Garden City Bakery owner Steve Uy, right, with store manager Monica Flores and fellow baker Richard Caranto. (photo from Garden City Bakery)
If you’ve not set foot into Garden City Bakery for some time, you’re in for a surprise. The longtime Richmond kosher bakery at Blundell and Garden City roads came under new ownership in December 2019 and Steve Uy has infused the shop with his personal style and charisma. The interior has been updated and the bakery hums with an energy inspired by Uy’s friendliness and business acumen.
A Manila native, Uy moved to Vancouver in 1989 at the age of 20 and studied economics at Simon Fraser University. By 26, he’d returned to the Philippines, first importing Canadian food products and later immersing himself in the kitchen, where he baked steam buns for grocery stores. In 2017, when he returned to Vancouver with his wife and children, he was determined to continue baking for a living. An ingredient supplier introduced Uy to former Garden City Bakery owner Ivan Gerlach and, within two months, the transaction was complete and Uy was at the helm of the business.
“When I took over the shop, the only thing I wanted was an oven to bake things,” he admitted. “I didn’t even know what kosher was!”
Immediately afterwards, though, his kosher education began in earnest, first under Gerlach’s tutelage and then under the instruction of rabbis from BC Kosher. It was a steep learning curve but Uy was fiercely committed to two things: to respect the Jewish traditions of the bakery and to increase the availability of its signature challahs, challah buns, bagels and pita bread.
“Our goal is to be more visible and more available,” he told the Independent.
Expanding the availability of his baked breads wasn’t easy initially and, when Uy first approached Safeway at King Edward Avenue and Oak Street, he wasn’t met with open arms. “I wondered why a Safeway right beside a Jewish school wouldn’t want to carry kosher bread,” he said. It took four months of repeated meetings and encouragement before the grocery store agreed to carry Garden City Bakery challah and buns. But, as soon as they did, the items disappeared fast and the store increased their order. By January 2020, Safeway had invited Uy to set up his own bread rack in the store, where he could sell even more kosher breads, including pita, bagels and rye bread.
Today, Uy’s baked goods are available at Meinhardt Fine Foods, Stong’s Market, two Save-On Foods (Dunbar and Terra Nova), Omnitsky Kosher, Louis Brier Home and Hospital, two Superstore locations (Marine Drive and Richmond) and a FreshCo. And Uy is just getting started on his wholesale journey.
“We intend to expand into more Safeway stores, Superstores and Save-On Foods in the next year or two,” he said. “There’s a gap in the market we can fill here. Grain bread and artisan bread are popular, but I think there’s a market for kosher bread beyond the Jewish community, for anyone who appreciates a good bread. And, personally, I think challah is one of the best, most beautiful breads in the world. The dough itself is just fabulous.”
While expansion plans have been put on hold by the COVID-19 pandemic, Uy’s ambition has not tapered. A hands-on owner, he does much of the mixing and baking himself, “to keep our secret recipes and to ensure consistency of the product.” Uy also handles delivery of the products to the stores.
His baking repertoire remains much the same as it was previous to his leadership, but a couple of new items include a Filipino soft bun called Pandesal, and a sandwich loaf made from the same dough as challah but more suitable as an everyday bread. “The challah and challah buns are our mainstay and we worry that adding too much variety will bog down the bakery in terms of manpower,” he explained.
A great ambassador for the bakery, he emanates positivity and a can-do attitude. “When I bought the business, I could tell that the sales volume was not great, but I’ve always been a risk-taker and I’m confident in my own abilities,” he said. “I’m really enjoying the business, and owning a kosher bakery has exposed me to a new group of people, a different culture and unique traditions I didn’t previously understand.”
He added, “It’s my sales pitch when I go to new stores. I tell them we’re different because we’re kosher. We’re taking one step at a time, but we’re determined to open up more avenues for kosher bread in British Columbia. We know when people start believing in the product, they’ll buy it.”
Lauren Kramer, an award-winning writer and editor, lives in Richmond. To read her work online, visit laurenkramer.net.