Sweet and Healthy: The Rise of Strawberry Blonde Bakery
June 28, 2022
Duco talks business with Jacqui Okum, founder and owner of Strawberry Blonde Bakery with locations in Ottawa’s Westboro and Kanata.
“Taste and trust.”
For all that goes into launching a new business model, these two ingredients have been key to success at Jacqui Okum’s Strawberry Blonde Bakery. Strawberry Blonde is a fast-rising alternative-ingredients bakery with a growing legion of customers in Canada’s capital and beyond. Now, after weathering the challenges of Covid, the young business is bouncing back, better –and more resilient – than ever. And it’s all down to customer demand, built on taste. And trust.
At launch, Strawberry Blonde Bakery was the first its kind in the Ottawa market.
For vegans and families with food sensitivities it arrived as a life-line. Thanks to Okum’s “no allergens allowed” concept, baked foods were finally accessible to everyone. At this bakery, all the magic happens without common food-industry allergens like gluten, diary, eggs, tree-nuts, and peanuts.
From the beginning, demand was overwhelming. Jacqui has been scrambling to keep pace, since the moment she opened her doors 9 years ago. It’s been a non-stop learning curve, growing a small business that started as a partnership between two friends, into a medium sized business, with two retail locations plus a wholesale and online presence and just under 40 employees.
“Our mission is to create alternative baked goods that taste as good - or better - than conventional products,”
says Okum. But creating that great taste –without standard bakery ingredients - takes constant research and development. “Even the flour we use is our own unique blend, milled from eleven different grains,” she explains. Each new treat reflects a long process of development to get flavors, textures and consistency just right. That research has produced a string of hits, from cakes and cupcakes with rave-review dairy-free icing to allergen-free Nanaimo bars..
“Food is intimate,”
says Jacqui –highlighting the role of trust. She believes it’s vital for customers to know that Strawberry Blonde is on their side, and fully committed to an allergen-free practice. Day to day it comes down to extra care at every step.
“We even train our staff to explain everything that goes into to our products, with 100% transparency.”
Jacqui credits a suggestion from her husband for sparking the career-changing vision that led to Strawberry Blonde. “A light went on” is how she tells it. Soon after, she left her television job to enroll in the Bakery Arts Program at Toronto’s George Brown College. But it was a move from Toronto to Ottawa that really set the wheels in motion. Jacqui’s inner entrepreneur instantly grasped the advantages: right sized market; no competition.
“Being the first is always best.”
A crucial break came in the form of a mentor who put her in touch with a great accountant.
“Our accountant taught me how to read the numbers, and use them to predict the future,” she explains. “I’d been operating the business for five years, with lots of customers and high sales numbers. We looked like an amazing success, but inside, I felt like a failure because we weren’t making a profit.”
Savvy guidance on key issues like pricing and sales numbers turned the situation around.
“Soon, we had money in the bank. And being the entrepreneur that I am, I had to spend it by opening a second location in Kanata.” That happened just in time for Covid – a move that might have sunk lesser retail businesses. All her capital reserves were invested in the new store, just as the world went into lock-down mode.
“I didn’t know we were classified as an “essential business,” says Jacqui “So I closed the business for two weeks.” Then a call from her wholesale distributor, Farmboy requesting continued supply, kicked her back into gear. She started finding ways to get product out to customers via email orders, pick-up and a new online store.
“The experience taught me a lot. Especially I gained a fresh appreciation for the role of marketing.”
Before Covid, marketing had been a matter of lucky choices. “We just picked our name,” says Okum. And the bakery’s vivid signature colours owe a debt to Jacqui’s visual background in television. Taking a more deliberate approach to marketing is a key post-Covid priority.
If Jacqui has a lesson to share with new entrepreneurs it’s this:
“Learn to be comfortable making decisions. You’ll be wrong sometimes but that’s how it is. People need you decide … about everything.”
As to mistakes, Jacqui is philosophical. “People waste a lot of time worrying about what will happen. But then what actually happens is totally unexpected – like Covid. So you have to live in the “now”.
Today, with mandates lifted and people getting out again, “now “ is looking better than ever at Strawberry Blonde.