Jess (Arsenault) Thoem ’00 | A Sense of Community (Alumni in Food Businesses)

Alumni In Food Businesses: Jess (Arsenault) Thoem '00

Running a bakery is a demanding life. The day starts early and it requires precision and attention to detail. It’s a science where measurements, temperature, food chemistry and biology matter. But it’s also an art, where creativity, colour, flavours and presentation perform psychological magic.

So it may be an unexpected career for Jess (Arsenault) Thoem ’00, who studied fine arts as an undergrad, holds a Masters in art therapy and counselling from Concordia University and worked several years as a counsellor for the BC government in the northern BC town of Smithers. But it’s also a perfect fit.

“The creativity is no different than in the fine arts,” says Jess. “It’s just a different medium. And people eat with their eyes.”

Jess and her husband Graham Thoem started the Hard Winter Bakery in Peterborough, ON, in 2014. They met in art school in 2002 and then travelled together through Australia and New Zealand before eventually settling in Smithers.

But Jess grew up at Lakefield College School where her father taught for 40 years, and she felt the draw of the Ontario countryside around Lakefield. “The West wasn’t for me and I was feeling burned out,” she says. She had helped out at a friend’s bakery over the years, and she and Graham hatched the idea of running a bakery back home. “We had a lot of long winters up there, and that’s where we came up with the idea, so we called it the Hard Winter Bakery.”

Baking is both an art and a science, but a bakery is also a business and the startup was long and hard. “It’s easy to underestimate the work,” Jess says, especially for bakeries where you need to have fresh product available at the first light of dawn. Jess and Graham were working 70 to 80 hours a week at the beginning, building a small-scale commercial kitchen into their home and selling at farmers’ markets.

Hard Winter specializes in sourdough bread, which means overnight refrigeration for large mounds of dough to ferment—amounts that need a refrigerated room. “Eventually, we needed more space and a bigger oven and more employees. We just needed to make the next step.” They bought their present building in Peterborough and gutted it for renovation. Then the pandemic hit. Very quickly, as an essential provider to consumers and restaurants, business took off at the same time as the retrofit struggled through shutdowns and worker availability. “We were run off our feet,” recalls Jess. “Going through rapid growth in a pandemic was not in our plans.”

Today, with a staff of 14, Hard Winter offers a range of sourdough breads and pastries, all baked in-house, with many vegan varieties and some gluten-free. Besides cakes, pies, and tarts, there are cookies, bars, squares, cinnamon buns, biscotti and savoury treats including puff pastry squares, cheddar cheese twists and quiches. In addition to supplying restaurants, the bakery also caters for corporate lunches, private events and institutions— including Lakefield College School.

“Running a business means learning on the fly, but you also have to hire the right people,” says Jess. “It’s like an orchestra with all these moving parts.” The mother of two young children, Jess doesn’t work in the kitchen anymore, and she hired a business advisor, an MBA who is also the company accountant. “All things are important for me to know but not to do,” Jess says. “Most of my job is around relationships—organizing staff, meeting with clients, overseeing the accounts and administration.”

As much as possible, Hard Winter uses local ingredients. A small, local organic mill supplies the bakery’s flour. “We use local farmers for catering. After years of being at farmers’ markets, we’re in a network of suppliers. It’s a community working together.”

For that, she thinks back to her days at LCS. “That’s for sure where my sense of community comes from,” she says. “What Lakefield does is teach you about balance. There’s hard work but it’s also important to make connections, make friends, enjoy your work together and use your time off to improve yourself, mentally and physically. As a business owner, I take that to heart.”

Today, being a part of the local community is exactly what is most satisfying to Jess. “Being an employer, giving 14 people a livelihood, is surprisingly important to me. Being part of the local economy and its growth, creating jobs— that’s a dimension to our bakery that makes it especially rewarding.”

Written by: John Southerst