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OKOTOKIAN: Breaking Bread

‘Micro-bakery’ French 50 serving up authenticity and small-town charm
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Tinker with the formula enough and you might just stumble on the perfect recipe.

For French 50 Bakery co-owner Brad Labrenz, a hobby that started with playing around with homemade pizza dough sprouted into his passion for artisan bread-making.

After getting a taste for the real thing across the pond it became a matter of how to replicate the formula at home.

“We brought our kids up French and I learned the language,” Brad said. “So we’ve been to France a few times and every time, wherever we are whether it’s Paris or Marseille, we find the local bakery and go there first thing in the morning.

“They always have this fresh bread and it’s amazing bread and we would go in and I kept saying to (wife and co-owner Marie-Luce Denis) why can’t we get this back home?”

For the next three to four years, Labrenz experimented with the formula at home until he found the desired results.

“I was his biggest critic,” Denis said with a laugh. “All of the times I would say ‘oh it’s too doughy or too hard’ and he would get easily annoyed with us.

“But he persevered.”

French 50 Bakery opened its doors to the public on June 15 after months of anticipation. The Foothills community got an appetite for the baked goods when it was first offered up at the Okotoks Farmers’ Market in 2018.

Their big break came from some word of mouth.

“We started having people just through social media or through friends ordering bread from us,” Labrenz said. “At one point the Hyatt had heard of us from a friend, they ordered from us and they said ‘can you do a big order?”

After delivering a big order to the hotel, the visions of making a business out of the hobby started to sprout for the couple.

“What could that look like? We didn’t know how to dissect that,” Denis said. “We had great, great friends that own businesses that said let’s just dissect it a little bit more to really build on what truly could look like a business.”

The business checklist was massive, needing a small space with an approved kitchen, a quaint space needing limited renovation and with rent that was compatible with the bakery being open just one day per week.

They found their home in one of the most historic buildings in Olde Towne Okotoks within the walls of French restaurant Bistro 1882, owned by Ed and Marcella Povhe, which was formerly the town post office for nearly half a century.

Bistro gives the French 50 folk access during the day when needed.

“Originally we were just looking for a spot where we could have a kiosk and people could come in and buy bread,” Labrenz said. “But when we started talking to Ed and Marcella about this space, we realized it had to be more than come and get your bread and go – we have tables, we’ve got the kitchen, we learned how to do the coffee.”

The concept of the micro-bakery and being open just one day per week is a tried and tested model, particularly in the United States.

At a time when many small businesses are struggling to stay afloat, it’s the kind of innovation needed for lots of prospective entrepreneurs eager to dip their toes in.

“If you want to do business you kind of have to explore everything,” Labrenz said. “We couldn’t do this without having a shared arrangement, so for us I think it’s important that government is wise to that and make it appealing for businesses to do this because otherwise we won’t have those businesses.”

It was also the only option for Labrenz and Denis, both of whom have full-time careers as a corporate security expert with the City of Calgary and account manager for Caesarstone Canada, respectively.

“Yes, we’re passionate about this, but I want to enjoy this still,” Labrenz said. “The whole one day a week idea came around and we thought if we could do this for a farmers’ market with a regular oven at home, with a commercial oven and commercial bakery we could do a lot more.”

The proof is in the production, what used to be a maximum yield of four loaves has now tripled to a dozen.

What’s a bigger change is balancing careers with the micro-bakery.

“It’s been a huge adjustment,” Denis said. “Just keeping up with day to day now is totally different. When we first started it was ‘who’s going to go grocery shopping for this bake?’ And then you forget half the things or you need to run back.

“The nicest part about this is, sharing the space with a restaurant and Ed and Marcella have been amazing to us to say ‘oh, you don’t have any spoons, we’ve got spoons.’

“It’s been a huge collaboration without us even knowing it was going to turn into one.”

Labrenz said the plan is to get through to January using the current set-up and then re-evaluate.

“And re-evaluating would mean that we would potentially be open on Sundays,” Denis said. “For breakfast and bakery. We have more and more customers eating our tartines now, which is toasted bread with cheese or pate.

“It’s exciting times for us just to be like ‘okay, we can have a really small breakfast place and at the same time you get your fresh bread you come and get for the week.”

That community presence has been felt by those at French 50 since opening its doors in the summer.

“When we told people we were just going to open Saturdays people were mind-blown, and not in a great way,” Labrenz said. “They would go are you crazy? That’s not going to work.

“For us, that’s what we could offer. That whole idea of trying to drive people here for your Saturday bread, that could be your consistent stop and so far, so good.”

The culinary creators at French 50 use a natural fermented starter, one that’s been maintained for over four years, and mix it during the week.

Every Thursday night Labrenz makes a big batch of starter and on Fridays he comes in early to start to mix all day.

The bread then cold ferments and proofs in the fridge for 10 to 24 hours.

“That adds a lot of flavour complexity to it,” Labrenz said. “Friday night we come in to bake and we’ve had to hire people.

“I think in our minds, we thought Marie and I could do this, I’ll work the back, she’ll work the front. And then on the first day we were like, that’s not going to work.”

The collaboration is also very much a family business.

Fourteen-year-old Matisse has picked up a quick business acumen and the touch of a barista with three other youths from the community working part-time at French 50.

“We hired Mattise’s friends, that’s a bit about who we are, they’re learning and we’re learning,” Denis said. “People that have seen the boys working, and they’re working hard, they appreciate it. It’s about take the moment to say hello, have eye contact, take a deep breath there’s a big lineup, let’s work together.

“But they’re learning what that’s all about which is really nice.”

The extra staff has allowed Labrenz more time to bake and to create. Some of the other popular items such as the cruffin — a croissant shaped like a muffin and filled with a lot of love — are now fixtures on the menu.

Each week a special-item bread is also offered — featuring zany offerings from walnut and cranberry to cheddar with leeks and onions.

The pain maison, the house white, remains one of the most popular offerings.

“It’s fun to experiment,” Labrenz said. “The tough part is trying to make those experiment batches first before you actually serve them.”
In their first year as a brick and mortar business, it’s very much an experimental stage, but one built on sound practices.

“Typically, 9:30 ‘til 11 there’s a lineup out the door,” Denis said. “And our heads are swirling, we never even thought that would occur.

“I think it’s still in the growing stage at this point and it’s just about us adapting and learning and seeing what the response is. Are people interested? Do they want that?

“I think it will be a year of discovery for us to see what that looks like. Brad is a criminologist and I’m in sales and we don’t know what Okotoks expects, here locally.”

Even Matisse is getting used to the early hours and bucked the trend of sleeping in during those teenage years.

“I love it,” he said. “At first I was super tired, at first we didn’t have it figured out the whole flow, but I think now we have it figured out. It works.”

The recipe for success comes in offering something new.

“If you look at the Olde Towne you’ve got art galleries, some antique shops, some other restaurants, we’ve got really nice cafes downtown – but to offer the product we’re offering, no one else is doing that,” Brad said. “It is unique in that sense and I think there’s room for more. Talking to one of my customers and he had an idea for a used record shop. All those things are very niche.”

Establishing the business in Olde Towne has been the cherry on top of the cake

“Living here I always thought we have such a beautiful downtown,” Denis said. “I used to walk with my dog all the time, there’s so many more opportunities we can have in this little quaint downtown and I think we’re adding to it as well as Hub Town and Supper Studio and Heartland.

“I think we’re just adding and if we continue on that positive vibe of people wanting to invest a little more into downtown, I think it will be a beautiful place to come.”

As French 50 grows, it’s important for Labrenz and Denis to remember its origins and remain rooted in connections with the community.

“As we led up to this, we didn’t enter this business to make money,” Labrenz said. “Our goal here is to give people something they don’t have, which is this bread, because we love it. So far, so good, but we keep reminding ourselves stay small, enjoy producing and enjoy the people that come.

“Our customers that have come so far are amazing, lovely people. We’ve met so many great people already, we didn’t know Okotoks has this little foodie culture and it really does so that’s opened our eyes.”




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Remy Greer

About the Author: Remy Greer

Remy Greer is the assistant editor and sports reporter for Okotokstoday.ca and the Western Wheel newspaper. For story tips contact rgreer@okotoks.greatwest.ca
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