By Sophie Yalkezian
Photos by Sophie Yalkezian
When passersby stop in to Bunner’s Bake Shop, any sense of self-restraint is left at the door. Eyes immediately widen and mouths drop ever so slightly at the sight of the sugary confections on display, sometimes accompanying an awestruck “ooh” or a lick of the lips. This is all before even hearing the ‘icing on the cake’.
“Everything we make is vegan and gluten-free, made right here on-site,” says the warm, smiling face behind the counter. That smile belongs to Toronto local Ashley Wittig, the same woman who baked up the treats on display. After quitting her company job and taking a year to build the business, she now spends her days running Toronto’s only gluten-free vegan bakery.
Wittig didn’t grow up vegan, but she did always love to bake. The idea of turning her sweets into a career was merely a pipe dream, and instead, she climbed the corporate ladder of Lush cosmetics. As a store manager in 2008, she decided to help get her staff involved in celebrating World Vegan Day, by going vegan for one month. “I’d always been really intrigued by veganism,” says Wittig.
After one month, zero meat cravings and one viewing of a PETA video, she decided to make the dietary change a permanent one. “I wasn’t hard on myself,” she says. “I said if I wanted it I would eat it, but I’ve never been really compelled after that.”
That same year, she met fellow Lush employee Kevin MacAllister, now her boyfriend and business partner. “It was a love at first sight kind of thing,” she says. Together they decided to follow their dreams of being self-employed by starting Bunner’s. It started with an entire year of planning and development, including a 40-page business plan that took more work than Wittig had anticipated. “It was a really good experience, because there were a lot of things that we had different expectations of, but it was good because we got to work through that.”
Their shop is located in the Junction, and during their search for the perfect property, she says both that neighbourhood and their home of Roncesvalles were top choices, thanks to the success of other local niche businesses like Rawlicious (a raw food eatery).
While working on the business plan, Wittig spent hours in the kitchen perfecting blends of bean flours, starches and rice flour to create the perfect cakes, cookies and cupcakes. Instead of consulting only the Internet, Wittig looked to the past for help, using cookbooks from the fifties and sixties. “It’s easier for me to change a recipe that is completely traditional than to use somebody else’s vegan or gluten free recipe, because I just get better results when I do that,” she says.
She must have the right idea, as her freshly baked goodies are usually almost sold out by the end of the day. So far the top-selling items are red velvet cupcakes and Bunner’s special creation, called the supersonic gypsy cookie, a deliciously thick blend of just about every cookie-friendly ingredient – oats, chocolate chips, cranberries and seeds.
The bakery also carries savory items, including a fluffy bread loaf made with chickpea flour. It’s incomparable to other store-bought varieties. Soon, even pizza dough will be joining their shelves, thanks to customer requests. “It’s interesting because I wanted it to be specifically sweet stuff like cupcakes and cookies,” she says, “but people want bread and savory things, so because of that we branched out.”
Another pleasant surprise for customers are the prices, which range between three and five dollars for most cookies and cupcakes. This is low considering the cost of their specialized ingredients. “We just wanted it to be fair, for everybody,” she says.
After all of the hard work required to start a business, Wittig says the rewards are as sweet as the product. “I have a deep satisfaction with what I’m doing because when someone comes in and they say ‘I love this’, or ‘I havent had a donut in a million years’, that’s satisfying to me because I really love making terrific tasting food,” she says.
Wittig says that she was lucky to have MacAllister by her side, but that “there are plenty of people in business by themselves, and I think you just really need to educate yourself.” For other female entrepreneurs, she advises to “just keep your nose to the grindstone,” and despite what others may think and what you yourself may think at times, it’s good to stay positive and remember that you can do it. “It’s the whole believe in yourself message,” she says with a laugh.
Judging by the shop’s empty shelves at the end of the day, her baked goods have us believing that veganism and gluten-free eating are accessible to everyone.
To try out some Bunner’s treats for yourself, head to the Junction neighbourhood, around Dundas West and Keele. The area has some great antique shops and other vegetarian restaurants.
Bunner’s Bake Shop
3054 Dundas St. West
Monday – Saturday: 10am to 7pm
Sunday: 12pm to 5pm