The Passion of purebread Bakery in Whistler

April 03, 2014
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Many home bakers are guilty of the same dream: that one day we’ll open a stylish café serving fantastic coffee and our favourite baked goods. Everyone will love us, and the years will pass in a haze of butter- and sugar-scented bliss.

Then, just as we’re imagining ourselves in a jaunty apron, handing an adoring customer a box of treats, reality sets in. We have not attended pastry school, and our “experience” consists of experiments with a bread machine.

But before self-doubt erases the dream, let me share purebread’s story. Then let’s consider whether dreams can in fact come true.

First things first: when people talk about purebread, they go slightly unhinged. Pupils dilate; voices get higher. From reading Yelp, one would think reviewers were describing not a bakery, but the person they're about to marry ("I fell in love with purebread last summer...") or the solution to unanswerable theological questions ("Heaven is hard to describe. Take a bite out of purebread's pastries and it becomes easier."

Apart from two locations in Whistler, the bakery regularly shows up on the farmers’ market circuit. Their stalls are easy to spot: a zig-zag of customers lining up on the asphalt, clamouring to buy more than a dozen varieties of bread such as asiago-rosemary and hazelnut-fig, and loading up on sweet and savoury treats. A case in point, their drunken apple blondie features a moist butterscotch slab studded with fragrant chunks of apple, and a slathering of brandy-infused buttercream. For those who prefer salt to sweet, their homity pie tastes like a decadent baked potato stuffed into a square of puff pastry.

Mark and Paula Lamming are the folks behind purebread. Married couple, two kids. Hair beginning to silver. Wry smiles. Paula, a former stockbroker, met Mark in London, England, where he ran a corporate cleaning business. They spent the next five years criss- crossing the globe. Twenty years ago, when they moved to Whistler to escape the rat race of Toronto, they had no idea they’d be bakers.

Paula’s mom, Dee, gave them a breadmaker one Christmas. “We always have a good laugh that a breadmaker started it all,” says Dee, chuckling. The Lammings experimented with the machine because they couldn’t find local bread they truly loved. Once they got the hang of bread making, they ditched the machine, eventually making bread so good that it was the only thing they were allowed to bring to parties.

In 2007, Mark’s co-worker Norm Strim and his wife, Natasha, decided to start a fledgling business, Nonna Pia’s Balsamic Reductions, and when the Strims snagged a stall at Whistler’s popular holiday market Bizarre Bazaar, they asked the Lammings to make bread for sampling. To no one’s surprise but the Lammings, not only did customers buy the balsamic reductions, they wanted to buy the bread, too!

That moment marked a turning point. The next year, the Lammings had a stall of their own at Bizarre Bazaar. From there they started selling at farmers’ markets and had a lineup of customers their first week. During the winter months, customers still wanted their pure- bread fix, so the Lammings took weekly orders, and people came to their home to buy loaves. When recalling the early days, Paula laughs. “Our neighbours probably thought we were a crack house!”

As demand grew, they opened the Function Junction shop in 2010 on a shoestring budget, and a Whistler Village location followed in 2013.

To the casual observer, their story seems like a dream come true: crowd-pleasing products right off the bat followed by one lucky break after another. To make it happen, there were countless predawn baking marathons, long drives to farmers’ markets, and late nights focused on business planning. But ask them about their success, and the Lammings point instead to their non-traditional backgrounds, which they believe gave them a creative edge.

Neither Mark nor Paula attended culinary school, but both adore good food. Growing up in small-town Ontario, Paula has fond memories of her British mother’s cooking. Dee baked everything from scratch: pies, after-school cookies, and her famous éclairs. While other families stuck to meat-and-potato dinners, Paula’s family spent weekends poring over cookbooks and experimenting in the kitchen. Now, Mark and Paula’s idea of a good time is driving down to Portland, OR, for a taste of their favourite fried chicken, or trying out a recipe they’ve discovered on their many travels. “We have a low boredom threshold,” says Mark.

That adventuresome spirit pervades purebread. There’s lemon-scented goat cheese in one of the brownies, and a local microbrew in one of the breads. “We haven’t traditionally trained in sweet making or bread,” says Paula, “so we didn’t have any boundaries. We’re not afraid to try something new, even if it’s not necessarily a winner. There were an awful lot of failures.”

When developing a new product, they use the farmers’ markets as a form of market research, often putting out new items as samples to get customer feedback, and watching to see what sells and what doesn’t. Their buckwheat sour cherry bread wasn’t a first-time success. According to Mark, “The first few versions were heavy and dry because we’d put too much buckwheat in, so we had to constantly tweak it around to get it right.” Now it’s a bestseller.

Of course, no small business is immune to challenge. Last November, fire hit the bakery. The Lammings had just returned from a trip to Tanzania when they found out that balcony construction work on the hotel units above their Whistler Village shop had caused a fire. Fire service had immediately quelled the blaze, but the next day an undetected hotspot reignited. In a matter of moments a flare-up blazed across the roof of the building, sending mushroom clouds of smoke billowing upward. The sprinklers came on full force, and the flood of water destroyed much of the bakery below.

Within 48 hours, the Lammings found a short-term lease a few doors down, and their team began transforming a former Mexican restaurant’s multi-coloured tile and terracotta interior into a cozy, exposed-brick bakery that exuded purebread’s characteristic warmth. Just two weeks later, they reopened.

Support came in all forms: A local coffee shop offered purebread’s hardworking staff gift certificates. The radio station aired a free ad. A local financial institution offered to waive the fees for payday loans. And Lululemon bought several boxes of purebread’s goodies, handing them out in front of their Whistler Village store to advertise that purebread had reopened as a pop-up shop.

After the fire, Mark’s typical day started at 7 am and ended at 11 at night. “It’s still a hell of a lot of work,” he says. “But you don’t go into business not expecting it’s going to be 24/7.” When the Lammings first began selling at farmers’ markets, sixteen-hour days on the weekends were the norm: baking in the early mornings, a couple of hours driving to the market, setting up, selling, then the drive home, only to do it all again just a few hours later.

But walk into a purebread bakery and it’s easy to see why it’s worth it. There’s a palpable sense of joy in the air.

On a Saturday morning, just six weeks after the fire, both purebread stores are buzzing. At the Function Junction location, it seems like Mark and Paula know almost everyone who walks through the door, kids and dogs included. While Paula pours coffee, Mark, wearing a jaunty apron, hands an adoring customer a slim cardboard box containing her go-to dinner-party dessert: purebread’s flourless chocolate cake. She’s a regular, and her husband sometimes goes cycling with Mark. They’re all friends here. The sun shines outside, and inside, there’s that cozy, familiar scent of butter-and-sugar bliss.

purebread. 604-938-3013.

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