Being in that time-warped, hour bending period between Christmas and New Year where we no longer know what day it is, we thought it would be a good exercise to reflect on what 2021 brought Bush Order.
With Kyle on the keys and Marie as editor, we will take you briefly through some of the key moments of 2021. Below we attempt to depict the highs, the lows, the hardships, the progress and perseverance. Buckle in.
The Renovation Realization
To think back to this exact time last year, 2020, seems like it could be a decade ago.
A naive Kyle and Marie, with keys in hand to our new property, didn’t know the first thing about retrofitting a building with a commercial kitchen. The kitchen would soon become our new bakery.
A few months prior, in November 2020, we were directed to hire the services of an architect, electrical engineer and structural engineer. It was this group that would create the plans for the retrofit. This crew would also be the one to work with the fire marshall and the City of Yellowknife permitting department. The cost of this crew was not planned (the first of many). It did however take a lot of administrative responsibilities off our plate.
By January 2021, after two months into the planning phase, two months longer than we anticipated, we acquired stamped plans that allowed us to pursue contractor quotes for the build of the bakery.
Our initial hope – as far-flung as it probably seemed – was to have the kitchen operational by April. Only 3 months away. We didn’t achieve this goal.
With quotes in hand, the reality of the financial undertaking was quickly hitting us hard. The quotes we received would eat up everything we had in the bank between our small fundraiser and the loans we received to purchase the property and complete the renovations. Some $120,000 and beyond. However, the real kicker was the quotes didn’t include all the equipment that would be needed to run a kitchen to code – air make-up unit, roof fan and hood vent.
Let’s be very honest here. We should have quoted a kitchen retrofit before applying for the loans. We should have had concrete numbers. We did not. We did not because we also did not have the property identified. We did not know where the kitchen would be built. We were trying to hit two birds with one stone: access loans to buy the property and retrofit a kitchen. We were focused on the first part.
Our chosen contractor, who was also our general contractor managing the mechanical and electrical contracts, broke ground in the second or third week of January.
The Selling of Our House
As the renovations of the kitchen rolled into the beginning of March – with no clear end in sight – we started to grasp firmer on our reality that our funds would run out before the renovations were completed.
At the same time, the idea of selling our house started to become more of a necessity. We were very fortunate to not only have the house to sell but also to be able to sell it in a strong seller’s market.
Our dilemma then became where were we going to live. The apartment in our new building was currently occupied by a tenant with a solid lease in place for an additional 3-years. We couldn’t simply kick them out. Their rent, along with the second garage bay, was covering most of our loan payments. We needed them while we were still in renovation mode.
Nevertheless, not knowing where we’d live, we listed the house in mid-March. It was on the market for 3-days before we had 4 or 5 offers to review. After choosing one and engaging with the buyers, a signed letter of offer was in place and we were set for a transaction date of June 15th.
We figured if nothing else, we could camp in our little camper for the summer while we figured out where to live for the winter.
If everything went to plan we would be able to access just under $100,000 in equity from our house. Life advice: if you can, buy a house young. It will seem like an extremely big undertaking but could be greatly beneficial in the long run.
The Market Garden
As spring rolled in and with kitchen renovations out of our control, we started focusing our energy on things we did have control over. The gardens. The southeast side of our property came with approximately 5000 sq. ft. of growing soil brought in by a previous user.
With much help from family and a few borrowed tools, we nearly broke our backs throughout the month of May, moving soil to form a layout consisting of 4 plots, with 50-foot beds, 30’’ wide, and 12” furrows. Our method of growing follows systematic practices where all spaces are the same width and length, which helps streamline tools and materials needed. It also allows for easier crop rotation throughout the years, which aids in building soil nutrients and weed suppression within a no-till style of growing.
Still occupying our house, all our seedlings were started in our kitchen by Marie. Throughout the first part of 2021, we built our own custom-fitted heating pads and LED lighting system that was easily fitted into racks on casters. The heating pads were set to specific temperatures and the lights on schedules. All this was optimized to increase our seedling space, but to also maximize strong, resilient seedlings.
There are many more things to be said about our first year with the market garden, but one key point was the resilience of Marie. We couldn’t afford hired help. With never-ending (yet always changing) pandemic restrictions, we also couldn’t rely on volunteer help from WWOOFers (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms). Therefore, the majority of seeding, planting, tending, pruning, irrigating, fertilizing, and harvesting was all done by her. And some days it downright sucked. We learned that the wind is outright nasty on our property, which sits higher than those around it, from both the south and north. It beats against the crops to the point you think they are going to break. And the weeds were endless. The soil, still lacking proper physical properties (also known as tilth) due to its low organic matter and a high percentage of gravel was a struggle to work within some areas.
When so much is riding on the sale of a product it beats you down both physically and mentally.
When you are watching so much money leave the bank account with little going back in you really start to question, is it all worth it? Why are we doing this here? Did we thoroughly think this through?
The Bakery Build
Before you build a commercial kitchen here is a little tip: if you think you are being clever by purchasing all gas (propane) ovens and stoves because propane is cheaper than electricity, make note that you will also need a hood vent, industrial-sized fan to suck fumes out of the space, and a giant air-make-up unit to pump fresh air back into the space.
Also, make sure that your team of engineers gets those details confirmed as soon as possible! Without those details, which included how much fresh air is required for the size of the space and the size of the fan, the mechanical contractor can’t order the proper equipment. On top of which will get delayed because the global pandemic is holding up manufacturing supply chains.
Phew. That was a fun slap in the face.
But wait, there’s more. After waiting nearly 10-weeks for the hood vent and air-make-up unit to arrive, it was mid-May at this point, Yellowknife was struck with a COVID-19 outbreak. This took out most of our mechanical and carpentry crew, as many had children who were exposed to COVID-19 at school.
Everything hit pause for another 2-3 weeks.
Keep in mind, if we don’t bake we don’t generate revenue. Our humble 5000 square foot garden only carries us so far.
Progress crawled on at this point with small electrical work still carrying on.
By the beginning of June, we had moved all of our ovens out of the old house, so that was no longer an option. At the same time, the Yellowknife Farmers Market started, which was historically a big revenue generator for us. We couldn’t bring any bread.
When renovations started to pick up again, the hood vent was mounted, the roof fan was put in place, and the air-make-up unit manoeuvred into the mechanical room we thought the end was in sight. Until the gas inspector came for a pre-check review.
Hold the brakes!
Another tip for you eager commercial kitchen builders: if you take an old pizza oven out of an old building in the NWT and try to put it into a much newer building, new codes will then apply to the old oven as well.
Our pizza oven, the one that bakes the majority of our bread, did not meet modern NWT codes. Well shit!
We had two options: source a propane stint that would shut off the flow of propane if the hood vent and fan were off (expensive) or purchase a new oven (even more expensive).
We opted for the less expensive option, but still expensive, of sourcing an oversized propane line stint, which in and of itself was hard to source due again to the pandemic supply chain issues. So more waiting took place before it could even be installed.
The stint means that every time we want to use an oven or stove element we need to turn the whole system on and re-lite all pilot lights. An annoyance when your bake day is already pretty early.
Sometime in late July we finally received our occupancy permit allowing us to officially operate out of the new kitchen. A huge achievement that we felt we were ready for.
The goal had been to have the bakery up and running in the spring before the gardens took off in the hopes that we’d be able to both be in the bakery and figure out the production schedule. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case and Marie was already knee-deep in the weeds.
For the first few months, Marie split her time between the gardens and the bakery while Kyle split his time between the bakery and his web development business. Marie harvested for the Farmers Market and our Farm Stand, Kyle baked the bread.
While all the stress and anxiety of building the kitchen and market garden was taking place, we were also quietly planning our wedding.
We both wanted something small. In the sense that the bond of marriage was of greater importance to us than the act of getting married.
However, with family in town, we had to do something, so a small wedding on our property, facing the gardens took place. The added stress of making decisions, financial burden, and meeting expectations came along with the lead-up to the big day while we juggled everything else.
The day came and it was magical. Our families were instrumental in creating an unforgettable day for us despite us being steadfast on a no-nonsense wedding. The ceremony was quick, under a birch tree arch built by Kyle’s mom and dad, overlooking the gardens surrounded by sunflowers. The reception was low-key with close friends & family, and good food was prepared by Marie’s mom (and her crew of sous chefs). The weather was cooperative for late August, the decor was quaint and inviting, a perfect reprieve from the hustle we were living through.
We want to take this time to thank everyone who attended and helped plan our wedding, who may be reading this, a huge thank you for making our day so special.
The Evolution of the Farm Store
Ok, back to business.
When we wrote our business plan we had intended that the kitchen – bakery – would primarily produce bread at a wholesale rate. We would focus on a few core breads and send most of them to other retailers. In the plan, it also outlined that we would sell all our produce through a CSA Veggie Box program, delivered directly to patrons, and we might host the occasional pizza night pop-up.
However, over the course of the summer, we started to set up a Saturday morning farm stand in our parking lot. Much like our Farmers Market booth, but with the addition of produce that was harvested only 30 feet away. Being our first year with the gardens we didn’t want to over-promise produce, so selling only what was harvested each week became a safer option.
As the summer rolled on, our tenant who occupied the apartment – which we moved into – and the second garage bay, moved out, leaving us with this large empty space.
As the weather changed we occasionally moved the weekly farm stand into the empty garage bay, still set up like a farm stand with folding tables and crates for display, but out of the elements. We opened the large garage bay door and invited people in to shop.
As the demand for the Saturday farm stand grew, we somewhat naturally formed the idea of making it a permanent fixture. Realizing at the same time we also needed more space for storing ingredients, especially 4 pallets of flour.
Thanks to a COVID-19 relief fund, we were also able to make minor improvements to the space outside and inside. All this solidified that the farm stand was now becoming a farm store.
The hard part for us in this transition is that this retail space is off course from our original business plan, and an element we hadn’t truly accounted for in terms of logistics and staffing.
At the same time, to ensure continued interest in the store, we spontaneously started to bring in other local food products. This included sausages, ice cream, syrups, spices, preserves and jams. Again, not in our original business plan.
We quickly saw the interest in a one-stop-shop for as many local food products as possible and when we can, we actively seek out new suppliers, but our time is still limited.
Continuing the farm store on Saturdays, as well as for a few hours on Thursdays and Fridays is something we want to do, but we will need to structurally change how we operate to relieve some pressure on ourselves. More on that below.
As fall rolled into winter and we were seeking more ideas for the farm store, and more ideas to help generate revenue, we delved into the world of microgreens.
A seed-starting nursery for the market garden was always in our minds for the small room at the back of the farm store. We had also had lengthy discussions with other Yellowknifers around an untapped market for such a product. With all the seed starting equipment at our fingertips, we jumped at the opportunity when it arose, and received permission from Environmental Health to begin the production of microgreens.
Our microgreen operation is still in its infancy as we tweak the production and learn to work with the different elements that affect the crops – heat, humidity, water, and light.
We hope to increase our production as the months move on with all microgreen sales through our farm store.
The First Employee
In August we jumped the gun and started looking for a baker to join our team. At this time we had hardly spent any time in the bakery ourselves. We were in the midst of wrapping up the farmers market season and working towards getting our baked goods at the Yellowknife Co-op. Marie was also still primarily in the gardens. We didn’t have a solid grasp on what our production schedule would look like for the winter months, or how many people we actually needed and where we needed them.
In mid-October, our first employee started. This was a big learning curve for us. At this point, Marie had wrapped up the gardens for the year and Kyle still had most of the baking process in his head – not a very safe place.
We’ll be very transparent here, working with each other (Marie and Kyle) day-in-day-out, working where we live, living where we work, while also maintaining a bountiful marriage is one of our biggest challenges. Remember, we’re newlyweds. Feeling this pressure so soon after our wedding was an awful feeling.
Adding an employee, a third baker to the mix added a whole other layer.
We take things week-by-week, being cognisant to not let business operations and staffing overwhelm us. But we have lived many moments of struggle, and have at times questioned what our purpose is.
The Struggle, Hustle and Evolution
The last three months of 2021 came with a lot of success and a lot of challenges.
When we hired our baker back in the fall, Marie was still very consumed by the gardens. Now in the midst of winter, we are working to ensure she has a role in the bakery portion of the operation. A growing season is essentially only 4 months here, and our winters are long. A business isn’t always started so that the owner simply does the admin while they hire others to make the actual product.
At the same time, with very few production processes in place given that the whole operation is new and a lot of the bakery knowledge is in Kyle’s head, there were many challenges and miss-communications as we relearned our environment (it’s very dry in the bakery), learned where our bottlenecks are (our oven capacity limits us), learned where products sell best (co-op during the week, farm store on Saturday), learned how to work with different methodologies of baking, and learned how to work and communicate with each other.
We were finding that we often were killing ourselves 3-days a week, working 12-14 hour shifts each, each day, with our employee only able to work a certain amount of hours per week. This is also on top of prep days, Marie doing all the admin, and Kyle working another business altogether. It just wasn’t and isn’t sustainable.
We got it in our heads that we needed to pump out as much as we could in two days of baking, and as many varieties of baked goods as possible all to continue to draw our patrons into the store. We lost sight of our own vision and we lost our passion for the products we ourselves wanted to make.
Moving into 2022
Between Christmas and New Year we chose not to bake or open the farm store. Instead, we tried to do nothing. To breathe. A full 7-day break has forced us to press the reset button. We’re finding ourselves laughing so much more and genuinely enjoying each other’s company.
We have started to look at everything we have done in the past three months and figure out where we can make improvements and adjustments for our own health and well-being, and the business too.
We want to spread out our baking schedule, pair down our baked offerings, stabilize the farm store, and ensure we are the happy heartbeat of our business. Ensuring that we ourselves are mentally and physically stable and healthy.
We want to adjust our products and ensure we are getting the help we need it, where we truly need it, not just where we thought we needed it.
And, to be completely honest, we want to take a honeymoon. We want to take a vacation. Like so many others we have been bound to Yellowknife since 2019 – pre-pandemic – and have not truly travelled and shut down in years. We want to travel to Italy. Explore the regions that inspire so many of our products from our focaccia to our al taglio pizza. We want to see where San Marazano tomatoes – what we use in our pizza sauce – are grown to be inspired to find a northern variety to grow. When? We don’t know, but we’ll keep dreaming!
We want to reach a point where we feel like growing our family is a realistic possibility for us. Our current work-life balance would not currently allow for that.
What we want the most is to be able to provide Yellowknife with good nutrient-dense products, whether grown in a no-till regenerative approach, or baked through natural fermentation with whole grains, as well as be a food hub and incubator for other local food producers, all while making sure we take care of ourselves, and each other.
To close out 2021, we want to thank everyone who came through our doors, bought from the farm stand, grabbed a loaf at Co-op, is a Bush Order Supporter, or simply supports us from afar by encouraging us through friendly emails and engaging with us on social media.
We believe in a slow organic growth of Bush Order, just like our bread and produce, nothing should be rushed. It should be done right, with thought and contemplation. We know 2022 will bring more great growth, but also some much-needed operational stability and consistency.
See you in 2022.