By Naomi Szeben
How a former chef found opportunity in a volunteer position
By Naomi Szeben
Jennifer McConnell was among many whose consulting companies were upended by the pandemic. Unlike many, the entrepreneur, who lives and works in Midland, Ont., on Georgian Bay, turned quickly from advising bakeries and teaching to transforming her business into a working bakery, FreshBaked.
Previously a private chef who trained at George Brown College, her ties as a mentor within the Big Sisters initiative led to her current career.
McConnell’s skills in designing and implementing culinary classes for commercial chains like Loblaws, LCBO, and Longo’s trained her to keep an eye on food trends and what the public wanted to learn. Then, in 2020, her successful business of teaching and catering collapsed. “I started working at a ghost kitchen and making baked goods again. So, that’s kind of where I’m at now…I haven’t been a full-time commercial [business] since probably 15 years,” laughed said McConnell with a laugh. “So, it’s kind of been a nice change to kind of get back to my roots. I’ve been a baker for 32 years, since I signed my apprenticeship papers.”
The township of Georgian Bay is known for its farms and homegrown jams and jellies. McConnell incorporates much of local farms’ and small businesses’ produce into her line of baked goods, which reduces a lot of food waste, and introduces many to the delights of farm-to-table cuisine. Normally, the small businesses would reach out to McConnell to ask for donations of gift cards for their fundraisers, but 2021 was different for FreshBaked and for the local small businesses. “A local nursing home purchased food gifts for me to donate to the local hospital for the staff,” McConnell said. She also donates to The Guesthouse Shelter, which is a homeless shelter in Midland, Ont.
“I was involved with Guesthouse for about 10 years as a volunteer, and I just really saw the need for wholesome food; Being a baker that’s very much on the forefront. There’s no other reason that we eat baked goods is other than the enjoyment; there’s no nutritional value in a doughnut. To me, baked goods, especially sweets, are all focused on celebrations and treats and happiness. And I really wanted to project that to the clients in a homeless shelter who don’t really have a lot of little daily things to celebrate. They might not meet friends for a coffee and a cookie, but my company can bring that to them, by bringing doughnuts on Donut Day and a little card. I am still working with The Guesthouse actively: I am in the process of hiring some of the folks that live at the shelter to offer them a job-training program in my bakery.”
McConnell finds “baking is such a dying art.” She recounts times she’s had parents approach her not to encourage their child, fearing that culinary arts might not be a viable career plan. “It’s unfortunate, there’s still that thing, that ‘oh, you’re like Betty Crocker.’ It’s a hobby. I love what I do. I’m passionate about baking, and everything that goes with it. It’s a wonderful career.” She adds that, hopefully, an apprenticeship for someone would mean job skills that would lead to manufacturing or a position within an industrial bakery or grocery store bakery.
To me, baked goods, especially sweets, are all focused on celebrations and treats and happiness. And I really wanted to project that to the clients in a homeless shelter who don’t really have a lot of little daily things to celebrate.
McConnell continues to share her passion by mentoring with the Big Sisters. “I’m a youth mentor to a young teenager. I also a volunteer with them as part of their gay and lesbian initiative. Once a month, they have a ‘Go Girls Campaign,’ an empowerment campaign for young girls. Last summer with COVID, I started teaching them baking classes on Zoom. So that’s how I really got started with Zoom: We all bake together, and the kids just love it. it’s therapeutic and the kids are, you know, 12 to 13, hopefully thinking about careers, and I also teach them, yes, this is a career path…you can make a livelihood of it.”
McConnell saw the opportunity to offer Zoom classes outside of the Big Sisters program. Taking stock of her time and her skills; , She she realized she missed interacting with clients. “I just found it was really quiet and I missed teaching and I just missed being in the kitchen.”
McConnell then pivoted from consultation consultant to online culinary teacher, by creating online baking lessons through her website, and offered to deliver the ingredients a day before, for anyone who lived within an hour’s radius of Georgian Bay.
“You buy a ticket to the cooking class, and you get the Zoom link, and we all go on together. I’m hard of hearing, so I only do 10 people. We keep the classes small, and we go from start to finish, and then we all enjoy it together. The last one I did I did, was a S’Mores s’mores pie and we learned how to make Caesars with pretzels.
“We made a Caesar with big giant jumbo pretzels, shrimp and all the fun things on it, and I teach that for a U.S. company, though it’s all a Canadian based. We also did a s’mores pie, like on the barbecue or dessert, and then everybody kind of sits down (online) and eats it together.”
McConnell particularly enjoyed the communal aspect to the classes, where people could sit together, albeit virtually, and partake of their labour. “The whole family all sat down together and on their communal zoom chats and all ate together. It’s a different concept. I also offer classes for people that live internationally, and then I send them a shopping list.”
Once the classes are concluded, McConnell and the participants stay online to share the meal they made, tucking in to homemade pizzas and dessert as a reward for their hard work.
McConnell finds that between Zoom classes and her work with Big Brothers and Sisters keeps she keeps busy. Now that the pandemic has lifted some of the restrictions to indoor group activities, she hopes to return to in-person teaching soon. In the meantime, her supper and cocktail courses are worthy of a toast. Cheers to FreshBaked’s initiative!
This article appears courtesy of Bakers Journal magazine.