Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

January 17, 2022

© Katherine Elphick

Brothers Jeff and Kris Holtom are the third generation to run the family bakery in Erin, Ontario.

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Sweet spots

Ontario’s small-town bakeries offer old-fashioned flavour and newfangled baking

Nearly every morning, Jeff Holtom gets out of bed at 3am — and he does so with a smile. “You have to be a morning person to work in the bakery business,” explains the cheery owner of Holtom’s Bakery in Erin, Ontario. “As long as I get an afternoon nap, I’m good.”

Considering the 28-year-old Holtom is a third-generation baker, his positive attitude to early wake-up calls may be genetic. Established in 1946 by his paternal grandfather, and later operated by his father, Holtom’s Bakery (78 Main Street, Erin; tel: 519-833-2326) has been a mainstay in the village with a population of about 2500. Holtom now runs the bakery with his older brother Kris. 

“I literally grew up in this bakery,” says Holtom, a trained chef who apprenticed at top-rated Canoe Restaurant in Toronto. By age seven, he often accompanied his father to work on weekends and holidays. “I would leave Dad notes to wake me up at 4am. But, after helping him fry doughnuts, I would usually end up asleep on the bags of flour,” recalls Holtom, who still uses his grandfather’s time-worn recipe books and baking equipment. 

The traditional bake shop boasts a large window filled with trays of mouthwatering goodies ranging from breads, date squares and lemon Danishes to Chelsea buns and pies. The bakery is known for its butter tarts and honey-dipped doughnuts.

Apart from satisfying a sweet tooth, Holtom believes Erin’s small-town atmosphere draws customers from all over to his door. The main street features a dairy, butcher, fishmonger, restaurants and upscale shops. “The bakery’s delicious scent is also good for business,” admits Holtom. “You just can’t walk by without coming in.” 

Small-town flavour

In Niagara-on-the-Lake, the Niagara Home Bakery (66 Queen Street, Niagara-on-the-Lake; tel: 905-468-3431) is another beloved, small-town Ontario bakery. The 92-year-old establishment, which once delivered bread and baked goods by horse and buggy, is so picturesque that artist Trisha Romance featured it in a print titled The Home Bakery. House specialties include empire cookies, raisin scones and shortbread. 

While Erin and Niagara-on-the-Lake are fortunate to have such special gems, several municipalities across Ontario (and Canada) have lost their bakeries. While official statistics aren’t available, Paul Hetherington, president and CEO of the Baking Association of Canada offers this perspective: “I think it’s fair to say that the independent retail bakeries have been competitively challenged over the past 10 years, and there have been a number of closures.” 

Deanna McDonald, whose family has run the Niagara Home Bakery for 72 years, agrees. “Many close down because of the hard work associated with running a bakery. It also doesn’t help that the price of flour, sugar and butter have gone up considerably over the years.”

McDonald, 66, who runs the bakery with her 80-year-old brother John Albrechtsen, also blames the closings on the lack of trained staff. Finding help is difficult so owners do most of the work. “I don’t think that small-town bakeries are a lost cause — it’s just that the hours are too long. Many shut down because people are tired. You have to be really dedicated if you want to succeed.”

Additional obstacles for traditional bakeries include: dieting and wellness trends, food allergies or intolerances, and the arrival of big-box and grocery stores that offer incredibly convenient hours and mass produced, lower-priced baked goods. These goods, though, are often factory-made (with preservatives to prolong shelf life) and shipped to larger stores either fresh or frozen. 

“Everything is made with a machine in the supermarkets,” observes McDonald. “At our bakery, we make it by hand, and it’s baked in an old stone oven.”

The Niagara Home Bakery has made some recent changes to boost sales, adding a gourmet food section full of salad dressings, honey, jams and teas. To stay competitive, other bakeries have made similar changes. Many offer catering or in-house dining. Some focus on specialty markets. 

“The reality is that you can’t compete on price if you are an independent operator,” explains Hetherington. To be successful, an owner-operated bakery must find niche markets, build strong community ties, and change products, when necessary, to reflect the needs of local customers.

To have and have nut

Michelle Doo of Cakes By Design (89 Toronto Street, Barrie; tel: 705-739-6886; in Barrie, believes in niche marketing. “If you want to succeed in this business, you have to make something unique, something you can’t find at the supermarket bakery,” explains Doo, 33, who co-owns the bustling bake shop with Jennifer Mayrl, 33.

Cakes by Design is nut free, and caters to clients with special dietary needs. Gluten-free cakes and cookies, egg-and/or milk-free baked goods, and diabetic pies can all be custom-ordered. 

Doo estimates about 65 percent of sales come from this niche market. “Being nut-free is huge for us,” she explains. “We get lots of orders for (nut-free) birthday cakes because parents don’t want to risk it. Their child may not have a nut allergy, but their friends might.”

Creating a specialized market requires hard work. “We had to research every single ingredient that goes into everything we make,” explains Doo. It’s also more expensive, with raw products costing 30 to 40 percent more than standard ingredients. Baking without gluten is also a finicky process.

Another Cakes by Design specialty is artfully decorated custom cakes. “People don’t come to us for a cake with icing roses,” says Doo. “They come to us to have a little fun.” From hip bone-shaped cakes (to celebrate replacement surgery) to diaper-shaped (for baby showers), the bakery has taken on some interesting commissions.

“We made a coffin-shaped cake for one client,” remembers Doo. “It was a joke for her daughter who was having trouble coming to grips with her 30th birthday.”

Much of the interest in custom-style cakes is courtesy of the Food Network, specifically Duff Goldman of Ace of Cakes, notes Doo. 

Shaaron Pynn of Chelsea Chocolates (3471 Simcoe County Road 93, Craighurst; tel: 705-725-9210) agrees that customers are definitely looking for something unique. For birthdays, anniversaries or weddings, the Craighurst business makes chocolate “smash” cakes. The delectable treat looks like a regular cake, but is hollow chocolate and filled with shaped truffles. They come with mallets (real ones) to smash the cake.

“People are shocked when the mallet comes out,” laughs Pynn. “They can’t believe you’re supposed to destroy the cake.”

The truffles can be customized. A sailor might receive a nautical-themed cake filled with fish- or sailboat-shaped truffles. “If people are going to spend calories these days, they want to spend it on something delicious and unique,” Pynn points out. 

Her most interesting request? One man asked her to put an engagement ring into a heart-shaped cake.

Let them eat cardboard?

Catering to a specialty market has turned into big business for Nature’s Own Bakery (Unit 7, 481 Welham Road, Barrie; tel: 800-353-3178; in Barrie. Originally a small organic bakery, Nature’s Own has taken on the gluten-free market. It also does organic or low-carb breads (all of which are sourdough based and yeast free) and distributes them and other baked goods across Canada.

Nick Graham, president of Nature’s Own Bakery figures about 75 percent of the company’s business is gluten-free, a boom that started about five years ago and is growing daily. The company’s organic line is also very popular.

Gluten-free is a burgeoning market because doctors are able to better diagnose celiac disease, notes Graham. And products have become tastier. “Five years ago, most gluten-free products tasted like cardboard,” he explains. “Today, gluten-free products can be quite delicious.”

Sometimes the secret to a bakery’s success isn’t about targeting niche markets. Sometimes it’s simply about offering high-end quality products made from scratch. 

That’s the case at Dorio’s Kettleby Italian Bakery (449 Kettleby Road, Kettleby; tel: 905-727-3045; in Kettleby. “I don’t make any thing out of a box, and we use real eggs and butter,” says artisan baker Josie Dorio.

Specialties include biscotti, Sicilian cannoli, artistic cakes and Italian breads made by her husband, Manny. The family-run bakery has an all-natural baking line (made from scratch with no preservatives) which includes gluten-, egg- and lactose-free products, as well as vegan-friendly bakery items — all of which are custom and must be ordered in advance.

“We want to offer our customers something the grocery store can’t,” she explains. 

A hot table tempts with homemade pastas, lasagna and veal sandwiches (which can also be ordered). “We focus on catering because it’s hard to make it on baked goods alone,” explains Dorio.

Looking to the future, Brian Hartz, editor of Bakers Journal, a publication billed as the voice of the Canadian baking industry, believes that there will always be room for small innovative bakeries. To succeed, bakeries must adapt to the changing needs of the marketplace, listen to their customers, stay community-oriented and offer specialty products.

“Even though economic times are tough,” he notes, “desserts are still really popular.”

Try some of these bakeries' yummy recipes

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