From social work to sourdough: RRC grad builds bakery business from scratch

Suzanne Gessler, Pennyloaf Bakery

Landing a job out of university was never a problem for Suzanne Gessler. Landing a job she truly enjoyed? Well, that was another story.

It wasn’t until the “lifelong student” graduated from Red River College’s Professional Baking and Patisserie program in 2014 that she was able to create her own personal recipe for success: The Pennyloaf Bakery.

Gessler opened the Corydon Avenue shop specializing in authentic sourdough-style breads in October 2015, a year after she graduated from RRC. It’s a far cry from her former jobs as a city planner, social worker and social policy writer – all government gigs that were well-paid and stable with regular hours and lengthy vacations.

In other words: They were everything owning your own bakery is not.

But that’s OK with Gessler, who’s learned that rolling the dough itself is a better fit for her than rolling it in under somebody else’s watch.

“My dad got sick and passed away, and I got burned out to no end,” says Gessler of the moment she felt she needed to switch career paths, after 13 challenging years working to improve the homeless population’s housing conditions.

“After so many years of trying to do whatever I could to help out on poverty issues in the city, I’d kind of had it. I’d seen so many rounds of government funding come through and not a lot of change. Maybe there was some change, but I was too mired in it.”

Luckily, with her husband’s financial support, Gessler was able to take time off work to do some soul searching and figure out her next move. She soon realized that: a) She wanted to be her own boss, and, b) She loved to entertain and bake, so why not open a bakery?

“I remember being a kid in grade school and taking out the recipe books that were in the library, and making my mom get me the ingredients,” says Gessler, who also has fond memories of constructing dozens of perogies with her Ukrainian grandma at Christmas. “I’m always in the kitchen and baking things … I just never thought that it was something I could make a career out of.”

That’s when she found her key ingredient: RRC’s year-long Baking and Patisserie program. Given the many years she’d spent nose-deep in books at university, Gessler was well-prepared for College life – but she benefited most from the program’s hands-on experience and focus on industry specifics such as pricing out recipes and inventory management.

“I had a delightful time,” she says. “I had really great instructors that I’m actually friends with now. I can always call them up and get their advice on things.”

A project where students had to design their own bakery, blueprints and all, proved to be particularly helpful for Gessler, who used the assignment as a starting-off point for Pennyloaf.

After spending a summer working with a master baker in northern California – an internship Gessler says was difficult, but also “the greatest experience” – she had all of the tools she needed to launch her new career.

“I wrote my plan, found a spot, got my loan, and here I am,” she says.

Now about to celebrate its one-year anniversary, the Pennyloaf Bakery employs 11 people, two of whom are Gessler’s former RRC classmates. The cozy artisan shop’s focal point is what Gessler calls its “official, serious” wood-fired brick oven, built by two masons – one from Russia and one from Ukraine. It’s specially designed for baking bread, using wild yeast and through a long fermentation process – a unique, old-world method not often seen in North America.

“My husband is from Poland and he remembers eating really good bread in Europe, and he came here and he’s like, ‘What is this Wonder Bread?’ ” laughs Gessler, who tries to use local and/or organic ingredients whenever possible.

Sourdough and beer bread are among Pennyloaf’s bestselling varieties, but they also do pastries, croissants, cakes, cookies and the ever-popular morning bun – a cinnamon-shaped croissant with cinnamon and sugar.

“They were not supposed to be a hit but last night I made 130 of them,” she says.

While her bakery is still in its early stages, Gessler can see it expanding in the future, with more wholesale clients and a separate warehouse to meet higher demand. Then she would be able to create more jobs with high employment standards – a priority for this former social worker.

In the meantime, it appears Gessler’s big career move is paying off – even if it isn’t paying the bills.

“I’m not making any money yet, but I’ve been told that I’m doing pretty well for the first year,” she says, adding she has no regrets.

“My mom always says to me, ‘Had you not tried it, you always would have wondered.’ ”

— Profile by Lindsey Ward (Creative Communications, 2004)