The Toronto Star
By Donna Jean Mckinnon

Thinking big

There’s good bread making good bread

Demand rising rapidly for baker’s yeast-free organic products.

Shasha Navazesh is obsessed with bread. He is determined to make Canadians eat “live” organic bread and like it.

As owner of ShaSha Bread Co., Navazesh’s mission is to convince the public its worth paying $3 to $5 for a loaf loaded with goodies like sprouted rye and wheat germ. In a perfect world, he’d like to see the big national bakeries switch to more nutritious sourdough recipes.

“The baker is connected up to God”, says Navazesh with conviction. And to prove it, he picks up a loaf of his Ezekiel bread that is inspired by a recipe set out in the Old Testament.

‘Take thou also unto thee wheat and barley and beans, and lentils, and millet and fitches, and put them in one vessel, and make thee bread,” he quotes Ezekiel 4:9.

Sure enough, the loaf in his hand is loosely based on the scripture. It has eight grains, plus Dead Sea Salt imported from Israel.

It’s one of the nine breads produced by his bakery. Others include a 12-grain loaf, two organic wheat breads, and spelt and kamut pizza crusts. ShaSha also produces partly baked loaves for local hotels and restaurants. Because the breads are naturally leavened, they require no yeast.

In the language of the trade, ShaSha Bread Co. is an artisan bakery. The bakery was incorporated in 1999; the year sales reached $1 million. Since then, they’ve virtually doubled.

The bakery now has 19 employees. Retailers like Loblaws, Bruno’s Fine Foods and Noah’s Natural Foods are among its 170 customers. Restaurants include the Rosewater Supper Club, the CN tower and Royal York Hotel.

ShaSha produces 3,500 units of fresh bread daily, impressive but only a fraction of what a big commercial bakery like Weston’s turns out.

“We don’t compete. We have our niche and we perfect what we do”, Navazesh says. He comments there were “hundreds of reasons” not to start a bakery, but one good reason to do so: “I love baking bread. My father used to say, ‘Find what you like to do so you don’t have to work the rest of your life’, Navazesh says.

Navazesh 45 came to Toronto from Iran in the mid-1980s, via India. Already versed in the biology of food, he first worked as a consultant, opening up restaurants, bakeries and supermarkets and training staff for other people. Then he was a sous chef at La Marquette, a King St.E. eatery.
But that meant working nights, and Navazesh wanted to spend more time with his family. In 1991, he enrolled at George Brown’s culinary school to train as a pastry chef. Taking courses, he began to be taunted by nostalgic visions of his childhood in northern Iran-in particular the aroma of baking bread.

“Bread is the cornerstone of every meal there,” he says.
“Breakfast, lunch and dinner bread are all different.” He can remember as a child being sent to three different shops for the family’s daily bread. From these memories comes his wonderfully romantic view of the village baker.

‘The Bakers were the most trusted people in the community. They were the gatekeepers. While the town sleeps, the baker is at work. He is the first to sense attacks (from outsiders) and he’s the one who know everybody’s business.” Navazesh says.

“ShaSha creates immense customer loyalty. Once people try his bread, they stick to it”

While at George Brown, Navazesh realized there were no courses to encourage this kind of entrepreneurship, he says, and the school’s training program for bakers was based on “tired old” traditional recipes. (Times change-he’s now an adviser to the George Brown School and makes appearances as a guest baker)

Navazesh launched his business by renting the back of Roonem’s Bakery, once a mainstay on Queen St.W. His need for start-up capital was slight because the owner was on the verge of retiring and Navazesh was given use of the oven facilities. (To this day. ShaSha Bread uses vintage mixer that Roonem had brought over from Germany.)

“All I had to buy was supplies. And I figured, what I couldn’t sell, my family could eat,” Navazesh says.

In the early days, he was a one-man band. He did everything: the breadmaking, packaging, sales, marketing, and deliveries. Soon the Big Carrot health food store and Pusateri’s Fine Foods agreed to stock his product. The health food movement was in full swing and people were looking for more nutritious products.

After a year, the Queen St. building was sold, leaving ShaSha Bread homeless.

“We had customers and no bakery, “ he says.

So he became Itinerant, renting spaces after-hours at various local bakeries for $200 a night. That arrangement lasted until three years ago, when Navazesh found his current premises, a 2,000 square-foot former warehouse in Etobicoke. The bakery is doing so well; he was able to buy the building last April.

At ShaSha, the breadmakers make use of unprocessed grains and seeds such as spelt, millet, buckwheat, amaranth and flax. All the breads contain sprouted (“live”) grains, the result of soaking the grain until it sprouts and becomes a living food with higher levels of calcium, iron, magnesium and potassium.

What results are baked goods that are easily digested and rich in protein, fibre, vitamins, minerals and enzymes. Some 30 per cent of the organic grains used by ShaSha are stone-ground on the premises.

(The federal Health Products and Food Branch allows the use of 30 chemicals in the commercial flours used to make regular breads, and “enriched” bread means synthetic vitamins have been added.)

Nick Garant , deli manager at The Big Carrot, has watched the demand for ShaSha’s bread increase.

“ShaSha creates immense customer loyalty. Once people try his bread, they stick with it,” Garant says.

He adds that ShaSha makes the finest sourdough in the city, and people appreciate the taste and texture as well as the health benefits.

Garant also says many of these consumers have strong allergies to wheat and are, therefore looking for alternative grains like spelt and kamut.

German-Canadian farmers in the Hockley Valley grow much of these grains used by Navazesh, northwest of Toronto. It’s a lucrative business for them, Navazesh says. A bushel of milled spelt, for example, sells for about $60 compared to $16 for white flour.

Navazesh comments how much he loves this country. “It has a clean history. And we have the best grains and the best water,” he says.

At ShaSha, it takes eight to 16 hours to make a loaf of bread, while regular bread produced commercially takes 60 minutes. Some 70 percent of the process is handwork. Machines are used only to mix the dough and divide it.

Navazesh continues to be a student of food chemistry. He has visited 25 countries during his career and brought back bacteria cultures (bread starter) from most. One of these from Egypt is 2,000 years old, he claims. He keeps “beads” of these sourdough starters under refrigeration. Each bead can be “opened up” to produce thousands of pounds of dough.

“Bacteria can survive dehydration and freezing. It goes dormant,’ Navazesh explains.

With sourdough baking, timing is everything. You have to manually add the “sour”- the bacterial culture used to ferment the dough- at precisely the right time at the right temperature. No machine can do it.

And that sets a limit on an artisan bakeries output. Because mass production is impossible, Navazesh says he has volunteered to share his recipes with other artisan bakers in order to fully supply the Ontario market.

Navazesh believes in the theory that the pie is meant to be shared, in business and in life, and that includes baking techniques. He feels that is the public appetite grows for artisan bread, everyone in the industry will profit.

To that end, he helped form the Artisan Bakers’ Quality alliance, which aims to raise the profile of artisan bakers and educate consumers about their products. Others on board are the Wheat Board, Stone Mill Bake House, Nature’s Own and Fred’s Bread. “With the alliance, we have power,” Navazesh says.

Navazesh admits his missionary zeal as a breadmaker has been fuelled by his own spiritual journey. After leaving Iran, he lived for a period of in an ashram. While he was at George Brown, his wife died suddenly and his father and grandfather died as well, all in the same year. They were “the three most influential people in my life,” he says.

While a spiritual man, Navazesh is also a clever businessman. From the start, a pillar of his bakery’s success has been its innovative packaging. Navazesh puts his breads in a rainbow of colored wrappers- purple, pink, red and green.

“The industry thought I was crazy, but the colors jazzed up the bakery sections, “ he says. “Now they Copy”

These days, Navazesh is re-investing profits back into his bakery and is busy designing a new dough machine.

And he plans to continue to fight the good fight on behalf of artisan bread products. Victory will be his when the public has been weaned off ‘corporate bread” full of air and chemicals, he says.

“I want Canadians to eat better.”