Care Bakery's Kerry Bennett turns wheat allergy into business opportunity
'I thought all my food had been taken away, but looking back, it was totally a blessing'
All she wanted was a sandwich, and from that, she built a new business.
A good sandwich was the driving force behind Kerry Bennett's successful Care Bakery, which over the past five years has grown to supply hundreds of Calgary restaurants and grocery stores with gluten-free breads, buns and pizza crusts that are so good, she had to bake her logo into the bottom crust to reassure diners who weren't convinced they were really gluten-free.
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"I love sandwiches. I love burgers. I love pizza. So I researched to my own taste," Bennett said.
The bakery specializes in yeast breads, the trickiest to master without the help of gluten.
Bennett was working in restaurants in Fort McMurray about a decade ago when she realized she'd rather be in the kitchen than in the front of house.
She moved to Calgary and signed up for the Culinary Arts program at SAIT. Six weeks before her classes began, she found out she was allergic to wheat.
"I was like, what do I do?" Bennett said.
The allergy ran in the family, but she wasn't used to navigating a gluten-free lifestyle on her own.
"I can't be a chef. I can't even eat in restaurants at all anymore," Bennett said.
The challenge of gluten-free
Kerry decided to still attend SAIT and informed her teachers of her new food restrictions, asking if she could take on extra work and tackle her course load from a gluten-free perspective.
"They were really open to it," she said. "It was a challenge for the chefs there as well. It was a fun little twist on food."
Kerry worked extra hours, researching ingredients and techniques along the way.
"When I was doing the dinner program, I'd show up four or five hours early and do a bunch of research, then go to class," she said.
Before graduation, Kerry and a friend approached the school dean and asked to borrow a kitchen for recipe testing during the summer months.
"He was like, there's grant money for this sort of thing," she recalled. "So we applied for this research grant, which they usually give to students still enrolled in school, but they made an exception for us."
"It was the first culinary research grant to be given out at SAIT. Typically they go to technology divisions, but no one had ever done a food research project before."
They spent three months testing gluten-free loaves, cakes and other baked goods. "It was the yeasted products that was the challenge," she said of their research.
"To get the right colour, texture and chew. Many alternative flours are expensive — up to quintuple the cost of wheat flour — so a lot of time was spent bringing the cost down and streamlining the process to make gluten-free baking more accessible."
'I got sick at the right time'
By the end of summer, people loved her bread so much they suggested she open a bakery. It was a timely idea.
"I was just trying to fix my own problem," she said, "and it turned out that within a couple of years, a lot of other people had the same problem. I got sick at the right time."
Kerry had never spent a day working in a bakery before she opened her own with her father George.
"My dad has an MBA, and I come from a long line of entrepreneurs, so it was a natural fit to work together," she said.
"We were driving through California on Route 66 and he said to me, 'The first thing you have to do is hire a lawyer and an accountant.' And I was like, 'Okay, this is real.'"
They spent ten months building their small bakery, getting permits and everything in place, and opened in October 2010.
'I traded my 1st bag of buns for a glass of Malbec'
"My first sale was to Cam Dobranski of Winebar Kensington. I brought him a sample and he was like, 'This is good! Can you bring me some more?' And so I ran back to the bakery and brought him a bag.
"He was like, 'Do you have an invoice?' I had no idea what I was doing. He told me, 'Kerry, this is a terrible business if you don't have any invoices.' So I traded my first bag of buns for a glass of Malbec."
The business grew quickly as people got to know Care Bakery buns, loaves and pizza dough, until one day a chef called and told Kerry his customers were sending her products back to the kitchen because they didn't believe they were gluten free.
"They were like, it tastes good, it holds together, it looks good. No, we ordered the gluten free option," Bennett said.
It was her dad who suggested adding the Care Bakery logo to their baking pan liners, baking it into the bottom of each product. They're literally branded.
"It helps in the kitchen and also the front of house. If a customer questions it, they can flip their bun over and see for themselves that it is in fact gluten free. It's like a little baked-in guarantee."
Bennett and her father recently jumped on an opportunity to expand to Sylvan Lake, putting them closer to the Edmonton market. The extra space will allow them to start expanding into sweets, including individually-wrapped cookies and brownies for coffee shops.
"I remember six years ago driving around in my Pontiac with a cooler in the back with bags of six buns in it ... and now my driver just left with seven pallets of bread on a freezer truck," Bennett said.
'It was totally a blessing'
For Bennett, the best part is hearing from happy customers, some who thank her for changing their lives.
"Bread is historically a very deep-rooted, communal thing. You break bread together. Nothing else has the deep emotional, familial connection bread has.
"So when people are newly diagnosed with celiac disease, they often feel ostracized and misunderstood, and like they can't take part in family meals. It's really hard," Bennett said.
Having faced that challenge herself, Bennett's baking skills have helped others maneuver the dinner table too, and enjoy eating out again.
"I was so in love with food, I was in tears. I thought all my food had been taken away, but looking back, it was totally a blessing," she said. "I just got lucky."