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True Grain Bakery celebrates 20 years in Cowichan Bay

German inspired, True Grain stays true to their name every step of the way with sustainability

Editor's note: This story originally appeared in the June edition of the South Cowichan Connector. Look for the July edition starting July 4.

Cowichan Bay’s True Grain Bakery is famous for handcrafted organic pastries and bread — and like the latter rises to the occasion as they celebrate 20 years.

“It’s been great, we are primarily a bread focused bakery,” said owner Bruce Stewart. “We’ve been fortunate with a dedicated clientele that understands what we do, and all of the passion we put into handcrafting bread from organic grain to sell on the same day. Bakeries have historically been the centre of the community when the town wakes up. I feel the town changed when True Grain first opened. It led to other specialty shops in town, and created a buzz for people to come here and get great food, and just evolved from there.”

Originally from Ontario, after earning his business degree Stewart moved to Vancouver and fell in love with B.C. After he and his wife were married 17 years ago they were in search of the perfect place to set down roots and Cowichan Bay stole their hearts. When the pair began looking for a new business venture, they met former True Grain owner Jonathan Knight, who started the business in April 2004. The Stewarts took it over in 2008 and have run it ever since.

“I came in with my wife Leslie, and John taught us the basics of baking and we learned a lot from him,” said Stewart. “It’s been great; I was very involved in the day to day operations in the beginning, but my job as the leader of the organization is to try and grow the business and focus on ways to get more people involved with eating B.C.-grown handcrafted bread.”

While sourdough has become a buzz word gaining more popularity in recent years, True Grain has been doing it well for two decades. When the Stewarts took over they wanted to level up and believing that the best bakers came from Europe they made the decision to become German-inspired and focused. The Stewarts came across phenom German master baker Jöerg Göessl in Germany in 2009 and invited him to Canada to be their head baker — he gladly accepted, and has been meeting all of True Grain’s kneads since. Other specialties include their German pretzel, cinnamon buns, and organic cookies.

“I’ve been here just over 15 years now,” said Göessl. “It’s a nice relaxed vibe here. I love waking up every morning to bake bread. We do a very high quality product here, everything is handcrafted and made from scratch. Working here has been very satisfying to me, I love being a baker, and have been one all my life. You can either work in a big factory and always do the same thing or work in a place like this, which is a baker’s dream.”

One of Stewart’s dreams and goals since taking over the business has been his commitment to B.C.’s local food economy, and sustainability. Stewart says they work with more than a dozen grain farms that are all within 500 km of their business. The bakery milled their own grain until 2015, and since have opened an offsite certified organic grain milling operation in Duncan.

“When we first opened the impossible goal was organic and local,” said Stewart. “At the time you could get organic grain but you couldn’t get local grain. It was like a unicorn, you just couldn’t get it. You had to choose one or the other. Some opted for organic because they didn’t want the glyphosate and the chemicals, while those who were more about food security chose local. We are now the only place on the island that does both. We used to mill the grain right in the bakery, it was a neat experience and people could watch the Miller at work, but we found that we couldn’t sell it to a third party and put an organic sticker on it. To do so it needs to be third party inspected by a certified body like Pacific Agricultural Certification Society. To be legitimate and to use the word organic you need to have that sticker, it gives a lot more credibility and allows for traceability.”

This change has allowed True Grain to sell their organic grain to third parties such as an array of grocery stores and bakeries throughout the Gulf Islands and other areas. The certification sticker given by PACS is a guarantee that the product is organic and justifies the more expensive price when customers see it. Grain is their only product that is sold to a third party. Stewart explained that their bread will never sit on a grocery store shelf, as it would mean adding some sort of fat, or chemical to prolong its shelf life which undermines fundamentally what they are all about — having patrons enjoy their awesome bread and baked goods the same day it’s made.

“I think the business was named very well,” said Stewart. “We are true to the grain through every step in the process. Today’s food system is built on cheap food. Every step through the process from the planting of the seed to the slicing of the bread we are making mindful choices about the impact it has economically, sustainability, and environment-ability wise.

”In addition to regular wheat, we’ve also found farmers who grow specialized grains such as red fife wheat, speltz, khorasan, einkorn, and emmer. We mill them all, and change up baking breads with the different nuanced grains. Just how the wine business is about that skilled craftsperson fermenting a particular grape to get that right flavour, for the past 20 years we have been doing the same in the grain business. We have been trying to help people understand that when you ferment a red fife variety of grain that hasn’t been hybridized, there’s a really nuanced flavour in there, and when that comes through in your loaf there is a really amazing nutty flavour versus taking any old wheat, bleaching it and seeing what comes out the other end — the difference is night and day.”

The growth and success of Stewart’s business has also been night and day since he took over. True Grain has a second location in Summerland that opened in 2012, however their former location in Courtenay closed during COVID. There were some silver linings for the business during the pandemic though. True Grain launched their bagel line, and opened Leeward Cafe next to the bakery in 2022. While the bakery used to have limited seating this change allows a better shopping experience, and the opportunity for True Grain team members to educate their customer on everything they do. Stewart notes that the name Leeward stems from the sailing term — a perfect fit for the boat community of Cowichan Bay.

“It’s much better this way, customers can view the ocean at Leeward and have a True Grain pastry there, plus they do a great job of using the organic bread from True Grain as the canvas for one of their great sandwiches,” said Stewart. “I’m blessed to have a really good manager on both sides. They both do an excellent job of executing the day to day and making sure that everything gets done, my job is to do the administration and the leadership and to help them on their journey.”

Since embarking on this journey, True Grain has always been a family affair. Stewart says his two daughters Monica and Fiona have both been involved in it one way or another for years and recalls a past Christmas when his girls were helping put stickers on the shortbread. They are always happy to accompany dad on a late night task such as changing the slicer blades, as it often comes with a tasty treat.

“It’s been a big part of their life just like it’s been a part of mine and my wife’s journey,” said Stewart. “My oldest, Monica, is 14. She just started serving customers once a week and loves it. We’ll see where her sister’s interests lie in that when the time comes. I don’t have expectations that they are going to get into the business long term; running a small business is hard. I think my kids see the benefits of it, but they also see how hard we work, and what’s involved. It will be interesting to see what life choices they will make, as we move on to the next generation.”

Stewart, who currently has a baking team of six, and a front team of 10, said that a special part of the journey for him when he was involved with the day to day was watching youth grow within his business.

“It was so motivating to watch these young men and women develop such a strong confidence while running my business,” said Stewart. “I still vividly remember driving by one day near the end of the day wondering who was closing and realized it was one of our teenage staff. In that moment I felt so reassured as she was one of the best closers we had. It has been an amazing experience to watch so many young people grow, your first job is really important for your growth as a young person so I’m really proud that we played a part with that in our community with these young kids that came through, and worked really hard for us.”

Former employees came out during the celebration last month, not only to share in the milestone but to also express gratitude to the Stewarts for all they learned on the job.

Part of Stewart’s role has been stepping up to be a leader in energy sustainability. He had the opportunity to take a Cowichan Valley Regional District sponsored course on how to measure greenhouse gases where he learned how much greenhouse gases were burned transporting grain from the prairies to Vancouver Island.

“That’s when I really went full-court press on trying to find organic farming partners in B.C.,” said Stewart. “When we did the math, we figure we are taking seven cars off the road a year when people choose to eat a loaf of bread from our bakery.”

True Grain bakery is open Tuesday to Sunday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. but will soon be open seven days a week for the summer once they properly train new team members.

“It’s not as easy as it looks to do what we do. Because we do everything from scratch, it’s a higher skillset than you may see at other bakeries,” said Stewart. “I’m so grateful that the team has been with us for so long, and have continued to choose to work with us to craft the bread and offer up amazing customer service day in, day out. I’m also extremely thankful for our customers who have stuck with us. I’m thankful that enough people on the island understand what we do and value it — when they put that baked good in their mouth they are reminded of how awesome it is. Once people understand all that we do, and the impact of buying a loaf of bread from True Grain versus other places they’re not going anywhere else.”

About the Author: Chadd Cawson

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