Bakers Journal

Reflections on Canadian baking

March 11, 2010
By Flemming Mathiasen

A longtime leader in our trade looks back on a lifetime in baking and the evolution of the industry in Ontario

Among his many other accomplishments, in 1983 Flemming Mathiasen won the BPCO’s Most Honest Golfer award.

A longtime leader in our trade looks back on a lifetime in baking and the evolution of the industry in Ontario

To some of you it may seem that I’ve disappeared from the baking industry altogether or not been around lately. It has absolutely nothing to do with something you have said or something I have done. No, I float around the world because I want to enjoy it, and I think that by now I have had my say.

But I still look back at the baking industry’s development and the driving forces that have shaped it, and here I shall touch upon some of these themes.

Baking in Canada was primarily European in its infancy. Operational practices were not significantly different from what I had experienced in my initiation into the industry. The influx of bakers from the old countries brought long-established traditions from around the globe. Besides being highly skilled artisans, they were often astute businessmen tolerating no fuss.

In these early days, with little government regulation, and no ties to a guild, anyone with a little baking knowledge could set up their own bakery. Looking around me, I can see that this still happens. Bakeries based on ethnicity, or just plain entrepreneurial strategies, seem to be all around us. They are often located in strange places, off the beaten path, and are surprisingly doing quite well. Most don’t belong to an organization and many have little interest in joining.

Past history shows that in response to government pressure, new technological innovation, trade measures, and food regulatory issues, the Master Bakers Association was established in Toronto in the early 1900s. At this time, the government established flour-testing equipment and Ontario Agriculture College (known today as Guelph University); a baking school fund was founded to support the facility.

As laws and regulations began to govern the industry, bakers formed groups and associations so they could influence high-level decision-making. The formula for success was to become politically involved, protect your market share, and beat out your competitors. Bakers across the country were enticed to form groups, and they began to organize provincially in large urban centres. The first bakery show was held at the Canadian National Exhibition in 1921, bringing in bakers from all over Canada.

Bakers seemed to know what they wanted for their industry in those pre- and post-war days. Leadership from eastern Canada became the driving force in establishing a national council of bakers that was not only interested in shaping the industry, but also in giving it a voice in public and legislative matters.

Bakers from other provinces merged local groups to strengthen their voice in provincial matters or pending legislation that would affect their business practices. In Ontario, the Bakers Association eventually joined with the National Council of the Baking Industry (NCBI) to form the Bakery Council of Canada. There was the Bread and Cake Bakers Association and the Production Men’s Club of Greater Toronto. This eventually became the Bakery Production Club of Ontario (BPCO), which in 1998-99 amalgamated with the Bakery Council of Canada (BCC) to form the Baking Association of Canada (BAC). The allied trades had formed their national organization, as did the biscuit bakers, artisan bakers and bread bakers. Pastry chefs formed the Pastry Chefs Guild of Ontario (now known as the Canadian Pastry Chef Guild Inc.) and so on. 

The closing of the baking training program at Ryerson Institute of Technology in 1957 fostered a trend in baker education and training that continues today. The larger baking and biscuit companies started to send selected employees or managers to the American Institute of Baking (AIB) or the Biscuit Bakers Institute. The American Society of Bakery Engineers (ASBE) became a prominent affiliation of the large companies as well.

 Small and midsize bakers’ demands for training and educational information became the driving focus of regional groups. The BPCO, which began to help production managers and small bakers have a voice within the industry, started picking up the lag that existed in education by hosting education nights and training seminars for its members and guests, developing correspondence courses, offering financial support to students, and pressuring politicians to help set up training facilities.

The BPCO and BCC jointly produced the correspondence course that is now offered by the BAC. For those of us who had a part in its development, it is amazing it still fulfils a need.

Federal funds became available for skills training Canada-wide. As education in Canada is a provincial matter, each province was to decide how funding would be used. In Ontario, a two-tier system between high schools and colleges was initially established in order to meet regional demand. Other provinces did the same or used a one-tier system.

In Ontario high schools, apprenticeship training was established together with a college system using the same training model. It was fundamental to both programs that local industry groups be involved. In 1975, federal funding was eliminated for the high school program and directed toward community colleges. Funding for the high school program became a provincial matter and focus shifted from apprenticeship to a general interest course. And yes, the programs are still there and doing well.

Colleges that established programs in baking, pastry arts and hospitality relied heavily on industry support. The BPCO, and other clubs that had campaigned so hard for an apprenticeship program, donated funds, resources and equipment to any provincial educational institution that requested support for a baking program. Today,  all college baking programs seem to be doing well in Ontario. George Brown College in Toronto has just added three new multi-million-dollar baking labs to its downtown campus, and it has 75 registered baking apprentices.

The post-war era saw a large influx of immigrants of varied ethnic diversity. Ethnic bakeries started to spring up throughout the country, creating demands for new ingredients, equipment and food technologies. In response to members’ demands, and in order to attract new members, BPCO started on another educational venture – Bakery Showcase.

Upon suggestions from John Sernessie, the first Showcase was created in 1963. Over the years, this has become one of the premier baking industry events in Canada. Started by volunteers and operated by volunteers until 2000, when it came under the BAC umbrella, the show evolved in response to members’ wishes and industry demands. The show operated as a non-profit corporation that was able to draw baking and its allied trades together. It also helped the BPCO establish an education fund and other clubs their own showcase. Bakers in British Columbia and eastern Canada benefited from this greatly.

 On the business side of things, baking seemed to change over night. Our industry had survived the price restrictions imposed by the war. Scandals such as price fixing seemed to come and go as the industry was rapidly moving toward mechanization and automation. Co-operating with new governmental regulations such as enrichment of flour and stricter sanitation regulations seemed not to create much of a disturbance.

Through it all, grocery chains such as Loblaws, Food City, Steinberg’s Dominion and Miracle Mart were in a competitive and expansive mode, slashing prices and establishing in-store bakeries in direct competition with the small town or local area bakery. Bakery store outlets, owned by large and mid-size bakeries, also started to flex their muscles and move into newly built malls and shopping centres. If that was not enough, the price increases for raw materials in the 1970s saw larger bakers hoard ingredients, making it harder for the smaller bakers to survive

The arrival of the merchandiser with an artistic flair changed our industry. Every grocery chain’s bakery department was planned to look a specific way. Emphasis was on scratch baking, hospitality and extensive product lines with counters that were always full. Baking staff were usually highly trained. As this model of baking slowly changed into an emphasis on par-baked and frozen products with more part-time staff, entrepreneurial bakers saw opportunities and set up mid-sized bakeries producing a variety of new and old product to keep those counters fully stocked. Specialized ethnic product became available mainstream.

Has this whole revolution been good for our industry?

I personally think so, as the Canadian baker has been exposed to a whole new way of baking and products galore from around the world. The new baker-entrepreneur our industry seems to be attracting these days is determined to develop and drive our industry even further forward. Some are embracing new technologies, while others are finding a niche market producing wholesome and green products.
Baking is indeed alive and doing very well in supporting a whole new generation of bakers – more than ever before! Our primary and secondary institutions have fulfilled the mandate they were
designed for.

But who is watching over baking today? In the past, volunteer groups were the driving force. Will the new generation of bakers drive us forward? Or are they more interested in taking advantage of the present situation and making money just for themselves? We know they don’t seem to join groups, as bakers did before.

As you ponder these questions, the fact is that we still need better training programs in what I think of as “Bakelinology,” the art of blending baking arts with food sciences. But that is a discussion for another time.

Let me end by thanking all those past and present volunteers who worked so hard, and still do, in order to make our industry better. Only for you will I stop floating around! Thank you.


Originally from Denmark, Flemming Mathiasen has more than 40 years in the baking industry as an educator and journeyman baker/patissier, along with extensive work in product development and planning for bakers and the food industry at large.

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