June 22, 2011
By Laura Aiken
It’s fitting that Bunner’s should open in Toronto’s Junction
neighbourhood. After all, junction also means connection and the bakery
is a place of links, where vegan and gluten-free met delicious after a
girl met a boy.
It’s fitting that Bunner’s should open in Toronto’s Junction neighbourhood. After all, junction also means connection and the bakery is a place of links, where vegan and gluten-free met delicious after a girl met a boy.
Bunner’s is also the only totally vegan and gluten-free bakery in the megalopolis, says co-owner Ashley Wittig. BlogTO, an influential web resource for Torontonians, named it the best new bakery in 2010. And here’s the real kicker: Wittig is a beauty company’s former sales director turned self-taught baker. Her business partner is videographer boyfriend Kevin MacAllister.
|The Bunner’s team from left to right: assistant baker Angela Dorau and co-owners Ashley Wittig and Kevin MacAllister.
Wittig’s stint as sales manager had her racking up the miles. She met MacAllister in 2008 at work, where he was racking up experience in manufacturing and marketing. Like many singletons gone committed, they found travelling became more angst in absence than open road adventure. So, Wittig picked a new path. One they could travel together.
Baking would appear to be marked departure, but the clues were in the cupcakes all along. Her first word was cookie, for a start. She turned vegan a few years ago after reading up on factory farming and animal ethics. With a well-developed love of cooking in hand, she began crafting the new menu of her life using a lot of cookbooks. Growing tired of trying to find sweets that compared to her non-vegan days, she began trial and error baking at home. Wittig brought the home experiments to her staff meetings, where they were met with enthusiasm. Still, when she told her former bosses in her exit interview she was leaving to open a bakery, the claim was met with raised eyebrows. A year and change later, Wittig accomplished her exiting prophecy with the opening of Bunner’s on Dec. 11, 2010. The unique moniker is actually an endearing nickname bestowed by MacAllister, who called her “bun” or “little bunner.”
“I’d never gone to any kind of school and I’d never worked in a bakery until the day we opened,” she says. “Our plumber finished at 7 p.m. the night before we were opening. I stayed up all night baking for the first time with a commercial oven. Give yourself time to do a dry run,” she says of opening a bakery. “It wasn’t a total disaster, but it sure wasn’t what things taste like now.”
Now, things taste awesome. I brought a gypsy cookie, a doughnut, a muffin and a slice of banana chocolate cake with me to see how these vegan-gluten-free goodies stood up to their traditional counterparts. In the absence of lunch, I ate all but the cake while waiting for the bus home to my end of Toronto (only to leave something to share), and my palate couldn’t find anything tasteless, dry or otherwise out of sorts with her baking.
“Try to think outside of the box and remember that things like eggs and milk and gluten are really just binders and leaveners and things to put moisture into your baked goods, and you can do that with flax seed and applesauce and other things; they do the same thing,” she says of the challenge in baking with so many substitutions. “That stigma [that vegan baking tastes bad] doesn’t have to be true, you just need to focus.”
In the year following quitting her job, she put her nose to the grindstone, figuring out the science of different flours and how ingredients reacted with one another. Although she doesn’t have Celiac disease, she says she and MacAllister prefer to limit their gluten intake.
“Gluten-free baking is way more difficult than vegan baking,” she says. “Vegan and somewhat gluten-free bakery can get kinda wordy,” she adds of the couple’s decision to narrow the focus of their product line to all gluten-free as well. The decision to offer all gluten-free products also eliminated the need for two different baking areas and concerns of cross-contamination.
Her formulas were definitely put through their paces before hitting the market. She notes that the chocolate chip cookies were particularly difficult and took months of testing. She likes that chickpea flour gives bounce to the goods. Their products are sweetened with Agave syrup, and applesauce is also used. She has yet to perfect a brownie and says she won’t offer one until she does. How does she know when a product is ready for the shelves?
“It’s in my mind what things used to take like, so I go by memory but that’s been a challenge. I get people to taste test, and I know it’s good when Kevin really likes it; he’s a tougher critic than I am. When people want more, then I know it’s great.”
At first, Wittig and MacAllister were selling their treats in a farmer’s market. The transition from market to storefront happened fast with the finding of the perfect space. The bakery is cozy, with an open kitchen, new floors and one fully red-bricked wall that lends a nice backdrop of character to the shop. She says they walked by the “for lease” sign out of the blue one day and the landlady happened to be there. After reviewing the lease, they “signed pretty much a few days later and just went for it. We opened this place very minimally. I don’t think we spent more than $30,000, which is pretty crazy when you think of it.”
The couple runs the bakery with a handful of employees. Wittig handles the physical management of the store and the baking and MacAllister brings strength in business relationships, marketing and design to the partnership.
She says at first it was her and MacAllister eating most of the bakery’s products, but that’s been a swift change of events. After nine of 11 reviews on Yelp hitting five stars, blogTO’s endorsement and the Globe and Mail showing up, the entrepreneurial duo has yet to pay for any ads. Keeping up with demand has been a big challenge. It’s been a confidence booster for Wittig, but also a reason for pause. Too much growth too soon can spell disaster for a new business too.
“Sometimes it’s a little scary,” admits Wittig. “Last Saturday I sold out by 4 p.m., but we are open until 7. I was selling stuff as it was coming out of the oven.”
With well-managed growth, and the grit of two committed partners behind it, this bakery is on the verge of success. The couple aims to open a second location in the east of the city. Like any business, some of its junctions along the way will be crossroads but it will always be an intersection where vegan and gluten-free meet delicious.
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