Many bakery-owners begin the holiday planning process between September and Thanksgiving to ensure they’re prepared for the Christmas crush. Michelle Edgar, owner of The Sweet Escape Patisserie in Toronto’s Distillery District, says her business picks up between 300 and 400 per cent over the holiday season. “It’s our busiest time of year,” Edgar notes. “Our holiday season starts at the beginning of November because of the Christmas Market that the Distillery puts on. We start planning at the beginning of October, preparing and scheduling production. We candy our own fruit for our fruitcake, so we have to start that then and by the end of October we’re well into production and the full swing of things, making sugar cookies, shortbread and biscotti. And then we just keep the crazy production up until December.”
In Halifax, Michael Winge, owner of Gingerbread Haus Bakery, says Christmas is his busiest time of year. “We’re non-stop busy and have reached maximum production capacity at Christmastime. We start preparing right after Thanksgiving.”
In order to keep pace with increased demand, deciding which items to put on the holiday menu ahead of time is one of the most important decisions in the planning process. “We have to have it all hammered out by October 1st, as to what we’re making and that’s maybe late for a lot of places,” says Kelly Mansell, co-owner of Rocket Bakery in St. John’s, Nfld. “Our problem is trying to decide what not to make, but there’s only so much time and you don’t make money if you have too much choice. Everyone has their favourites that we do, but it has to be a good performer to make the cut.”
Making these decisions as early as possible will help the holiday season run more smoothly. “Have a focus on what you do best and go with it. Editing back is the hardest part, but planning what you’re going to do and sticking with it is the best plan,” Mansell advises. “Then you can get all your packaging and labelling lined up and it makes it a lot easier and less chaotic.”
Establishing your master list of holiday items well in advance ensures that required ingredients are on hand in time for the busy season as well. For Winge, this is especially important because of his locale. “Being from the east coast, we have to get a lot of our ingredients from Montreal or Toronto, and they’re not always available right away so I have to be prepared and organized to make sure the ingredients are there when I need them.”
Since opening the Gingerbread Haus Bakery in 1999, Winge has kept a “Next Time” book that documents the products he makes each holiday season, as well as throughout the year. From the quantity of each item, to baking procedures, to the specific day each product is made is recorded. “I do this so that the next time I make it I can see what works and what I can do to improve each product or even improve production. On a spreadsheet I plan out the next month’s items—what day we’ll make what—because I have an idea of how much we’ll sell. I try to be as organized as possible. Being organized is a great way of trying to prevent any chaos and having things run very smoothly. And this way I know what ingredients to order,” Winge explains.
Edgar employs a similar system at The Sweet Escape Patisserie to stay on top of things. “I print out a calendar every year and schedule what weeks we’re making things like biscotti and shortbread, according to how long they’re shelf-stable. And I take it after Christmas is done and edit it as to the amounts of things I should change, and I keep it for the next year. I also have a big checklist for all the items we want to make, some of which we don’t get to,” says Edgar. “The calendar is the only way to survive it. From the time the Christmas Market starts, we need to have everything stockpiled.”
Of course, the classics are always in high demand during the festive season and easily top the holiday list. At Butter Baked Goods in Vancouver, owner Rosie Daykin says she creates a lot of products that she doesn’t offer throughout the rest of the year. “We sell an enormous amount of fruitcake, pounds and pounds of shortbread, and people love the fact that we have such a huge variety of bars, because for a Christmas open house, that’s a very retro but traditional element that you might think of from when we were kids, so we offer lots of options on bars in various sizes,” says Daykin.
In addition to these tried and true holiday classics, Daykin also creates snowballs, peppermint and gingerbread flavoured cakes and cupcakes, and panettone (the only bread she offers at this time of year). To weather the holiday rush, she hires three to four extra staff members and runs longer hours to keep up with production.
At Cadeaux Bakery in Vancouver’s Gastown neighbourhood, owner Eleanor Chow Waterfall says the importance of gathering her staff together prior to the hectic holidays taking hold is vital. “We usually have a staff party before the season starts and during the planning, just to get everyone ramped up for the season and ensure everyone’s on the same page. It’s different from a regular staff meeting because we’re family run and we get along like a family. Having this outside-of-work gathering is really good for team building and to get to know each other better. You can run a really tight ship that way,” says Chow Waterfall.
With selections of hand-rolled chocolate truffles, intricate sugar cookies and decadent sticky toffee pudding taking up a painstaking number of hours, Chow Waterfall notes that a supportive work environment is the key to success. “Team work and being behind your staff really helps. It’s nice for them to see that you’re on their side, because everyone’s working together for one common goal.”
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Creating a space that not only smells delicious, but also feels good is an important aspect to remember, especially when the heat rises and staff are moving at a frenzied pace. In St. John’s, Mansell says many customers are drawn to the Rocket Bakery because of its good vibes, live music and happy environment. “People come to Rocket for fun, and unless you feel like you’re having a good time it’s not going to come across that way, so just try to enjoy the process. It’s a joyful time.”
The reason for the season is what Mansell loves the most about being in Newfoundland during the holidays. “You could say Newfoundlanders embody the Christmas spirit—joy, music, giving. It’s really fun for me, especially at Christmastime.”
That sentiment of keeping joy in your baking, despite the frenetic pace of the holidays, is echoed by bakers from coast to coast. Back in Vancouver, Daykin says her only piece of advice to fellow bakers is to remember to breathe and enjoy. “Just breathe. Try to smile. I actually think even in the chaos of it all, it’s really a lovely time because you are so connected to everybody else’s celebration and it just really gets you in the spirit,” she says. “It feels incredibly festive to me, and that’s what I focus on versus how tired my legs are. There’s no better time of year to share my baking.”
And isn’t that the spirit of it all? Embrace the chaos, plan to the best of your ability and spread joy with every piece of your heartfelt baking this holiday season.
Julie Fitz-Gerald is a freelance writer based in Uxbridge, Ont., and a regular contributor to Bakers Journal.