Strawberry Blonde Bakery - Jacqui
How long have you been baking?
I've always had a love of sweet treats since I can remember. It's hard to pinpoint when I actually started baking... My passion for food in general really started when I became vegetarian about 15 years ago. It forced me to start thinking about food in a different way. A few years later I became vegan and suddenly found that I couldn't eat pretty much any baked good! I had a choice: I could either live without baked goods or make them myself. Obviously the first choice was not really an option, so I started baking. I loved doing it, but I mostly loved eating it.
What was the inspiration behind baking goods for those with restrictive diets and allergies?
As I said above, when I became vegan (over 10 years ago now), I found it really difficult to find quality vegan pastries. There were some vegan savoury options at restaurants, but it was difficult to find vegan baked goods. So I started to just bake myself. I found I really enjoyed doing it and was really good at it and I also really loved the experimentation aspect. I was working in the TV and arts industries at the time and realized it just wasn't what I wanted to do with my life. So I took some time off to do some "soul-searching" but instead of doing that I just found myself baking all the time. My boyfriend (now husband) made an offhand comment to me about how I should open up my own vegan bakery and it was like a lightbulb went on in my head. I decided if I was going to do it, I wanted to do it right, and so I enrolled in the Baking & Pastry Arts Entrepreneurship Program at George Brown College. After graduating, I moved to Ottawa and started selling my vegan treats at markets. I got such an amazing response, and listened to all my customers. I found that there was a high demand for quality baked goods that were free of ALL major allergens. Hearing their stories inspired me to keep experimenting. And being vegan, I sympathized with them - I knew the disappointment of not being able to enjoy a treat like everyone else, or settling for something subpar. I became determined to change that.
With all of your baked items being gluten, eggs, dairy and nut free is it difficult to source ingredients?
Definitely. Especially when we started out 5 years ago. Often the risk of cross-contamination comes when ingredients are repacked into smaller packages. If you can buy large (ie 25kg) bags of ingredients, there is no risk of cross contamination. At the time we didn't have the buying power, or the need, for such large quantities. It also took a lot of education to our ingredient suppliers on the importance of needing all our ingredients free from the common allergens. We had to demand spec sheets for every ingredient to ensure there was no risk of cross contamination and found it was very limiting. People's awareness for allergen friendly food is growing and much more common today than even 5 years ago, making sourcing ingredients a little easier for us.
Actor Jay Baruchel who is originally from Ottawa walks into SBB looking for a dessert to take to dinner with his Hollywood friends, what do you recommend?
I have to be honest and say I'm not sure who that is! I have a 3 year old and a 6 month old so the only TV I get to watch right now is Paw Patrol. Haha! But in general I would recommend our doughnuts. I don't even like doughnuts, but I like ours. Oh, and our ice cream. And Brownies. And Scones. Seriously everything we make is so good - it's dangerous!
Back in March you made us a cake to celebrate our first milestone of 1,000 followers. Before that gluten-free and dairy-free desserts seemed bland or dry. Now I dream of that chocolate coconut cake all the time. Is there a secret that SBB has that no other bakery has?
I'm so happy to hear you loved it! I think what it comes down to is that we make absolutely everything from scratch, by hand, and with quality ingredients. A lot of bakeries now use premade mixes or buy frozen items they can just put on a sheet and bake from frozen. By choice and by necessity, we have to make everything from scratch. By choice because I know it will taste better. By necessity because it's pretty much impossible to source anything free from gluten, dairy, eggs, nuts, and peanuts.
How often do you come up with new creations?
Not as often as I'd like! Things have become so busy it's hard to find time. I have a long list in my head of everything I want to create. Being vegan it's easy to know what people with allergies or alternative diets are missing. I just think, "what do I personally miss eating?" and try to create that. But we've grown so quickly that right now we're really focusing on perfecting our recipes. We found ourselves experimenting all the time, but it was important to step back from that and focus on making each product the best it could be and consistent. For example, we've had soft serve ice cream for a couple years now, and while it was delicious, it wasn't perfect. We spent a lot of time this year getting it just right. It can be hard because the type of baking we're doing is so new. It's not like I can just go "Hey Google, find me a recipe for x" and it will come up.
In general though, I try to unveil a few new products a year. This past Christmas we did Faux Toblerone bars for the first time! I've wanted to do it for so long, but it's taken so much experimenting.
When you aren’t busy baking and serving customers and keeping the books, what do you do to unwind?
I spend every second outside of work with my family. My two little girls are everything to me and they're only going to be this little once.
Do you have any favourite hangouts in Wellington West?
The Ottawa Bagelshop! It's such a friendly place with a neat, unpretentious vibe. Not to mention the owners Vince and Lili have been so good to us. The Ottawa Bagelshop is like our extended family.
What do you see is the next challenge in accommodating dietary restrictions?
Hmmm... We get asked a lot to do sugar free items. This is definitely harder than it seems because sugar is not only plays a part in the flavour, but it also is important for the structure of a baked good as well as shelf life.
A personal challenge of mine is that I'm pretty picky so I won't unveil any new product to sell until it's up to the quality of what we already sell and tastes just as good or better as any other bakery. Customers have high expectations of our product and so do I!
How has Ottawa played a part in the success of SBB?
Oh boy! Where do I start? People in Ottawa love to support local, so that obviously helps. Also, Ottawa is just such a perfect size city - big enough to have all the big city amenities, but in a lot of ways it still feels like a small town. People are friendly. Everyone feels like your neighbour. Things don't get competitive like in other cities and people here understand the importance of having a work/life balance. That's important because being an entrepreneur it can be easy to fall into the trap of working all the time.
Local supports local in Ottawa. When we started out, we had nowhere to bake out of. I was working at Rainbow Foods at the time and just decided to quit and try to find a kitchen to bake out of. Rather than be upset, they graciously offered us their kitchen to use for such a small cost. When we found this space in Wellington West, The Bagelshop was so supportive of us. Herb & Spice on Bank too... they sold our treats and stuck with us while we figured out how to do this! It was so nice knowing these other business had our backs. The Ottawa community is amazing.