By Carolyn Harris
Cee and Jacqui are the owners of Strawberry Blonde Bakery, a vegan bakery that serves baked goods (vegan, gluten-free, and nut-free) to its eager customers! In this interview, these two ethically-savvy ladies explain why they do what they do and how they got here.
When and why did you decide to go vegan?
Cee – I grew up in a farming community and was always disgusted by the way animals were mistreated – in my early teens I decided to take a stand and went vegetarian (much to my Italian father’s horror), read Peter Singer’s “Animal Liberation”, and went fully vegan soon there after. Also, my parent’s multiple genetic illnesses (cancer, heart disease) made it an easy decision to make.
Jacqui – I went vegetarian in University after seeing the film Baraka where there were images of baby chicks getting their beaks burned off, all in the name of efficiency for transporting them for factory farming. I was shocked and disgusted. I went home and told my boyfriend how upset I was and that I was going vegetarian. He laughed me off and told me I’d never last. Being the stubborn person I am, that only fuelled my fire. A few years later I went to the Toronto Vegetarian Food Fair. There I learned about the horrors of the dairy and egg industries, and also how they’re intricately linked with the meat industries. I realized I couldn’t call myself a vegetarian if I still ate these foods. I vowed then and there to be vegan and never looked back.
When did you get the idea to start Strawberry Blonde Bakery? Have you always enjoyed baking?
Cee – I dropped out of University (sorry Grandma), and fell into a pretty deep depression and wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life. I got a part time job baking at Auntie Loo’s Treats and discovered that I had a passion for baking. I took the opportunity to enrol in Algonquin College’s Chef Training Program. After I graduated from that, I enrolled in their Baking and Pastry Arts Program. All while I was in school, I participated in craft shows around the city under the name “Strawberry Blonde Cafe”. Though I was making some money doing craft shows, it wasn’t nearly enough to pay the rent, I got a job at Rainbow Natural Foods, a health Food Store in the west end, and there I met Jacqui. Needless to say, it was kismet.
Jacqui – I worked in the TV industry for a few years after completing Film School. While I loved the craft, I couldn’t stand the industry. I decided I needed a career change but had no idea what direction to go in. I took some time away from work to do some “soul searching” but that just turned into me baking all the time. Hahaha! I love baked goods, and at the time there was hardly any vegan options available in Toronto where I was living (there are loads now!). So I just kept baking. My boyfriend made a comment one day that I’m baking so much, I should probably just open my own bakery. What was a little comment turned into a big idea. But I knew if I was going to do it, I had to be equipped with all the information I could possibly get. I enrolled in the Baking & Pastry Arts Management Program at George Brown College. When I was finished, I relocated to Ottawa to be with my boyfriend. I started market stands selling my wares and was overwhelmed by the demand. In the winter when the markets were over I got a job at Rainbow Foods where I met Claire. Claire kept pestering me to bake together. I was reluctant, but then tried some of her vegan, gluten-free Queen Elizabeth cake and it was the best thing I ever tasted. I immediately knew she had to be my business partner, not my competitor. Luckily, we also discovered that we enjoyed baking together!
What is your favourite thing about running a vegan bakery?
Cee – Since we’re both vegan, it’s important to us to have jobs that reflect our lifestyle. Running a vegan bakery means that not only are we not harming any animals, but more vegan product that would not otherwise be available can be purchased because we exist.
Jacqui – It’s a lot of fun to get to work with one of your best pals. Also, the excitement of our customers when they see all the choices they have here at SBB, that they wouldn’t normally have… It’s just so fun to share in their enthusiasm.
What have you learned from your experiences with your bakery so far?
We’ve learned that this is going to be a constant learning experience and that you have to have a flexible attitude if you want to stay sane. Also, there are a lot of moments that will test your patience and you have a choice to either laugh or cry. We’ve learned it’s better to laugh!
What advice would you give to someone who wants to turn their passion for vegan food into a career?
It’s going to be a looooonnngggg haul, but it’s very rewarding (if you’re willing to put in the hours). A passion for vegan food is great, but it isn’t enough – Sometimes running a business will trump the creative food part that fuelled you to start and you have to learn to like that too.
What are your plans for the future?
Ahhhh, that’s for us to know and you to find out 😉
(Also for us to find out, because if we’ve learned ANYTHING from opening SBB it’s that no matter how much you plan, your plans will always swerve in a different direction and you have to just “go with the flow”.)