“You should be happy to know that I’ve gained seven pounds since I’ve been coming here,” jokes a loyal customer as he walks into Sleepy Owl Bread, the brightly lit, open-kitchen West-End bakery. His comment is met by laughs from Sleepy Owl Bread co-owners Joanne Toupin and Beau Burton, and with smiles and understanding nods from the other customers waiting in line during a mid-morning rush at the recently opened store-front located at 751 Wall Street in Winnipeg.
The couple, who describe themselves as partners in business and in life, has been baking bread for Manitoba farmers’ markets for the past four years. Toupin and Burton have made a name for themselves with their hand-shaped, fermented loaves that are slow-baked in a steamy, stone oven, as well as sweet and savoury danishes and croissants.
According to Toupin and Burton, quality bread requires three key elements: extended fermentation, steam and stone. All of the breads available at Sleepy Owl undergo a process of extended fermentation before they are baked. “We think that [fermentation] is really important because it helps to breakdown the complex starches in the flour and helps prevent crystallization, which means [the bread] won’t go stale as quickly, and it is also easier to digest,” explains Toupin.
Once properly fermented and ready to bake, there is no stand-in for steam and stone for producing texture and flavour during baking, says Burton. “Baking directly on stone gives a nice even heat so you get better flavour and texture. Steam adds to the colour and the flavour of the crust. We bake our bread pretty dark so ensure that the flavour really permeates the crumb.”
Toupin and Burton’s commitment to steam and stone may have given them the flavour for success, but it was also the biggest production barrier they faced while growing their operation. Sleepy Owl began as an income topper in 2012 while Toupin and Beau were working together at Diversity Food Services at the University of Winnipeg. “Our first year at the farmer’s market we were cooking out of our home for added income. To get steam in our home oven, we were using dutch ovens and we could only bake two loaves at a time. We were baking for twenty hours and then selling out our bread shortly after we arrived [at the market].”
Demand for the bread at farmers’ markets soon outstripped the capacity of their domestic kitchen, so they expanded production for the 2013 season by renting out the Diversity kitchen at night. While they were able to bake more loaves using the convection oven available at Diversity, Toupin explains they still had obstacles to overcome. “We bought a couple big stones to use in the ovens and then put a hotel pan on top of our bread and sprayed water inside using a garden sprayer.” Their dedication to steam and stone meant that even in an industrial kitchen, they were only able to bake eight loaves at a time.
Toupin describes the journey from at-home side-line to storefront bakery over the past four years as, “pretty wild, but awesome and so encouraging” because their passion for bread was met by an eager market demanding their product. Now that they have established themselves in their new location they have the proper equipment to be able to increase their capacity while maintaining their commitment to steam and stone. However, they don’t plan to forget their roots. “People from the neighbourhood are finding out about us and are really supporting us,” says Toupin, “but we really want to keep reaching out to our clients through farmers’ markets as well, in the future.”
The Sleepy Owl Bread menu rotates throughout the week, so be sure to check the schedule on their website, SleepyOwlBread.ca, to make sure your favourites are available. One of the most popular items they make is chocolate babka brioche, available exclusively on Saturdays.