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The little bakery that could: Skeena bakery keeps on baking down barriers

While its mission is noble, it’s the food that makes it such an overwhelming success
An array of baked goodies at the Skeena Bakery Dec. 16. (Thom Barker photo)

Everybody loves a great bakery.

But what about a not-for-profit great bakery that provides employment opportunities for people with disabilities?

Wouldn’t that be something really special?

In fact, it is something really special that exists right here in the beautiful Bulkley Valley.

The Skeena Bakery, operated by the Skeena Supported Employment Society, is known far and wide for its amazing sweet and savoury treats.

It is so well-regarded, in fact, it inspires acts that you might not expect.

For example, an American tourist donated $2,000, recounted Harvey Turner, a retired employee of the bakery.

That money paid for the beautiful hand-painted sign by local artist Leah Pipe that signals the location of the bakery tucked behind the laundromat on Hwy 16 in New Hazelton.

It all started nearly two decades ago when Charlotte Linford saw a need in the community.

“For many years I had concerns about the lack of opportunities that were available to my students with special needs when they left high school,” she said. “At that time there were not many jobs even for people who didn’t have extra challenges.”

She had often spoken with her good friend Stanley Walker about the issue and in 2005, after completing some other big projects on the go, she turned her attention to the problem. She put an ad in the Bulkley Browser for collaborators. That fall she, along with Walker, Phil Muir, Martin Penner and another young man who answered the call started meeting weekly to discuss priorities and options.

Ultimately they settled on a bakery. There was definitely a need in the community, as well as other benefits of that type of business.

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“We decided that there are so many different types of work involved in running a bakery that it would suit everyone’s needs,” she said.

The problem was, none of them knew how to start or run a bakery, or any type of small business, for that matter. Nevertheless, they forged ahead doing the research and finding the location.

“The McAfees had just purchased the old courthouse and were retrofitting the front as a laundromat, but were willing to rent part of the building to our project,” Linford continued. “They were so excited about having a bakery as a tenant that they gave us several free months rent.”

With the help of a federal employment grant, the project began to take shape creating a buzz that drew more people into getting involved and the formation of the society that still operates it.

The problem remained, though, that they still did not have the fundamentals of operating a bakery.

Serendipity was about to solve that one, though.

“That is when Jonathan Knight moved to Smithers,” Linford recalled. “Jonathan is a red seal baker who was looking for a career transition. While he waited for his new plans to firm up, he joined our bakery project, helping with grant writing and sourcing equipment, showing us how the finances should work, how to order what we needed, training a baker and sharing his own recipes.”

Knight even floated the bakery a loan out of his own pocket to get it on the right footing and some of his recipes remain on the menu to this day.

The menu boards are also hand-painted by Pipe, a perfect complement to the rustic interior and incomparable smell of fresh baking.

The business currently pays three bakers, one manager, one assistant manager, one full-time customer service worker, three part-time casual customer service workers and one cleaner. Of the 10 employed workers, five have disabilities, three are independent workers and two need some support.

It also supplies work experience to others.

“If we have people come from the high school or from the community, then our managers and front counter workers take on the role of supporting that person,” said manager Braunwyn Roisum Henwood

Hazelton Community Services (HCS) is also involved. Candice Rutten is an HCS support worker, who comes in to work in the bakery to support her clients when they are on shift.

“I love it because it gives everybody an opportunity,” she said. “It doesn’t matter where they’re from, it gives a lot of people something they can put on their resume and it’s nice because they get to see everybody in the community and everybody knows them and it just brightens their day.”

While the mission of Skeena Bakery is noble, it is the food that makes it such an overwhelming success.

Anybody who has shown up there later in the day knows they are taking their chances of not finding their favourite goodies if they don’t get there early.

And that noble mission also means the bakery is still eligible for grants, one of which made it possible for the business to buy four new ovens recently.

“It’s definitely a capacity issue,” said Roisum Henwood. “We rent the space that we are in, and there is only so much room. With limited workspace and storage space we can only do so much.”

Although they have looked at the idea of expanding many times,

“We have a fantastic location, and great Landlords, so to find something that has the highway exposure and walkability is impossible,” she said.

Nevertheless, one person at a time, the bakery is “baking down barriers,” as their slogan says, and making a difference.

“I think that the bakery has changed all of our lives for the better,” said Linwood.

Skeena Bakery assistant manager Heather Dodding works with a customer service representative at the Skeena Bakery Dec. 16. (Thom Barker photo)
Hazelton Community Services support worker Candice Rutten works with a client at the Skeena Bakery Dec. 16. (Thom Barker photo)
The menu boards at the Skeena Bakery are painted by local artist Leah Pipe. (Thom Barker photo)
Skeena Bakery. (Thom Barker photo)
The sign outside the bakery, hand-painted by local artist Leah Pipe was made possible by a donation from an American tourist. (Thom Barker photo)

Thom Barker

About the Author: Thom Barker

After graduating with a geology degree from Carleton University and taking a detour through the high tech business, Thom started his journalism career as a fact-checker for a magazine in Ottawa in 2002.
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