Skip to main content

Bruce Stewart earned his spurs in the food industry in the sales department of monolithic Kraft Foods - some might say the original purveyor of fast food.

Today, he is a champion of the slow food movement, running an organic bakery in a seaside village where he can cite the provenance of each type of grain running through his mill.

His own journey has helped transform Cowichan Bay, B.C., into a foodie destination, with the True Grain Bakery at the hub. With his help, the village was accredited last year as North America's first Cittaslow town - joining a cultural movement that started in Italy to push back against the fast-lane life.

Mr. Stewart and his wife Leslie Stewart, who have three degrees between them, have done the fast lane, living in Toronto and then Calgary, with well-paid professional jobs.

But Mr. Stewart, with a nagging desire to be his own boss, started looking to construct a new business model. He poked around on the Internet looking at enterprises for sale and mused aloud about a small-town life where they could begin a family.

"One week it was a mussel farm in Nova Scotia, the next it was a restaurant in Kimberly, B.C.," recalls Ms. Stewart. "It was just random."

When he learned that the True Grain bakery was for sale, it seemed like just another idle scheme. He visited the bakery, a 45-minute drive north of Victoria, just to feel out the concept of becoming an entrepreneur. He came back convinced the bakery was their future.

In the Cowichan Valley, he found a community that was passionate about farming, producing everything from Saskatoon berries to fresh balls of mozzarella from Fairburn Farm's herd of water buffalo. The bakery itself overhangs the bay, a former fish-packing plant converted to its current purpose in 2004.

His wife reluctantly agreed to have a look. They arrived in Cowichan Bay on Dec. 31, 2007. "We sat by the front window, there," she says, pointing across the room to a table in the busy, sun-filled seating area. "I turned to Bruce and said, 'Let's do it.' " "I nearly spit out my coffee," Mr. Stewart adds.

It took two nail-biting months to make it happen.

"Do you ever play Texas Hold'em?" he asks. "This was all in. We put every penny we had into. We're not bakers and we don't know anybody here and we just quit our jobs not knowing if it would all go through."

Now, two years into the local food business, Ms. Stewart is bouncing their six-month-old daughter, Monica, on her lap, greeting customers by name and discovering more joy in producing a sheet of cookies than her careers in the nuclear and the oil and gas industry ever generated.

Mostly though, they leave the baking to the experts - four full-time and five part-time staff. Mr. Stewart manages the operation from his tiny office in the back overlooking Cowichan Bay and Mount Tzouhalem where he can gaze at seals and herons.

The scent of pain au chocolat in the ovens permeates the back shop. If Mr. Stewart misses his old office at Kraft, he doesn't show it.

But the couple has injected their corporate skills into the business and into the broader community, notes Hilary Abbott. Mr. Abbott's Artisan Cheeses started out as a farmgate operation, but now employs a dozen people in a deli that has grown as an adjunct of the bakery.

"It's exciting to see such a dynamic pair - they are on a nice growth pattern," he says of the Stewarts. "Bruce can get people out to get things done."

Mr. Abbott, an Ottawa refugee, was first asked to stock a fridge in the bakery. Lisa's Jams, another synergistic offshoot of True Grain, also sells its product in the bakery.

When the property next door came up for sale, they ended up knocking down a wall to expand the bakery and to anchor the cheese shop with its own deli.

Sitting between the two enterprises, True Grain's mill is grinding up the Red Fife heritage wheat purchased directly from a Saskatchewan farmer. "What we do at True Grain is make bread the way it is supposed to be," says Mr. Stewart, who had never touched a flour mill until two years ago.

But mostly the bakery aims to forage closer to home. Berries and honey and hazelnuts from local farms are incorporated into the treats, the excess bran is shipped to the chicken farm where they buy their eggs.

While the surf community of Tofino on the other side of Vancouver Island has launched a vigorous debate over plans to ban fast-food outlets, the Stewarts have helped brand their new hometown as slow-food territory - without the fuss.