“Rules can be broken, but it’s important to understand why a rule exists and how to break it in a way that still works.”
“That’s incredibly relevant to the type of baking we do at Strawberry Blonde Bakery,” explains the one-time post-production practitioner cum specialty baker Jacqui Okum. “To understand how to replace gluten, eggs, and other ingredients, I first had to learn all of their functions in baking. I couldn’t break the rule until I understood the rule. At Strawberry Blonde, we’re always innovating to improve our products and create new, tasty treats.”
Today, Okum is the proud, hardworking owner of that specialty bakery, which has two popular locations: 111 Richmond Rd in Westboro and 767 Silver & Rd Unit 17 in Kanata. Every day, Okum and her equally devoted staff—bakers, cake decorators, service people, and managers—are up before the sun to ensure that Ottawa’s marginalized food communities can enjoy the culinary indulges their conditions, allergies, religious beliefs, and self-chosen lifestyles wouldn’t otherwise allow.
The business, which also holds down wholesale and specialty responsibilities, began as a series of vegan stands at the Little Italy and Lansdowne Farmers’ Markets, right after Okum gave up her Toronto-based media career to try her luck as a professional baker. “The markets were a great place to start to build up a customer base and get feedback, with very low overhead,” Okum reflects. “I learned a lot about allergies and cross-contamination.I kept experimenting until I decided to get rid of gluten and nuts completely, on top of the already dairy and egg free baking I was doing.”
That was also where she met her future business partner. Together, they started selling treats at specialty food stores, inspiring them to establish their own kitchen. First, though, they had to secure the funding. “Because it was a new way of baking, funders would say, ‘It’s just a fad.’” After Okum and her partner got the money, however, they were able to prove that pronouncement wrong. “There was an immediate response to our shop,” Okum recounts. “We were doing something completely different, but so needed.”
The original plan was to expand the wholesale line and sell off the extra to walk-in trade—but if you’ve ever walked into Strawberry Blonde (and if you haven’t, you should!), you can guess what happened next: people were so gratified by the variety of the offerings, retail took precedent over wholesale. After finding an appreciative banker suffering from celiac disease, Blonde expanded to a second location.
These days, Okum, the company’s sole owner, divides her time between both venues, creating menus, working with managers, dealing with equipment, and ensuring that the business’s core tenets remain in place: friendliness, teamwork, creativity, innovation, and respect.
The latter is of particular importance. After all, it’s respect for the needs of the customer that continues to drive the enterprise.
“As a vegan,” explains the sympathetic Okum, “I know what it feels like to feel like the odd duck at a bakery, a restaurant, or a celebration. My goal was always to create a space where those people could go somewhere, pick out anything without fear, and still have it taste and look beautiful.”
By Dan Lalande