Within a week, Winnipeg will be down two popular bakery shops.
Sleepy Owl Bread at 751 Wall St. shut its doors last Saturday. La Belle Baguette’s Ness Avenue location will follow suit next Saturday.
The pandemic played its role in both closures.
"We just kind of decided to reclaim our lives," said Joanne Toupin, who co-owned Sleepy Owl Bread with her husband Beau Burton.
Gone are the days of the couple spending a coffee break together around 5 a.m., after Burton’s bakery shift ended and before Toupin’s began.
"It’s almost like our marriage has been on pause for eight years," Toupin said.
The couple opened Sleepy Owl Bread on Wall Street in October of 2014. It was their first entrepreneurial venture — both are bakers by trade.
"We kind of always told ourselves, ‘We’re learning as we go, and if we don’t like it, we don’t have to keep doing it,’" Toupin said.
Business boomed: Burton might put in 60 to 70 hours a week, while Toupin worked another 50. Customers continued to order croissants and bread loaves throughout the pandemic.
The couple baked, managed books, maintained equipment and marketed their shop. The back-end work wasn’t either’s preference.
“We kind of always told ourselves, ‘We’re learning as we go, and if we don’t like it, we don’t have to keep doing it. ’” – Joanne Toupin
"We always thought, ‘It will get better when we get this next piece in place,’" she said. "(But) once we get that next piece in place, it’s like, ‘OK, there’s another thing to deal with.’"
They’d pause for three weeks — two in summer, one in winter — for vacations like camping trips.
"We were like, ‘I feel like we’re literally just living for those vacations,’" Toupin said.
This winter, the couple visited Toupin’s family in British Columbia. It "felt a lot harder than usual" to get back to work, Toupin said. She missed her family.
The typical pandemic reasons — the labour shortage, reduced income, major debt — didn’t deal death blows to Sleepy Owl Bread, Toupin said.
“We were like, ‘I feel like we’re literally just living for those vacations.’” – Joanne Toupin
Rather, the last two years shifted her perspective.
"Something like a pandemic really makes you question your core beliefs and who you are as a person," Toupin said, adding she and Burton reflected on what they wanted in life.
Ending the business will bring more balance and family time with their 11-year-old son, Toupin said.
"(The pandemic) sped up the process, but I think it was coming either way," she said. "We were already burning out."
She and Burton are looking to sell or lease their space. She doesn’t know what’s next: though Burton would continue in the industry, Toupin is ready to look elsewhere.
But, they’re going on dates again. Picnics and walks weren’t easy to come by while Sleepy Owl Bread was open.
La Belle Baguette’s Ness Avenue closure is not the end of the company — there’s still the St. Boniface location.
"It was just getting a little crazy," said owner Alix Loiselle. "(The closure is) really just to solidify the business and take more control of it post-pandemic."
The company took on more wholesale clients to survive the pandemic. The Canadian Museum for Human Rights, the Centennial Concert Hall and coffee shops like Fools & Horses are among local institutions selling La Belle Baguette’s wares.
La Belle Baguette became busier than ever, between its new partners and its existing customers (Loiselle said the business would do up to 60 home deliveries daily).
“It was just getting a little crazy. (The closure is) really just to solidify the business and take more control of it post–pandemic.” – Alix Loiselle
Now, it’s too much: corporate events are rolling again, weddings are on and people are increasingly stopping by the shops. Production is snowballing, Loiselle said.
This, on top of the rising cost of ingredients and a lack of staff. Loiselle’s mother sometimes runs a storefront; his 13-year-old sister helps. It’s harder to make a profit, Loiselle said.
"(One store is) a lot easier to manage, logistically," he said.
He’ll transfer staff from the Ness Avenue location to St. Boniface. Some have chosen not to transition — they live in St. James and don’t drive — so Loiselle is looking for bilingual front-of-house workers.
"It’s really sad to… see people go, but the reality of the situation is that I just have to cut the business down a little bit and get things under control." – Alix Loiselle
"It’s really sad to… see people go, but the reality of the situation is that I just have to cut the business down a little bit and get things under control," Loiselle said.
In 2020, he was steps away from signing a lease for a third location. He’d envisioned a centralized production hub and stores around Winnipeg.
Loiselle said the current change is a good opportunity to reinvent and create new products. He might lease the Ness Avenue space to a new bakery.
"(You have) a responsibility to the community to kind of not just drop everything and run," Loiselle said.
Sleepy Owl Bread may also lease or sell to a new bakery, Toupin said.
Gabby is a big fan of people, writing and learning. She graduated from Red River College’s Creative Communications program in the spring of 2020.