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Ottawa specialty bakery grows beyond owner's dreams

Midweek Mugging: Strawberry Blonde Bakery began serving those with dietary needs, but has rapidly expanded in popularity over six years.
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Much like baking, business can be a lot of trial and error before you get it right.

Six years and many sweets later, Jacqui Okum, owner of Strawberry Blonde Bakery, continues to tinker, even though the concept remains much the same.

More than a decade ago, the new vegan had been working in television in Toronto, however, she quickly ran into a problem: when it came to baked goods, she was left to make her own, as vegan-friendly options at that point were few and far between.

“I found myself making stuff at home because I still wanted to eat everything, but I couldn’t really find it,” Okum said in an interview with OttawaMatters.com.

Wanting to make a change from TV and with her new acumen for baking, Okum decided to enroll in a pastry program at George Brown College, one that included a focus on entrepreneurship.

Okum’s husband then got a job at the University of Ottawa, so she moved to the city and began to make offerings to the public, mostly through market stands like the ones at Lansdowne Park.

While her vegan offerings were popular, she began to get feedback about other products customers were looking for, including gluten-free and nut-free products.

The wheels slowly started turning.

After getting a job at Rainbow Natural Foods, Okum met her original business partner who was baking similar things, and the two decided to “go for it.”

At first, Rainbow allowed the two to bake out of its kitchen for a reasonable rate, but within six months the pair had already outgrown it, with orders surpassing space.

In 2013, the two opened their first shop on Grange Avenue in Hintonburg, which would include vegan-friendly, nut-free and gluten-free products to accommodate all dietary needs -- something important to Okum.

“Being vegan myself, I knew what it was like to go somewhere and not have anything, or to have one option and it’s a sad looking option, or a piece of fruit,” Okum said.

“I’m still the person who wants the delicious cupcake or whatever it may be, so I really empathize with people who are celiac or maybe have a nut allergy. I took it really seriously.”

The challenge of making everything “just as good” as other offerings also drove Okum and she takes great pride when someone enjoys something from the bakery and doesn’t realize the limited ingredients.

“There’s nothing better. We get customers all the time where say they’re husband and wife and the wife comes in because she doesn’t want to eat gluten and the husband’s like ‘I don’t want it,’” she said. “And then he comes back and says, 'My wife forced me to try this,' but now he wants to come back because it’s so good. That’s the whole point of this business, is to make sure things look and taste similar to conventional bake goods.”

The passion and work to build up the offerings at the bakery has taken on a life of its own since the opening of the Grange Avenue location, which moved to Richmond Road as of two weeks ago, to include a coffee and sitting space. The business has now extended to the suburbs as well, with a Kanata location that opened this past June, with possible lunch offerings on the docket for 2020.

Okum said she couldn’t have dreamed that the venture would have been successful as it’s been so far almost seven years on.

“We have 40 employees, which is crazy to me and to think it was just me and business partner six years ago. It’s been a huge learning curve.”

When it comes to running a business, Okum offered to those looking to go down the same path to keep their minds open and to be flexible.

“What you think might happen isn’t what actually is going to happen but don't be rigid,” she said, noting the original thought was that the bakery would mostly for wholesale use.

“Be kind to yourself, you’re going to make mistakes,” she said.




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