Through our Squeaky Screen Door
by Jocelyn LeRoy
Wow. There are so many stories, so many customers, so many once-in-a-lifetime events in the history of Trillium Bakery. Let’s take a look – through our famous yellow squeaky screen door – and step gently back in time. Here, periodically, I will offer a glimpse of events or decisions that shaped our evolution.
Trillium Bakery began its colourful, unique and productive life by baking true artisan bread by hand. Then came many other products made from scratch: gluten-free, dairy-free, diabetic-friendly and home-made treats. Favourites since Day One have been our Chelsea buns and spicy gingerbread cookies.
When my ideas about the bakery were gelling, a “mystery” cheque arrived in my mail one day. It was issued by the Government of Quebec for an amount that turned out to match the first month’s rent on a small Belmont Street site I had my heart set on for Trillium Bakery. (The bank had refused me a loan because I had no money.) This cheque was truly providential! My vision could now become reality.
At the time when Trillium opened in 1980 there were only four well-established bakeries in Ottawa. Only one of these remain today. Now we are one of the “oldies,” but with very different products and clientele than the others.
When we opened, there were health-food stores popping up all over Ottawa; these sold real food – not supplements, protein powders, factory-made energy bars and so-called “superfoods” in powder form. Most of these stores heard about Trillium’s good bread, so we had to buy a large van to deliver it. We baked bread all night and delivered it, still hot, in the morning.
I was invited to set up a bakery at The Log Farm, a heritage farm where we dressed in period costume and did everything the labour-intensive way the pioneer homesteaders did. We experienced the perils of baking bread in wood-fired ovens, in all kinds of weather.
Throughout the more-than-thirty-year life of Trillium, we’ve created our own recipes, using trial and error until our ideas turned into reproducible, dependable products. But there was one exception to this approach: the Black Russian recipe.
It was left to me to carry on when the owners of Ottawa’s first health-food store passed away. “Do not change this recipe, ever,” she instructed. By good fortune I met the inventor and baker of that recipe at an outdoor wedding amid the stone statues at Remic Rapids. We reminisced about the virtues of real bread versus the factory-produced fluffy white bread, and we found that we both believed in the irony of going backwards in time to achieve real progress.
A High-flying Deal
I had always dreamed of grinding our own flour. Providentially, in a plane stuck on a foggy runway, I found myself seated next to the director of Upper Canada Village. We negotiated an arrangement during the flight for Trillium’s grain to be ground on their 19th-century stonemill by an experienced millwright. “Marquis” is the brand of wheat – it’s a direct derivative of Red Fife. It is non-GMO and contains no additives. At the Village’s mill, it is treated the way naked flour was meant to be treated – no scorching on modern machinery, no burning or freezing temperatures, no chemicals, conditioners or unhealthy additives.
From the get-go, I received many intriguing baking challenges, and I nearly always agreed to meet them. One time I made 800 sugar-free naturally sweetened desserts for a diabetic black-tie gala. But I hadn’t thought through the mechanics of getting my product to the customer. Professional, tall-hatted chefs laughed at me as I unloaded the stacked white boxes from my truck at the Congress Centre’s loading dock.
Inside, my precious desserts were served on elegant mirrors. I eavesdropped on the guests’ comments. (Someone had had the grace to invite me to the gala so I could find out what the guests thought of my work.) I quietly mingled in my borrowed little black dress. Next day, the head chef who had mocked me the night before called me at work, and he said, “I’m impressed.” Whew! I could sleep soundly now.
Another time, I received a request to create a 10-foot cake for the Air Traffic Control Cross-Canada Conference. It featured a blue glass control tower drawn on the cake with blue gel. Never again!
Trillium has said “yes” to other, seemingly impossible creations: Cakes with no flour, eggs, sugar or dairy; pirate cakes; gluten-free inventions for people who were ill, discouraged, resigned to never enjoying a birthday cake or bakery treat again.
We’ve agreed to radio and television coverage, and newspaper and magazine articles, featuring the bakery and its old-fashioned methods. And said “yes” to customers’ parties, weddings and funerals.
Life on Belmont St.
Long ago we had a lawn and a huge lilac tree in front of the bakery. My Siberian husky Mik-mik dug a subterranean apartment for himself under the lilac. For 19 years he was a friend to many of our customers: he’d emerge from underground to visit, then cool off or warm up, depending on the season. Customers remember his pale blue eyes and his “talking husky” with them. For awhile, Mik-mik had company. Bear, a golden retriever, would drape himself over the roof of the doghouse that Mik-mik never used. One of our bakers decorated this house, making it look like a piece of art (with a real dog on top).
Eventually the two dogs were evicted when the landlord paved the entire property. He had promised to leave the lilac tree, but in the end it was chainsawed to bits. My son Mike said, “Mom will have a heart attack when she sees this.” I didn’t. But some of our customers were enraged – they though we were the perpetrators; they nearly boycotted us. They’d grab their bread, slap down their money, and run. Until they found out the truth.
At Trillium’s new store, and at the adjoining Alta Vista flowers, there are wild rose rushes out front. They help take the sting out of losing the lilac.
Other Peoples’ Trash Becomes Our Treasures
We retrieved an ancient brick oven from a vintage baker in Arnprior. He bequeathed it to us when he retired. All 103 bricks stood in a pile; sheets of metal painted with “front,” “back,” “left” and “right” leaned against the pile. And the oven door handle was broken. We fashioned a new wooden handle and, once baking, we learned to avoid the gaps made by the missing bricks. If a loaf were to fall into one of these gaps, it would never be seen again.
Later we found a perfectly good pizza oven on a Bank Street curb. The oven had been pitched out by a restaurant owner for trash pick-up. With us, the oven lasted more than 30 years!
During the last 33 years, our bread-making technique has remained essentially the same, with only occasional tweaks. We still shape every loaf by hand, one by one. Eventually we bought a table mixer for cakes, a debit machine, and, most recently, we had air conditioning installed.
One blustery Winter night our huge bread-dough mixer conked out. So, we loaded 20 100-pound pails of rising dough into our pre-warmed van. We crawled through the snow-clogged streets to a downtown bakery having the latest baking technology. Trillium has accepted their kind offer to use their bakery to finish our night’s bread production. This enterprise featured fast-track automation: sheeters, moulders, proofers, rollers – everything to make perfect bread and buns. Right?
Everyone at Trillium wanted to come and try out the machinery.
But it was a disaster! The bread turned out heavy – leaden in fact – so unlike the perfect loaves baked in our ancient brick oven and touched by human hands.
The Big Bang
About 20 years ago, one our our ovens imploded due to blocked air intakes in the adjacent laundromat, causing negative air pressure. BANG! Thank heavens, no one was hurt, but some of our hand-crafted, original tin breadpans flew out the oven door and across the room. After this incident, we invested $4,000 in a special fan to prevent this from ever happening again.
T2: A Second Store
In Wellington Village we opened another store, which was successful for all of its 18 years, in spite of copy-cat enterprises and extensive, disruptive roadwork. But finally I decided to consolidate our operations at the original store. Today a few of our West-end customers are still annoyed that I sold T2 to become a Mexican restaurant. With slightly forced smiles, they begin by saying “I remember when…”, lamenting that the second store is no longer part of their daily routine.
A Family Affair
All of my four children have worked in the bakery. Around age 10 my son Mike took an interest in baking. One day Mike suggested that Trillium offer beavertails. He conducted three experiments, and one looked especially promising. Then a customer came in and wondered what this new concoction was. Straight away, Mike said, “Flatsters,” and the customer immediately ate a couple. After this, Mike and I decided to press two grooves into these – they looked like Bearpaws and, on the weekends, we put them on display. Word got around, and this led to two huge orders from Camp Fortune to tide them over the entire winter.
Today he bakes when “Big John” has time off. As well, Mike makes things go smoothly behind the scenes and out front with our customers He’s a strong pillar of Trillium. And he and his wife Karen own and manage Alta Vista Flowers, with whom Trillium shares a beautiful space.
My three daughters have played diverse roles. On the very day Trillium first opened, my youngest daughter welcomed people by dancing around the sidewalk and saying, “My mommy opened this bakery – come in and have a cookie.”
My middle daughter liked to decorate the room in artistic fashion and rearrange things I had placed. Much later in her life she did some retail and diet consulting at Trillium.
My oldest daughter worked at the bakery throughout university. She bagged bread, she baked, she served the customers. What a blessing to have my children want to be a part of Trillium and treat this experience as part of their education!
These days five of my grandchildren help out in the bakery and the flower shop. Alex has baked with his dad and hung in all night baking bread and cookies, muffins and items for special orders when “Big John” is on vacation.
One thing more: my oldest daughter met her future husband in the bakery, as did I. And these two weren’t the only romances that bloomed at Trillium.
So Many Good Staff
Trillium has employed a huge variety of people: high-tech specialists looking for a break from their hectic profession by experiencing Zen baking first-hand; a blind baker; a run-away-from-a-convent young woman who, by herself, had baked bread in an outdoor oven for the whole convent. A perfect match for Trillium, she finished her schooling and then went all the way to her PhD and beyond.
We employed lots of students, a disillusioned architect (but an excellent baker), and a brilliant military young man also looking for the Zen of baking. For years he was one of our finest staff members. But then he moved to Japan after learning Japanese day by day following his nine-hour baking shift. I rode on the back of his bicycle to Japanese restaurants in Ottawa, and I ate soup all the while he practiced speaking the language.
Trillium also has had professionally schooled bakers who at first laughed at our old-fashioned methods and gawked at our lack of modern equipment. But some of these people stayed on and came to enjoy the art of baking bread our way. Then there was Nellie, a medical student, who tirelessly helped me after my serious automobile accident. Like an angel, she helped Trillium get through the Christmas season, our busiest time of the year.
Our Customers Still Remember
Today many of our old customers revisit us “from away.” They remember the wooden rocking horse at our former location. “I grew up on that rocking horse in your bakery, and I ate Trillium gingerbread boys.” (We have expanded this line to include loons, moose, butterflies, cats and more.)
Thinking of these customers when we moved to Bank Street in 2012, we brought along our famous yellow squeaky screen door. It hangs in the window in honour of its 10,000 squeaks, conjuring up memories of our customers’ cottages, farms and homesteads. These people tell us that when they opened our door they felt they were stepping back in time. Some even say that our original store was their haven, a safe place away from chaos and problems.
…We pause to smell the roses, right in front of our new digs. We enjoy a bright new kitchen, and we continue to use our table and chairs in the new space outside.