When you have a big dream, you don’t let a worldwide pandemic get in the way of making it a reality.
Just ask Leeanne Tucker and Travis Blake, the determined owners of Westside Bakery, our Inspirational Bakery of the Year, sponsored by Ardent Mills. Westside is a wholesale and commercial bakery in Edmonton the couple opened in the summer of 2020.
We’ll let Tucker’s heartfelt words express their particular experience:
“Oh COVID, you have taught me so many things. When I look back to the day it all hit and lockdown started, we were literally right in the middle of negotiating terms (all the painful number stuff) with the purchase of
“I would be lying if I said I didn’t have cold feet and wanted to step away from it all. Panic set in hard, but at the same time, this was a dream of mine!”
Westside now makes and sells artisan-style baked goods at a wholesale scale, serving cafés, restaurants, hotel chains and grocery stores across western Canada. They sell pre-cut and packaged squares such as their best-selling puffed wheat squares, loaf cakes, muffins both baked and in batter form, cookies, scones, and slab cakes.
During this journey toward a wholesale and commercial bakery, they took a side trip into the heart of their Edmonton community.
Tucker and Blake, partners business and in life with five children aged 12 to 20 – purchased WBS Wholesale, a longstanding bakery with close ties to the community.
Blake said they considered starting other businesses but were drawn to the idea of a bakery. They had a niche in mind: integrating plant-based protein into baked products for those who most need the nutrition: children and senior citizens.
When the pandemic caused supply-chain issues for plant-based protein, as GPS might say, they “recalculated.”
When WBS became Westside, they had one large contract anchoring the business. In an uncertain economy, Tucker and Blake chose to diversify, supplying large distributors, grocery stores, smaller retail businesses and everyone in between.
“For us to get through this, many of our customers were on the retail side,” Tucker says. “Even the big clients weren’t ordering as much.”
She explains the conundrum this created: “We couldn’t streamline because our orders were coming from different directions.”
Diversifying was the right move, Blake says: “We didn’t have the luxury of limiting our product line because our advantage was our ability to produce and be flexible.”
In the end, he believes this move helped limit their exposure to risk.
Strategy of giving
In a spirit of helping that defines this couple, they kickstarted the business by offering samples of their products to worthy local causes and under-served groups, a practice they continue today.
Sports is top of their radar. With their own kids involved in sports and Tucker a hockey and ringette coach, local teams were a great place to start. They donated baked goods for games and social events and provided goods to functions at their kids’ schools and occasionally as surprises.
In a snowball effect, parents of those team members who have businesses and organizations of their own, ordered from Westside.
Westside donated to the homeless through a handful of associations and donate baked goods to firefighters and paramedics.
They put together corporate bags at Christmas containing eight different items and sold them to a client who then developed it to give to their own clients.
Even the contractors working on their 9,000-square-foot production space followed their noses, sampled the goods and ended up buying for their own company’s functions.
“The best phone call is when someone calls and said they had a piece of one of our loaves at a friends’ function and they need to buy a case! That little loaf I shared just helped our business!”
Here Blake adds a note of caution. “It was not sustainable, but it got us through it. We did it because it was the right thing to do – the reciprocal was the cherry on top. This is a marathon, not a sprint. You’ve really got to be involved in your community. When people find out what we do, they want to be a part of it.”
Says Tucker, “We grew up so poor. I have that food scarcity still in me. I just remember going to Grandma’s house and having baked goods.”
And as a teacher, Tucker says, “I witnessed the devastating effects of starving children coming to class. They used to steal my lunch, others’ lunches, and it broke my heart. I started to bring baked goods to the school with me to feed them, I gained parents’ support to help me do this as well. Smiles on those kids’ faces, fuel for their brain, laughter instead of irritated, hungry kids – that is all I needed to make my heart sing.”
“I try to teach my kids as best I can that if you have a crumb to give to someone, you help them. We will take our baked goods that have not baked properly, look funny or are not the right size and I will have my kids hand them out to the homeless. It has opened their eyes to so many things realizing how life is a gift and do not take for granted what you have.”
Blake points to the vital importance of supporting local: “I think it’s important for all of us to think about what local means. Now that there are supply-chain issues, we really need that focus on local. There’s a cost to supporting local businesses.”
As for division of duties, Tucker handles 99 per cent of operations. Her professional background includes teaching, opening dental practices and managing huge and oil and gas projects.
“One thing I have learned and always is pertinent to any business is to have a strong core team, be on schedule, be under budget, have a great product or service and have strong relationships with your clients.”
Blake runs a successful construction and demolition company that employees 120 and has a background in branding and design. At Westside his focus is on monitoring spending, costs and assisting with marketing and concept development. “I go out, look at it, model it, but it’s always me coming back to Leeanne. We’re very much on the same page.”
He says, “I’ve got very comfortable with diversifying in new businesses. If you do it right, you attract the right experts.”
As for the future, they plan to expand their product line. Customers are asking for something new and the team plans to develop baked products with added protein to serve the schools’ demand.
“We’d love to get out and develop new products. The biggest challenge is the increase in costs,” Blake says.
They’ve had success taking their treats into schools and they expect this part of the business will be even bigger next year.
It’s an interesting process, with some districts ordering through large distribution companies and others ordering directly from suppliers. “Schools do reach out to source some of that stuff,” Blake says. “We’re not a distribution company but we’re wearing two hats right now.”
They hope to get subsidies to produce more nutritional foods, but although everyone thinks it’s a great idea, they aren’t able to do it alone. At the moment, they can’t produce these products because schools couldn’t afford to buy them.
Concerned about malnutrition in northern communities, they are partnering with an Indigenous business in rural Alberta to help get products to remote regions. “We were always getting these calls about supplying food,” Blake says. “The numbers were there but no one was taking the leap to get supply there.”
Westside has a strong core team, including Kristyn Carriere, senior recipe development scientist. Says Tucker, “They are never late, always on time, they work hard, they are happy and nice to be around. They were willing to work on standby when a big order came in.”
While giving comes easily, running a successful business means overcoming big challenges.
“We are stronger than we realize. We’ve been through so much stuff and we’re still here,” Tucker says. “We have to see the positive and take the little wins, I am proud of us, and honestly, I have my dream in my hands and am living this dream of mine with my very best friend. That in itself is a huge win!” / BJ
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