Baking through a pandemic has now been added to the storied history of Huntingdon’s Grant’s Bakery, which this year had to indefinitely set aside plans to celebrate its 75th anniversary, due to COVID-19. As one of the region’s longest-running bakeries, Grant’s Bakery continues to rely on a recipe of traditional baking techniques and solid values that has seen the family-run business develop new products and expand its market, all while remaining true to a promise of homemade quality and freshness.
Founder Henry Grant travelled to Canada from Acton, Middlesex, England at the age of 11, arriving in Halifax on April 21, 1888, as part of a group of young people bound for Sherbrooke, Quebec. He became a baker and settled in Lennoxville with his first wife Eliza Robertson, who passed away in 1917. He married Clara Louise Phipps a year later. In 1929 he moved his sizeable family to Huntingdon after having been hired as an assistant chef at the new Château hotel. His son Charlie went to work there as well as a busboy at the age of 10. Following his time at the Château, Henry Grant worked as a hotel chef in Newfoundland briefly before returning to Huntingdon to work for Tedstone’s Bakery.
After he was let go two weeks before Christmas, Henry bought a portable oven and started his own bakery out of the garage in 1932. Bread then sold for 8 cents a loaf with buns or rolls selling for 10 cents a dozen. Charlie was the bakery’s first salesman, making deliveries to individual homes first by bicycle and then by horse and bakery wagon, with Queenie the horse knowing the route by heart. The bakery changed addresses on Chateauguay Street a number of times. By 1945 Grant’s had gone in and out of business on several occasions as times were tough and ingredients were rationed and sometimes even impossible to get.
Then, when Charlie returned after the war, where he had served with the Air Force bomber command, he and his brother Gordon opened their own bakery located behind the family home at 32 Hunter St. Their brother Howie, who was widely known as a hockey great in the 1930s, competing overseas in Prague and in Italy as well as in Canada and the U.S., also played a part in the development of the family bakery.
In February 1963, the bakery, which by then had grown into a successful business, was moved to its present location on Roosevelt St., which had previously housed a carpet factory.
Charlie’s son Richard started working for the bakery at the age of 18, on the delivery route around the lake in Saint-Anicet. He would become a part-owner in 1975 following the passing of his father.
The bakery is now run by Richard and his wife Beatrice, as well as two of their four daughters, Sarah and Ruth-Anne, who joined the business in 2003. Ruth’s husband Michael Krause has also since joined the bakery, and their two young daughters Makayla (13) and Avery (11) are already in training.
Fruitcake and more fruitcake
Along with its breads, doughnuts, cakes and pastries, Grant’s Bakery has long been associated with fruitcake. It was in 1980, when the bakery was producing a few thousand pounds of fruitcake per year that “we decided to run with it,” says Beatrice. “Business came to us,” she says, referring to service groups such as the Lions Club, which was were looking for a supplier for their annual fundraisers. “It snowballed from there,” she laughs, “from 10-12,000 pounds to 350,000 pounds.”
To put that in context, the bakery now produces between 200,000 and 220,000 units of fruitcake (including plum puddings and cherry cakes) per year, with their production usually starting in June to meet the demand. “A good production for us in a day is 1,700 to 2,200 cakes,” says Ruth, who notes that this year the team at the bakery was baking, packaging and labeling about 375 to 400 cakes per hour. “Every cake is still glazed, put in tins and labelled by hand,” she says proudly. “It gives our products a personalized touch.”
The bakery has also seen the demand for other elements in their Christmas line increase tremendously over the last few years, such as shortbread cookies. “We have organized a production where we can do just under 3,000 packages in a day,” says Richard. And this, he is quick to mention, is not automated. The cookies are all packaged by hand.
Emphasis on tradition
“We are probably one of the last of our kind in Quebec,” Beatrice says, referring to the traditional baking techniques and processes at the heart of the bakery. The bread for the dough and pastries is still rolled, cut and weighed by hand. “The only thing we have that is not manual is the mixer and the oven to bake the fruitcake,” says Sarah. “We do not have machines to replace people,” she adds, noting how her father’s well-worn hands from kneading dough are also high-tech sensors that can now tell what is wrong with the dough in seconds and just by touch. “It’s an art,” she smiles.
Grant’s Bakery still uses a 1946 Baker Perkins oven with 21 shelves, that they purchased in 1963. This year, one of the main bushings broke, and they had to stop using the oven until it could be repaired. Bread was baked in the fruitcake oven, and they had to rejig schedules to get all the other baked goods out without interfering with the fruitcake production. When asked why they haven’t considered replacing it, Beatrice responded simply that there is just something about that oven. “All those years of aromas baked into the bricks – it has an atmosphere,” she says with a laugh, recalling that they had been having issues with their sticky buns all summer and that the problems disappeared as soon as the bushing arrived in October.
Despite the tried and true traditions that make the bakery and its products so special, Grant’s Bakery is constantly investing time, energy and resources into product development. The family chuckles about the amount of fruitcake they have bought and tasted over the years – “a raisin isn’t just a raisin,” quips Ruth, who talks passionately about the importance of texture and mouth feel when it comes to enjoying their products. They produce all of their own fillings and source their ingredients as locally as possible. “We really don’t chintz on the quality,” she says.
Sarah, who studied food science, is responsible for making sure the bakery maintains quality while responding to new changes to food regulations, including traceability, and the technological advancements happening outside of production that need to be incorporated into the business as well. There is also the fact that ingredients are changing, and they don’t all perform in the same way.
The family admits the introduction of a federal ban on trans fats in 2018 by Health Canada threw their whole production into question, especially of fruitcake. “Our supplier offered a replacement (for the shortening) but the results were not there,” says Beatrice. “It came as such a surprise to us,” she recalls, as the consistency was not the same and the cakes would sometimes crumble. In 2019, the family invested a large amount in research and development to find the recipes and procedures they needed to ensure the quality of their products matched their reputation. The results are now a company secret.
With the fruitcake recipe secured, the Grants were preparing for a smooth 2020 season with several activities including an open house planned to celebrate their 75th anniversary. Nowhere in their planning had they allowed for a global pandemic that would wreak havoc with fruitcake orders. Spring was difficult. The start of production was delayed to July after grocery store orders finally came in. But orders for groups and organizations have been erratic and often smaller in size. Meanwhile the local demand for their standard baking products such as bread and buns (including a new line of breads with no additives), as well as doughnuts and pastries, has shot up with the pandemic. The bakery has seen a 25 to 35 per cent increase in sales, and all within a radius of around 60 kilometres, as Quinn Farm in Île-Perrot is the farthest they travel to deliver their products.
After 54 years at the bakery, Richard still has fun every day, even though that day sometimes begins at 3:30 a.m. to start the doughnuts. With four generations of experience, it’s obvious that family plays as much of a role in the success of the bakery as the practices and traditions that have been handed down from very humble beginnings. It also helps that after all this time, the Grants still love a good fruitcake.