Calgary Italian Bakery: 60 Years of Local Daily Bread
As local food movements continue to grow and become a priority for consumers, it’s important to recognize that even in a province as young as Alberta, “eat local” isn’t purely an invention of the social media age. Local independent businesses have always existed here and plenty of our province’s early community builders are still going strong, even if they don’t always get the same fanfare as new and flashy restaurants and food producers. The
Calgary Italian Bakery is one of those old school stalwarts that was practicing an “eat local” philosophy long before it was cool. Celebrating its 60th anniversary this year, the bakery has been putting wholesome bread and buns on tables in Southern Alberta since 1962.
Like many small or medium-sized businesses that have been in operation for over a half-century, Calgary Italian Bakery is a family-run affair that is now overseen by the second generation of its founding family. The bakery was first established by the late Luigi and Myrl Bontorin — Mrs. Bontorin was a born and raised Calgarian while her husband immigrated to the city in the 1950s. Their son Louis, who now runs the business with his brother David, remember playing hide and seek with his siblings among industrial-sized bags of flour and being put to work bagging buns as soon as he was old enough to count to 12. The Bontorins didn’t start their business to make a gourmet or artisanal product — back in the ‘60s European-style baking wasn’t fashionable like it is now — but simply wanted to make nourishing bread and buns that don’t break the bank.
“We consider ourselves a blue collar bakery,” says Louis Bontorin. “There have been some bakeries that have done a fantastic job differentiating themselves and being that high end and addressing that market. We're that local option for something more affordable. And we're the option that has been here for 60 years.”
Over the years the Bontorins have grown their bakery into a 40,000-square foot facility that is able to produce about 3,000 loaves or 1,500 dozen buns an hour, which puts it in the “medium” category of commercial bakeries making Calgary Italian Bakery a well-recognized local presence while still giving it more of a community feel than some of its large national competitors. Louis says that his family has seen many bread trends come and go over the years, with tastes migrating from white to whole wheat bread and the bakery experimenting with (and then abandoning) gluten-free breads. The current line-up is a nice mix of Italian and North American-style breads (both white and whole wheat), whole grain loaves, and good old hamburger and hotdog buns, as well as dinner rolls and a few specialty items. The bakery is also one of the rare Alberta-based manufacturers of English muffins, which have been a successful product for the brand.
A few years ago, the bakery also launched its La Famiglia line, which is a specialty line of loaves designed to pay homage to the Bontorin family, with an old photo of Luigi and Myrl on the package. Those come in more traditional back-to-basics varieties like sunflower flax, oat bran, and whole wheat and while they’re the closest thing that Calgary Italian Bakery has to an artisanal product, they’re still built on the same principals of simplicity and affordability as the rest of the bakery’s goods.
Louis says that keeping things relatively no-frills (while also being willing to change with the times) has done well for Calgary Italian Bakery. The bulk of the bakery’s business comes from restaurant and food service clients — it even has products named clients like Spolumbo’s Tony Spoletini who requested a certain length of bun for his meat shop’s sandwiches, which means that many food lovers have enjoyed Calgary Italian Bakery’s wares without even knowing it.
Calgary Italian Bakery has certainly been tested over the last two years. Restaurant shut-downs over the course of the pandemic have affected sales, but the Bontorins are still doing what they’ve always done, which is feeding Albertans. In addition to restaurant partners like Peppino, Heritage Park, and Red’s Diner, the bread and buns are also available at Costco, Co-op, and some Walmart stores as well as the company’s deli and retail store in Calgary’s Manchester Industrial district.
“We’re here because it's something that we are very passionate about,” Louis says. “We believe in simple ingredients. We believe in my parents’ vision to provide good bread to the masses to allow Calgarian to have an option beyond some of the big guys. The big guys are great, but they're not local. They're not part of the community.”