Portofino European Bakery’s fortunes on the rise

Saanich Peninsula Chamber of Commerce Tour of Industry series continues.

Portofino European Bakery is expanding to ensure it has a regular supply of locally-grown grain to keep the bread rising.

The bakery, which relocated to Central Saanich in January from Esquimalt, was the third stop on the Saanich Peninsula Chamber of Commerce’s Tour of Industry. The event introduces community leaders from the Saanich Peninsula to some of the businesses that employ hundreds of people. It’s also a chance for business owners to lobby for more services from area municipalities.

Portofino’s General Manager Jaap Verbeke says his 86 employees have been settling into their new digs — a 60,000 square-foot space. It’s a vast improvement over their former location — only 9,000 square feet. Inside, Verbeke said they produce up to 8,000 products each day — loaves of bread, buns and a lot more.

He said Portofino has seen its business grow steadily and in the last four years, expanded its capabilities to include a gluten-free line of baked goods. Portofino has a specific space within their site for such products, which maintains positive pressure in order to keep flour dust out, preventing cross-contamination.

“We do regular testing to ensure the product doesn’t get contaminated,” he said.

Elsewhere in the building, Verbeke pointed out a new grain mill they are installing. It’s designed to receive local grain to be used in their baking.

“Producing locally-grown products isn’t easy,” he admitted. “Many grains aren’t necessarily available in the quantities we need.

“Right now, we get wheat from two local farms. But the grain gets trucked to Chilliwack for milling and is then trucked back.”

So, four months ago, they purchased their own mill and silo to cut those costs and transportation issues. Being able to mill their own grain means some of their final baked goods can be labelled 100 per cent locally-grown.

With the mill, Verbeke said Portofino will soon have the capability to purchase grain from two additional farms. That, in turn, will help ensure a sustainable supply.

“There’s still a lot of pressure (on farmers) to grow barley and rye and still some fields lie fallow.

“There needs to be some certainty in the market — that farmers will be able to grow wheat and their grain will be purchased.”

If that happens, he said, he sees demand growing even further for locally-grown wheat and other grains.

Portofino has grown steadily over the last six years, Verbeke continued — especially after getting a contract to sell to Thrifty Foods.

“We’ve been growing annually between 30 and 35 per cent,” he said, noting that was one of the reasons behind their recent move. “We’ve also doubled our production of bread products.”

With the move to Central Saanich, Verbeke said they’ve gained more space, but still face issues like competition from the mainland and even up-Island. Verbeke noted favourable lease rates in those areas make it more difficult to survive in southern Vancouver Island.

Even so, Verbeke said Portofino is doing quite well and is even considering expanding its distribution to the lower mainland.