The founder of ACE Bakery recently received the Order of Canada for her philanthropy.
Every morning, a truck bearing ACE Bakery’s black and white woodblock logo makes a special delivery at the Toronto home of its founders, Linda Haynes and Martin Connell, so Linda can monitor the quality of the day’s baking. ACE continues to win accolades for its hand-shaped, European-style loaves, its charitable contributions, and two mouth-watering cookbooks. We caught up with Linda at the bakery’s 50,000-square-foot headquarters in north Toronto, where the scent of fresh-baked bread fills the air.
Your husband was in oil and gas, and you were a TV producer turned stay-at-home mom. What possessed you to start a bakery?
Martin began making bread as a hobby in the early ’80s, and got so excited about making the perfect baguette, we soon had a wood-burning, domed oven built in the back yard using plans from France. For his birthday, I arranged shifts at two New York bakeries, including Tom Cat, whose owner became a good friend. We thought it would be fun to open a bakery, and bake the type of bread we’d enjoyed in Europe, and give money to charity. I’d been an at-home mom for 10 years, and volunteered to run it. We opened in 1993, and Martin hasn’t baked since.
How did you get your bread noticed in the early days?
We began selling our baguette to various restaurants, starting with upscale Scaramouche. When customers tasted it, they wanted to know where it was from. Then they’d go to their local supermarket, and ask why the store wasn’t carrying it. Soon, even stores that hadn’t responded well to our initial sales calls were coming to us, all because of customer demand. Local food writers were also terrific.
Today, ACE employs some 300 people, and produces more than 25 breads. How do you develop new products?
Sometimes our head baker will have ideas. He started working for us at night, while studying accounting, but we convinced him to work with us full time. And we watch the trends. I just came back from London, and there were multigrain, spelt and organic products everywhere. When we launched our country wheat baguette in 2001, the response was incredible! We also listen to our customers. One asked us to slice the organic granary loaf, which we then sold in a poly bag, and sales went through the roof.
Now that you’re producing more than 60,000 loaves a day, how can you remain artisanal?
While we’ve had to introduce some mechanical processes to increase production, we still use five different starters, two organic. We also use a long fermentation; our signature baguette takes 12 hours start to finish, and some breads take longer. All our loaves are finished and slashed by hand, and the final molding is done by hand. We use stone deck ovens with infusions of steam, and we bake at high heat.
What are ACE’S five best sellers? Any personal favourites?
Our top sellers are our signature white French baguette, followed by the country wheat baguette, multigrain, focaccia and the organic granary bread. I really like the olive boule and calabrese round, with salads and soups, or to make sandwiches and crostini. I love the raisin walnut, cran-berry focaccia, and fig and almond boule with cheese.
You mentioned that you started ACE in part as a means to raise money for charity. How does it work?
Charity is the essence of ACE. We look at the sales in every area where we sell our bread, then give a percentage of profits to projects in that area. We also match any charitable gift our employees make. When our Sri Lankan employees raised more than $7,000 for relief after the 2005 tsunami, we were able to help them send $15,000 worth of aid to their country.
How wide is your distribution area, and what challenges has expansion brought?
You can find ACE products at hundreds of restaurants, hotels, caterers, airlines, supermarkets, Costco and specialty food shops. We’re in Ontario, sporadically to the East Coast, in Hull, Que., down the Eastern Seaboard in container-loads, into the Midwest, and even to the Bahamas. Everything outside Ontario is frozen. The challenge is to keep it frozen until it’s defrosted, and baked off. We hire merchandisers to visit customers, and ensure our bread is baked properly. With a one-day shelf life, it’s also a challenge to get retailers to take it off the shelf. Locally, we deliver to some hotels and restaurants two or three times a day.
What are your plans for the future of ACE Bakery?
Our organic line is coming along – we’re adding an oatmeal raisin loaf in the fall – but we still struggle with people not wanting to pay extra. And we’d like to expand further into the U.S. We’d love to be across Canada, but there are two issues: the high cost of transportation, and the challenge of finding the right partner to do it with.
What success are you most proud of?
The best part is the comments we get from customers, often through www.acebakery.com. Women who e-mail to say their kid never ate multigrain, and now they take a sandwich on organic bread to school every day. Our pre-baked, flash-frozen Bake-at-Home loaf has been really popular among young couples in their 30s. They come home after working long hours, and in 20 minutes they have a fresh, hot loaf. Stories like these make all our hard work worthwhile.
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