Time was ripe When the world went bananas, this budding entrepreneur baked bread
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National Banana Bread Day fell just over a week ago but hey, no worries if you missed it; Cass Hoefer, the founder of Bread Habits, a venture that turns out specialty banana bread, wasn’t aware until recently it was a “thing,” either.
“I guess I should have done something to celebrate, but no, it just kind of passed me by,” says Hoefer, seated in an Elmwood-area coffee shop where she has brought along a loaf so fresh, it has fogged up the cellophane of the cake box it’s resting in.
In the spring of 2020, banana bread was being widely referred to as the unofficial baked good of the pandemic. “Are you even self-isolating if you haven’t made banana bread yet?” began an article that detailed how online searches for banana bread recipes topped one million, during the first week of April 2020.
Guilty as charged, Hoefer replies, when asked whether, during the early days of COVID-19, she, too, found herself staring at a bag of mushy, overripe bananas that had been tossed in the freezer so long ago she’d forgotten they were there, and thinking, “Hmm?”
“I have an 11-year-old son, Jake, who was a picky eater when he was young, only he always enjoyed banana bread,” she says. “The same as everybody else, I had some extra time on my hands, and started making it more often than I had been. That’s kind of how all of this started.”
Interestingly enough, banana bread first rose to prominence during another tumultuous period, namely, the Great Depression that engulfed the world for a decade, starting in 1929.
In a CNN health report that aired just under three years ago, baking expert and author P.J. Hamel said the earliest known recipes for the treat were published around 1933, when “bananas were cheap and easy to buy… and when Americans were scrupulous about preventing food waste.”
Like scores of others, Hoefer was a “COVID casualty,” job-wise. Her husband Daniel was considered an essential worker, and continued to collect a steady paycheque. Nonetheless, she felt it remained in their best interest to be as frugal as possible, so she focused on meals and desserts that were delicious, yet relatively inexpensive to prepare.
Initially, she was just turning out banana bread, either plain or with chocolate chips or peanut butter added, for the three of them.
“It wasn’t like I was new to baking,” says the Kildonan East Collegiate alumnus. “I studied culinary (arts) in high school, and had already made my share of cookies for Jake. Still, it probably took me seven or eight tries, until I reached the consistency I was looking for in my loaves.”
As pandemic-related restrictions eased, and people were allowed to visit again, friends and family twigged into what she was up to, in the kitchen. Time and again, they commented that her banana bread was far superior to the store-bought variety, and how she should be selling it commercially. Since she was still unemployed, and since she had a wealth of retail experience, she began to think that might not be such a bad plan.
Heeding an acquaintance’s advice, Hoefer, whose mother is Cree, contacted SEED Winnipeg, a non-profit group that assists low-income earners who are interested in establishing a small business. Through SEED, she signed up for the Indigenous Women’s Entrepreneur Program (IWEB).
The three-month course was perfectly suited to her needs, she says. She had “outstanding” instructors and mentors, who focused on Indigenous teachings to help her and others in the class grow and develop their individual ideas.
“They gave me a small business loan after I completed the program, which I used to get my Square (point-of-sale system), along with various other things like ingredients and packaging, that I would need to get off the ground.” (Her loaves don’t contain any dairy products, which, according to provincial guidelines, means she is allowed to sell them at farmers’ markets, while continuing to bake from home. And yes, their place smells “amazing,” when she’s hard at work, to the degree neighbours often knock on the door, to ask, “Whatcha making?”)
Bread Habits had its official debut in July 2021, at an outdoor market in Petersfield, in the shadow of that community’s ginormous mallard duck statue. She wasn’t sure what demand would be like, but realized she’d severely underestimated when the dozen loaves she brought with her were snapped up, within the first 45 minutes.
That continued to be the case, even when she doubled and tripled her output in subsequent weeks.
By October 2021, she had taken her act indoors to the Downtown Winnipeg Farmers’ Market, on the main level of Cityplace. Sales continued to be encouraging, so much so that she soon expanded her line of flavours to include sea salt-caramel, blueberry, honey oat and — if you like piña coladas and getting caught in the rain — a tropical take boasting hints of pineapple and coconut.
“I also do a s’mores loaf, and, I’m not going to lie, it’s one of my best tasting breads,” she continues, mentioning she definitely gets a few odd looks when she rolls a cart loaded with as many as eight dozen bananas, the browner, the better, into the check-out line of her neighbourhood grocery store.
Despite her successes, Hoefer is continuing to take things slowly, for now. Sometimes she thinks if she upped her production significantly, by renting space in a commercial kitchen, it would benefit her bottom line. But, she’ll argue with herself, what if that didn’t out to be the case? Can she afford to take “that kind of hit?”
“The thing is, I grew up in Manitoba Housing, where I definitely saw some things, and I think that made me careful when it comes to money,” she says, noting she and her husband, whom she credits for supporting her through thick and thin, moved in together when they were 18, about a year before their son was born.
“I want to be a role model for Jake, he’s my little inspiration, but at the same time, I don’t want to make a mistake that would affect him in the slightest way possible,” says Hoefer, who, with the help of Manitoba Moon Voices, an organization that supports Indigenous women, is also looking into a primary career as a dental assistant.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with dreaming. What she imagines when she’s in the kitchen, sifting flour and cracking eggs, is a food-truck version of Bread Habits, which would allow the three of them to travel across Canada in the summer, hitting various festivals along the way.
Now, if that fantasy ever comes to fruition, and you stop by, only to remark that you’re not really a fan of banana bread, as some have claimed in the past, be prepared for her stock reply.
“I tell them the reason they don’t like banana bread is simple: it’s because they haven’t tried mine, yet,” she says, pushing a slice across the table.
For more information, and to learn where Hoefer will be peddling her wares next, go to instagram.com/breadhabitswpg.
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.
Updated on Saturday, March 4, 2023 9:09 AM CST: Corrects to Kildonan East from River East