by Cassidy Nunn –
What began as a small, artisan bakery on the Saanich Peninsula has grown exponentially over the years to become one of the largest and best-known local bakery brands: Portofino. Jaap Verbeke, who is still involved with the company as the General Manager, started the bakery as a small retail outlet at the Broadmead Shopping Village. Since then, the wholesale bakery has continued to outgrow its locations, moving several times, until it landed at the current location on the Peninsula, a 23,000-square-foot facility. The company has 145 employees and one of them, Bridget Hennessy, who has worked for Portofino for the past 10 years in a variety of roles, took me behind the scenes to see what running a large commercial bakery is all about.
For me the brand conjures up images of hearty breads and buns, but their product line includes so much more: pan loaves, rolls, cakes, cookies, pastries, baguettes, gluten-free breads and baking. Three of their products are made with local wheat and they have also paired up with the local Phillips Brewery to take the “mash” (spent grains which are a by-product of beer production) and use it in the Phillips Maltygrain bread. A strong local connection has always been important to the company and using local wheat, which is grown by Saanichton Farm, Michell Farm (both on the Peninsula) and Hillcrest Farm in the Comox Valley, was a natural fit. “When we started there was nowhere on the Island to mill it and it had to be shipped to Vancouver,” says Hennessy. Portofino now has a silo and mill on site so they have the ability to mill the local wheat themselves.
There are 15 trucks delivering Portofino breads and baking across Vancouver Island and over to the Gulf Islands, as well as an additional five trucks servicing the Vancouver area, with plans to expand on the Lower Mainland (although all the baking will still be done here on the Peninsula).
The first shift for bakers begins around 4 a.m. and baking continues throughout the day while the delivery truck drivers can start as early as 2 a.m. As we walk through the busy production zone, Hennessy explains the company aims to “protect the employees as much as possible,” as she points out the dust collections system which captures the flour dust.
For the process of making bread, the dough is first prepared in either the sponge and dough method (which is used for the majority of Portofino’s bread products; it’s a longer fermentation process that is said to improve the shelf life, flavour and texture of the bread), or the straight dough method (a single fermentation process that is quicker). Next, the dough is put through a rheon machine which cuts, weighs and forms the dough into a loaf before it enters a proofer where it can rise. The loaves are then brought to the oven room where the bread is baked then transferred to the cooling area. After the loaves have cooled, they are sliced, packaged and labelled. Each loaf is put through a metal detector as an extra safety precaution before the product leaves the facility.
Gluten-free products are made in a separate, self-contained gluten free room, but because they are processed in a wheat facility, extra steps such as having the air flow push particles out rather than in to the gluten-free room have been taken to ensure the products have a low risk of cross contamination. The gluten-free room also has dedicated utensils, equipment and baking trays and ingredients used in this baking require a certificate of analysis from the suppliers to confirm they are gluten free. The bakery also sends the gluten-free products out for testing to ensure gluten levels stay below the allowable limit.
Healthy ingredients are a common interest for most consumers and as Hennessy says: “we really try and listen to the customers.” This has meant implementing changes over time such as “reducing sodium levels, increasing fiber, changing out oils for non-GMO or coconut oil.”
While the bakery itself is wholesale only and doesn’t have a retail outlet on site, thankfully you can find Portofino products in a wide variety of local grocery stores and markets. And in a time where supporting local business has never been more important, the next time you’re out shopping be sure to try a loaf of Portofino or sample some of their incredible baking!