By James Rose
Peter Banga crossed the Atlantic to Canada from Switzerland in 1978. Mother, mother ocean, I have heard you call. He worked first in Banff for a year before Vancouver and then finally the Columbia Valley. In 1981, at the age of 27, he became the Columbia Valley’s baker after buying out the retiring owners of the Quality Bakery.
Growing up, his mother said to him: “people will always eat bread.” His grandfather was a Zurich baker. As a young man, he was trained in the Swiss tradition of holistic baking. At 24, he thought he’d spend a year in Canada. See a new place, Banff and its mountains, get some early kitchen work experience. Meet some girls. He’s been here since. Every so often, he’ll return to Europe for a visit.
In the early days at the Quality Bakery, he did it all. And he was always trying new things. One of his past employees suggested a little known, uniquely shaped thing called a pretzel. This year, the bakery will bake 36,000+ pretzels. To Banga, baking is an art and a science. “The only real limitation a baker has is his own creative limit,” he said. A Zurich lad, he was, of course, familiar with European café culture. Banga had one of the valley’s first cappuccino machines. One of his former employees later started, with her then husband, a company called Kicking Horse Coffee.
The first ten to twenty years, he had the valley’s baking market to himself. “And I was trying to please everyone,” he said. But once competition started to arrive in the late 1990’s, Banga knew he had to change his ways. He had to become a better businessman.
In 2000, he purchased an integrated inventory management system. “It made an enormous difference in our quality control,” he said. It also helped him manage his accounts payable. When he invested in a new computerized point of sale system, the sales data it showed surprised Banga in a big way. “Before, I had no clue that we sold so many beverages.” He started managing his people better. “I realized the importance of detailed job descriptions and training.”
And he began around then a wholesale arrangement with Sydney-Anne Porter at AG Valley Foods. The partnership between Banga and Porter has grown to be critical for both. It’s an inspiring win-win story for Columbia Valley business. “Peter was always progressive,” Porter said. “He’s never in our 21-year business relationship used preservatives in his bread. And he knows great taste.”
Taste so good, Porter said she has Calgarian customers regularly buy enough of his loaves to stock their freezer back in the city. “Nordic Bread has become one of Peter’s best selling breads. We’ve carried it since he first introduced it, and in particular over the last three or so years, it’s really exploded in popularity.” Banga can’t remember exactly, but he thinks it was about ten years ago he first marketed Nordic. Of his bread with gluten, Nordic accounts for almost half of sales. Harvest Hearth is his third best seller.
Banga’s unique gluten-free category has also exceeded sales expectations. Gluten-free now accounts for over 20% of Banga’s total sales. “For a long time, it was hard to find good tasting gluten-free bread. But his tastes real, and it has real ingredients,” Porter said. Banga imports high-quality gluten-free flour from Germany. Porter’s personal favourite? River Park Rye.
Nordic Bread sure is popular. Personally, I buy four loaves of it a time. Last year 7,000 loaves were sold. Banga: “It tastes great, and it’s healthy.” Simple enough. Banga thinks less is more when it comes a bread’s ingredients. Nordic doesn’t have many. It looks rustic. It has a unique blend of white flour, rye flour and grains. Authentic Loaf, another of his breads, has only white flour, water, yeast, and sea salt. Fresh out of the oven, the smell, the warmth, it’s not fair.
“We start with the flour base and soak it in water to hydrate it for 90 minutes,” Banga said of Nordic. “Then we start adding the ingredients, yeast etc. Then, we knead. We have a machine that forms the bread, and then it goes into pans. We let the dough rise for 45-60 minutes and bake the bread for half an hour at 380 °F.”
Every day, judgement calls are made. In the hot summer months, ice has to be added to the dough. In the winter, the water needs to be warm enough. “Nordic’s dough temperature needs to be 26°C. If higher, the bread will rise well, but it will be dry.” Vice versa, if the dough’s temperature is too cool. “Figuring all that out just took experience,” Banga said. “90% of a baker’s mistakes have to do with either time or temperature.”
Had COVID not happened, Banga would, as of this past spring, now been retired. Boots up on the porch. Thinking what he heard that young rancher say on that television commercial: “You know if you can find some work that you love, you pretty much have a life.” But no, that time was delayed a year. COVID, one final challenge for Peter Banga, baker businessman. Nonetheless, Banga looks at forty years in business come 2021. Then he’ll retire. As Buffett said: Never meant to last, never meant to last.
“I’m excited for Peter,” said Porter. “I’ve been very grateful for our partnership over the past two decades. He’s left an awesome legacy.” Dutchman Theo Walta, an employee of Peter’s from eighteen years ago, will be the next owner. “He is experienced, and he is a very talented baker,” Banga said. In retirement, he won’t be going anywhere. He loves it here too much.