly, and, importantly, he displayed an entrepreneurial bent.

“I had talked to John about a second store and I wanted to get back into the bakery business,” Petersen explains, in an interview squeezed in between serving customers at his Edmonton store.

The Juurlinks had considered expanding but doubted it made sense to open a second store in Calgary, where a diversified distribution base already included farmers’ markets, retail and wholesaling food stores.

Thoughts turned to Edmonton. Rather than simply append an outlet, the Edmonton store became a separate entity, owned by Petersen but with John Juurlink as a business partner. In addition to financial support, the Juurlinks permitted use of the Prairie Mill brand name, and provide ongoing advice and know-how, notably access to the company’s long list of proven recipes.

 “I’m blessed to have John as a partner and someone to back me up,” Petersen says.

It was decided to find a location in Edmonton’s fast-growing south. A 1000-square-foot space was leased in a strip mall with the somewhat tony title, Shoppes of Terwillegar Gardens.

“We wanted to be the neighbourhood bakery – so we picked a spot in the middle of a sea of residential housing,” Petersen explains.

Although a chain franchise and a small, café-style bakery operate nearby, the neighbourhood has no bread store comparable to Prairie Mill. That’s important, since Edmonton is fairly well stocked in that regard, including well-patronized artisan bakeries.

Small touches – including a small bench where kids can munch a complimentary cookie, Petersen’s relaxed and friendly counter presence, and his knack for recalling customer preferences – all foster a neighbourly feeling.

To complement in-store sales, Petersen also actively pursues other opportunities. Acting on personal conviction as much as a business strategy, he has deliberately allied himself with organic and locavore (buy-local) food movements.

That means using locally grown wheat from John Schnieder’s Gold Forest Farms, near St. Albert, Alta., which Petersen then mills at his bakery. And borrowing a page from his Calgary mentors, he has established close ties to Edmonton-area farmers’ markets and local organic “foodie” scenes, and supplies three organic food stores. It also means a weekly presence at a major market where portions of downtown Edmonton are blocked off. Petersen and his childhood friend Steven Toone, now an employee, pack up to 26 dozen loaves into a Honda Fit and a little Ford Ranger once a week to sell at another market in nearby Sherwood Park.

Petersen also has linked up with several organic producers on two “virtual” farmers’ markets. These enterprises allow customers to order online and receive free delivery if orders (even from several sources) total $50 or more.

Relative to some artisan shops, Prairie Mill is a volume producer.

“I see us as boutique that can push out a lot of bread. We’re both homemade and commercial,” Petersen says.

While effective marketing is essential, start-ups will fall flat without good products. Thanks to the Juurlinks, good products aresomething Petersen knows he’ll carry although he currently doesn’t provide as wide a selection as Prairie Mill in Calgary. Beyond some cookies and very popular cinnamon buns, the Edmonton sweet selection is limited.

“Bread was the basis of the business model in Calgary and we wanted to do bread well here too with an exceptional product,” he says.

Because Petersen can’t carry a complete selection all the time, he follows a weekly calendar with certain specialty breads featured on given days. So, customers (particularly regulars) know that if it’s Wednesday it’s jalapeno cheddar; if it’s Thursday, it’s apple caramel; if it’s Friday, it’s cranberry orange; and if it’s Saturday, it’s Mediterranean sourdough.

In common with other new business owners – especially bakers – Petersen has put in long hours. Initially, fuelled by enterprise and youthful enthusiasm, workdays often extended 14 hours, six days a week. Bringing aboard Toone spread the load, as did hiring part-time weekend staff.

“Now, some days, I only work eight hours a day,” says Petersen, flashing his ready smile.

“Sometimes I find it hard to fill my time once I’ve taken care of business.”

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