Celebrating World Vegan Day With Strawberry Blonde
What's a Celebration Without Cake?
Yeah, what is a celebration without cake? Well, it's a little less magical if you ask me, or the hundreds of thousands of Canadians living with dietary restrictions; whether they be allergies, cultural, ethical or otherwise, food restrictions make life a little less sweet.
For Eric and me, being gluten free vegans has made it challenging to find tasty accessible treats. However, we need not look any further - Strawberry Blonde Bakery, here in Ottawa, has rekindled our love of baked goods once more!
In celebration of World Vegan Day, I was fortunate enough to sit down with Jacqui and Claire, owners and masterminds behind Strawberry Blonde. We had a wonderful time getting to know one another, sharing stories and laughs over cups of tea.
A Little Background
“I just didn't feel like it was contributing anything meaningful to the world” - Jacqui
Jacqui worked in television in Toronto but was feeling disenfranchised so she decided to go to baking school. She had recently became vegan and decided to look into vegan baking and even entertained the idea of one day owning a vegan bakery. It was at this time that she also discovered a growing demand for gluten free baked goods.
Claire attended Carleton University for a Bachelor of Social Work which she “hated” so she quickly began to focus more on her new found interest in baking.
Claire was also diagnosed as sensitive to gluten (she was misdiagnosed with Celiac Disease initially):
“I am very sensitive to gluten, but I can tolerate spelt alright.” - Claire
The two (now) vegans met when they started working at Rainbow Foods with a drive toward something greater.
“I really wanted to do something that was meaningful” - Jacqui
Both had an interest in opening their own bakeries and it was Claire that suggested they join forces. Jacqui was hesitant at first but was quickly won over by a Queen Elizabeth cake that Claire had made.
“Then she made the Queen Elizabeth cake for a function at Rainbow and I was like - ‘This is the greatest thing I have ever eaten in my life! I need to make this woman my business partner rather than my competitor’…” - Jacqui
After selling their goodies at the local Christmas Farmer’s Market, the owners of Rainbow Foods happily supported Jacqui and Claire’s new endeavour by selling their products in store. Soon after, Herb & Spice picked up their products as well, and interest in their vegan, gluten-free, nut-free baked goods began to snowball.
“So we quit Rainbow, and the owner's came to us and said we could use their kitchen downstairs.” - Jacqui
Things took off to a point where the ladies began to focus on the baking full time, which meant leaving their jobs at Rainbow Foods. Luckily, the owners continued to happily support Jacqui and Claire and offered them the use of a kitchen space for only cost.
Soon the demand for Jacqui and Claire's treats required a bigger space which lead them to their current location at 114B Grange Avenue.
“The Kitchen at Rainbow was so small, I don't know how we didn't kill eachother.” -Jacqui
“Came close a couple of times. (laughs)" - Claire
For their ingredients Jacqui and Claire try to make sure everything is organic whenever possible but the need for gluten-free, nut-free, egg and dairy free always takes priority. That being said, their coconut milk and soy products are always organic.
One way or another, they try to source their ingredients for flours from Jamestown Mill in Aylmer.
Ingredients that are environmentally conscientious and ethically sourced are also key concerns:
“The other issue with coconut milk is that some companies buy coconuts from places where they use monkeys to pick them...We make sure to use Native Forest for our coconut milk, because they don't do that...We use Earth Balance which does contain palm oil, but it is ethically sourced.” - Jacqui
Products aka The TREATS
“What did I say was my new favourite the other day?” - Jacqui
Jacqui’s (current) favourite treat at the shop is their scones (of which there are many delectable flavours to choose).
Claire admits that the Power Cookies are addictive. Jacqui agrees, as she usually starts her day with one and adds “they’re probably our best seller”. Although still a baked treat, the Power Cookies offer good nutritional value being packed with dried fruits, oats, coconut and seeds, and they’re sweetened only with molasses and agave.
“...there's a new nanaimo cookies and cream bar that is phenomenal, but I can only eat half because it's so decadent. It doesn't help that I put vanilla ice cream on top (laughs)” - Claire
I actually love the bread, It's so flavourful and satisfying. Although it is not fluffy like conventional bread, It toasts up really well and I have been enjoying it with a variety of toast toppings, to be featured in a future post. -Kara
Recipe Development and Testing
“Claire is really the mastermind behind most of the products.” - Jacqui
Recipe development used to be split 50-50 between Jacqui and Claire, but as time went on, they’ve slipped into their roles of business management and recipe planner respectively.
As such, Jacqui is usually the one who suggests new recipe ideas (usually to mimic something she can’t eat because of dietary restrictions) and Claire figures out how to make it a reality.
Claire will usually work out the recipe at home in her kitchen and once she feels she’s made progress, she’ll bring it into the bakery to test with her coworkers.
“We don't want anything to go out the door unless it's tastes great.” - Jacqui
“Rob a bank - Get more money” (laughs) - Claire
I asked Jacqui and Claire if there was anything they’d change in retrospect or if there was any advice they’d offer to their younger selves. Claire mentioned that she would tell her younger self to stress less as “everything usually works out anyway” especially when “ you have a great business partner to lean on”.
Both agreed that patience was key as running a business is a learning process.
Jacqui added that they were fortunate to get a loan from Futurpreneur (Canadian Youth Business Foundation) which required a business plan, but that business plans need to be fluid because of the surprises business ownership often brings.
Strawberry Blonde turns 3
“One of the things we wanted when we started the business was to create a community and give back” - Jacqui
Strawberry Blonde recently celebrated it’s third anniversary. As they’re now in a position to give back, to honour the occasion, the bakery held a doughnut eating competition to fundraise in support of Refuge RR; an animal sanctuary for domestic, wild and farm animals in Alexandria Ontario (close to Claire’s hometown).
Other businesses in the community eagerly contributed prizes to the cause as well and as a result the bakery managed to raise just over $1500 for Refuge RR!
“It was really fun, but I looked at the photos after and all the contestants looked like they might be sick (laughs).” -Claire
Work - Life Balance
“That's what's so great about having a business partner...if we had done this alone, the business would have flopped by now. Thankfully, there is always someone else to take over when one of us can't be around.” - Jacqui
Both ladies admit to being workaholics but recent circumstances in both of their lives have forced them to slow down and step back (a little).
In the first year of the business, Claire had a brain bleed, which really forced her to step back and focus on her personal health. Jacqui ribs her for “only” working 40 hours a week now as opposed to the 80 hours that she used to put in.
“I am fortunate to have a great business partner here, I'm lucky to have her in my life.” -Claire
Jacqui recently had a baby which, naturally, requires her to focus outside of the business as well.
Do What you Love, Love What You Do
“I always thought it was more important to like the people you work with...That way you’re going to enjoy going to work more.” - Jacqui
“Working with one of your best pals is always fun.” - Claire
Jacqui and Claire are good friends and appreciate that they’re like minded. Kitchens, in general, are tight spaces which can easily turn into pressure cookers, luckily, their employees are good team players.
“We really wanted to create a space where people enjoyed coming to work, and like the people that they work with and where they get fairly treated. We try our best to make it a safe and positive work environment, and I'm pretty proud of us for doing that.” - Jacqui
Strawberry Blonde is a little bakery with a big heart. These lovely ladies are such an inspiration. I am so pleased that I got to spend the morning with them. If you are in the Ottawa area you can visit their shop at 114B Grange Ave. Ottawa, in Westboro.
“...doing something that contributes to the world - as a vegan it's important...when they (kids with allergies) come into the store and their parents tell them they can eat anything - seeing their faces and how excited they get - that is probably my favourite thing. It's makes me cry almost every time. That's something that we're really proud of.” - Jacqui
I have provided a link to their website here.
If you'd like to learn more about Refuge RR or if you are interested in donating, you can find more info here. Please consider donating today. They could really use your help and what better way to celebrate World Vegan Day than by donating to an animal shelter or rescue near you?