For Monika Walker, a German childhood tradition formed the foundation of what would become a fulfilling career.
“I’ve been baking all my life,” Walker said. “I started baking cheesecakes at the age of five. In Germany, where I grew up, the tradition was coffee and cake every afternoon. My mom was very busy, and I took over the pastry baking, but it wasn’t until much later that I figured out I wanted to be a baker.”
A chance meeting with the man she one day would marry eventually led Walker to Vancouver, where she enrolled in cooking school and earned her stripes in the restaurants of the Lower Mainland.
“I loved it—it was a very inspiring industry—but the reality of it was very difficult. The hours are long (in restaurant kitchens), and you get yelled at every day. So I drove all around Vancouver looking for a job in bakery. I found a bakery in Kitsilano that needed a night baker for the bread department. That was the first time I baked bread, and I instantly got hooked.”
Walker’s Okanagan Grocery, which she purchased from Reese Pender in 2007, is now one of Kelowna’s beloved bakeries and fresh produce stores. But the journey to becoming a top bakery was a long and difficult one.
“The bakery was still in a garage back then—it was a tiny building in Peachland. We delivered our bread to the retail outlet on Guisachan Road, which was about 200 square feet. Then later we had to move the baking equipment out of the backyard, so John at Codfathers found some space for us.”
Opening a second location in 2010 gave the bakery a much-needed 1,600 square foot kitchen and an extra oven, which helped Walker and her team manage the growing demand for her small bakery’s custom-crafted products.
Walker offers a variety of breads for sale each day—her classics, she says—as well as a weekly special that offers her a chance to exercise her creativity.
“We change the look, the shape, and the ingredients. We come up with our own formulas—I don’t know of any other bakeries that do that. We’re kind of crazy that way.”
The standard Okanagan Grocery recipe starts with organic flour, sourdough starter, salt, water, and a whole lot of love, Walker says. From there, she and her team customize their loaves with ingredients like rosemary, artichokes, olives, fresh fruits, and even chocolate, a medium that Walker is eager to explore further.
“(My staff and I) took a chocolate course this spring, so we’re going to be doing more work with chocolate.”
Though the smell of bread baking and the presence of chocolate are enticing lures for would-be bakers, Walker says that running an artisan bakery doesn’t leave much time for loafing around.
“The logistics of managing a growing business have been a challenge. Learning how to delegate was a struggle—we get very busy in the summer trying to process fruits and other products, so it’s difficult to train staff and manage the business. (Early on in the business), the biggest challenge was night shifts. For the first five years I worked from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. With the new facility we have a walk-in cooler, so we can sleep in until 3:30 a.m., which is nice.”
Walker encountered further challenges when opening her second location several years ago, and she cites the crowded industrial area as a major hurdle.
“We thought it would be easy having a second shop because people know who we are, but as it turns out, people like to shop in their own neighbourhoods. But once people started finding us, everything changed. We have lots of space and lots of daylight, which is nice. And now, the best part is that because we have an open kitchen, people can quite literally buy the bread out of the oven.”
But a second shop isn’t the only opportunity she’s grateful for.
While Walker’s passion for bread is what has built Okanagan Grocery into a thriving and beloved local bakery, she says that she couldn’t have done it alone.
“My staff, my friends, and my family…they hold the place together. We have a lot of fun.
“I’m very grateful to have such a lovely group of people who are a part of this.”
Crowe MacKay’s Women to Watch is a weekly feature that profiles remarkable women in our community. This series is a joint initiative between Crowe MacKay, the Kelowna Chamber of Commerce and the Kelowna Capital News. To nominate the exceptional woman in your life, email firstname.lastname@example.org.