After 37 years, creating perfectly glazed tarts, rich butter cream and fresh bread straight from the oven is second-nature to Roy Bouman.
But the owner of Sweet Caroline’s Bakery wasn’t always so smooth with a pastry bag.
Growing up in North Vancouver, Bouman was graduating from high school and thinking of applying for a job at the local car wash.
“My mom said no and so I ended up working at a bakery owned by the Vanderhoek family in the Lynn Valley Mall,” said Bouman, who just returned from Maui, where he and his bakery’s namesake — wife Caroline — celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary. “The bakery was within walking distance of my home so I went and spoke to the owner and he said, “you can start tomorrow — be here at 3 a.m.’ I thought he was joking.”
He wasn’t joking, and so began Bouman’s life as a baker, where early mornings are the norm. Unfortunately, at the time, the Grade 12 student was still in the process of graduating, so while his friends were able to enjoy all of the festivities of grad, Bouman was up at 2:30 a.m. to make it to work on time.
Bouman admits his early years of working at a bakery weren’t exactly a labour of love.
“I hated it. It was hard work getting up at that time. But I was able to satisfy my sweet tooth — when I was with the Vanderhoeks, he told me to eat anything. I would take cookies and dip them in chocolate.”
Bouman’s job was making the bread, but the hard work and early morning hours took their toll. Nine months later, he quit and returned to school.
“But I sat in the cafeteria for four months and failed all my classes.”
Bouman went on to work at several other bakeries, including IGA in North Vancouver and Moore’s Bakery in Vancouver’s Kerrisdale neighbourhood.
Bouman may not have lasted as a baker if it hadn’t been for a slow economy. Jobs were hard to come by. He applied to the Vancouver Police Department, but they took one look at his driving record and passed on his application.
“I always liked baking — when I was a kid I would make cakes and cookies. I always did it because I didn’t get an allowance and I had a sweet tooth, so this way I could get my sweet stuff.”
Bouman worked at a number of bakeries in the Lower Mainland, until he was hired by Canada Post as a letter carrier.
For his last six months at the post office, he was also working at Moore’s Bakery, owned by fellow Dutchman Archie Kroondyk.
“I’d finish my walk early and then walk across the street and decorate cakes for Archie.”
By the late ‘80s, Bouman was married to Caroline and they had started their family. Anxious to get out of Vancouver and raise his family in a smaller town, Bouman was hired by Bill Admiraal to work the bakery at Safeway in Vernon.
“We bought a house here in 1991, I started working and I got laid off three months later.”
Caroline was home with their then three young sons: Ryan, now 28; Justin, 26; Kurtis, 24.
“My dad was a banker and we moved around a lot and I was determined that we would stay in one place and I said ‘we are gong to hunker down,’ so I did whatever I could: mowing lawns, delivering flyers, painting.”
Times were tough, but the couple’s faith in God helped to sustain them through the lean times.
Sweet Caroline’s will celebrate its 20th anniversary next year and is a fixture in Vernon, beloved for its pastries, cakes, breads and pies that are all baked from scratch daily in the European tradition, using fresh ingredients.
The bakery got its start after Caroline read an article in the paper about the self-employment program offered by Community Futures.
“She phoned me on a Thursday and asked, ‘do you want to be your own boss?’ They had classes starting on the Monday, Caroline did the interview because I was working, but the class was packed full.
“She said, ‘I’m a Christian and if God wants us to be there, we will be there,’ and then a space opened up. Without Community Futures, we would not be here.
“Because I’d been laid off, I got UI and it put food on the table for the first year. A bookkeeper came into our home and taught Caroline bookkeeping, and she still does the books.
“I was terrified of opening my business. We put everything on the line and the stress was huge — I remember talking to my dad on the phone and I suddenly blacked out. We had three kids and we were going by faith. We learned as we went how to run a business.”
Bakeries are part of Bouman’s DNA, dating back to 1880 in the Netherlands, when Andries Bouman opened his bakery in Zaandam, using a coal-fired oven. Eventually, the bakery was taken over by his son, Arend Bouman, Roy Bouman’s great-grandfather.
“My grandfather sold his bakery to his brother Karl and the bakery was used by the Dutch underground during the Second World War as a place to de-grease the weapons dropped by the Allies and also as a hiding place when needed.
“One day a lady came in and spoke to Caroline. She said her grandfather had never left Holland but she saw the name Bouman — and bakers seek out bakers — she came to Vernon and saw our name and said that her grandfather had apprenticed under my grandfather.”
Bouman’s parents emigrated from the Netherlands in the ‘50s and he has been back to the land of his ancestors just once, in 1977.
When Bouman opened Sweet Caroline’s on 46th Avenue, Anderson Way didn’t exist; there was a junk yard next door and the area hadn’t yet grown into the busy retail area it is today.
But it turns out Sweet Caroline’s is not the first bakery in that location. When he first opened, Bouman had a customer pop in who told him he used to make bread in a shed on the property in the ‘50s and delivered it to homes in the area.
On opening day in July, 1996, Bouman threw open the doors at 9 a.m. and he welcomed 37 customers.
“Of course, 30 of them were friends.”
Business began to take off when “Baker Bob” joined the team. The large wooden statue was parked next to the street for nine years, and was a huge draw for customers who might not have noticed the new bakery tucked between a paint store and a sporting goods store.
“He was the cheapest labour. We had tourists take pictures of him and one night I forgot to bring him in and a grad class borrowed him for the night. He was brought back by a police officer in the back of his trunk.”
It’s only been in the last eight years or so that the Boumans have been able to take an occasional holiday. Now open five days a week, Bouman never worked Sundays as none of the bakeries where he previously worked were ever open on the seventh day.
“I started closing Mondays, though, because on Sundays I would have to go into the bakery on Sunday to get ready and it drove Caroline crazy because it cut into our family time.”
Now with eight full-time and one part-time employee, as well as three full-time bakers, Bouman doesn’t have to get in until 6 a.m., something of a luxury for a baker.
Fortunately, baker Jim Hauser is willing to take the 3 a.m. start time.
“He’s always there and he is a consistently great baker and I can trust him — he’s been there 15 years. Then I have two amazing bakers: husband and wife team Al and Corrine Stonehouse. If not for them, I would not be where I am. They have been amazing people, hard working, and our front-end staff is great as well.”
As for his three sons, Bouman admits that none of them have inherited their dad’s sweet tooth, nor any interest in the family business.
“Without Caroline, we wouldn’t have the bakery because she was at home and it meant I could work the long hours to get the business up and running.”
As for what sells the best at Sweet Caroline’s, Bouman said it varies, but he can usually count on selling between 150 and 200 loaves of bread every day, all of which are made by hand. Members of Vernon Alliance Church, the Boumans donate left-over baked goods to the church’s Common Threads program.
“When I first started out, I put out what I think people like, now I put out what people want. But it’s a chess game: sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Anytime you put something new out, you have to be ready.
“When I first started, I would make brown, white and sweet doughs, now we make smaller amounts but more variety. We have over 120 different varieties of pastries and buns, and we make gluten-less bread.
“We do a lot of custom birthday cakes. Corinne is basically the cake decorator, but I do the special cakes and I still love doing it. I really look at all the cakes I make and wonder ‘are they going to enjoy this, am I going to be embarrassed by it?’ There is that creative side of things and a lot of pride in what I do.
“When I started baking I was too scared to make a mistake but that’s how you learn.”
Bouman’s years of being surrounded by pastries, cookies and cakes haven’t diminished his sweet tooth. The sixth-generation baker is always happy to tuck into one of his favourites: marzipan or anything with mocha flavour.