For Vanessa Heywood, it’s the smell she will miss the most.
The comforting aroma of fresh-from-the-oven baking – lemon loaves, in particular – never failed to greet her upon approaching Hillcrest Bakery, which she has owned and managed with husband Mike for more than two decades.
“It’s always the smell.”
And while the scent will still be permeating from the shop next month, two key ingredients will be missing.
The South Surrey couple is leaving the bakery for retirement April 31, handing the reigns over to current night baker and future owner David Moyer.
“He’s worked here longer than us,” Vanessa notes.
The bakery has been a fixture in Hillcrest Mall since the early ’70s, Mike explains, and it wasn’t until 1989 that the Heywoods took over.
While Vanessa didn’t have any baking training at the time, Mike had a long history in the profession that started as a teen in England.
Born in Cheshire, Mike was 16 when he took a summer job in his friend’s dad’s bakery. The experience was a resonant one, and he went on to gain his baking diploma at Hollings College in Manchester.
Mike worked as a baker in Wakefield, Yorkshire, as well as in Bristol, before coming to Canada in his mid-20s. He had become fascinated with the country after travelling across it with his parents when he was 13.
“I wanted to stay – I didn’t want to go home.”
Shortly after landing a job with a grocer, Mike was laid off and he ventured into real estate, where he met Vanessa. The couple moved to Calgary and married in 1979 before returning to B.C. a couple years later and raising their two children.
Mike visited Hillcrest Bakery regularly, through his job as a sales representative for a bakery supply company.
“I knew the owner. I’d see him every two to three weeks on a regular basis.”
When the shop was put up for sale, Mike – who missed baking – jumped on the opportunity.
“I was a little shocked,” Vanessa admits. “I didn’t know anything about baking.”
But with a background in pattern making and art design, Vanessa easily picked up her role as a manager and cake decorator.
“I didn’t have that hard of a time with it,” she says, noting she had a good teacher. “Mike, he had some tips to give me as far as cake decorating.”
Having been out of the game for some time, Mike brushed up on his skills with help from fellow bakers.
Since then, the husband-and-wife team has continued to produce a variety of fresh breads, cookies, rolls, pastries and cakes, all of which are made in-house.
Keeping product fresh is a long job that begins at 9 p.m. for one overnight baker, and 11 p.m. for another.
Mike covers the graveyard shifts twice a week, and Vanessa is in the store seven days a week.
“This is a hard job,” she says of the speciality operation. “We’ve never looked at grocery stores as competition because they don’t do what we do. And there’s really not very many independent bakeries left.”
The work they put into the bakery is evident, not just by the delectable treats, but also the physical store itself. It changed locations in the mall in 1992 – it now sits at 1403 Johnston Rd. – and was expanded in 2001, when a deli was also added.
Vanessa said one of the reasons the business continues to thrive is the staff, which now includes their children, day baker Michael and cake decorator Robyn.
The other key factor is their loyal customer base, such as those who come in for a wedding cake and return down the road for birthday cakes for their children.
“There are a few customers who have been coming to the bakery longer that we’ve been here,” Vanessa said, noting she doesn’t expect the new ownership to make significant changes. “From what I understand, they’re not going to be doing much. (But) everyone has to put their stamp on things.”
The Heywoods are now looking forward to the next stage of their lives, when they hope to scuba dive in tropical locations a couple months a year and spend time at their son’s place in the interior during the summer.
“We’ve been at it for so long, and it’s time to move on,” Vanessa said.
They may also do some baking now Mike has purchased a Hobart mixer and can make bread at home.
But if they ever prefer to purchase ready-made baked goods – or simply want to breathe in the scent of lemon loaves – they know where to go.
“The bakery will still be open, so we’ll just go shopping,” Vanessa said.