It’s been just two years since the residents of Brockville were spared a crisis of the floury kind: the city’s century-old bakery, which had looked as if it might close following an ownership change, was rescued.
Tait’s Fresh Start (formerly Tait’s Bakery), was founded by John Tait, who arrived from England — where, the legend goes, he’d worked for Queen Victoria — to take over an existing bakery in 1908. When Tait died, his widow took over the business. Known for the strict discipline she dished out to staff and customers alike, Mrs. Tait was said to have been heard by the night bakers, still walking the floor of the shop decades after her death.
“It was the place in town where you went if you had a big birthday party or a special event,” recalls Brockville native Noreen Mallory (who also happens to be my mother). “You were never disappointed.” Mallory’s recollections of the bakery go back to the early 1930s, when, she says, “I can remember when I was under four years of age being asked to go up to Tait’s to get a loaf of bread. I started back home, but I couldn’t stand the aroma. It was so good, and it was still a little bit warm; before I had gone halfway home, I had eaten the corner off the loaf of bread.”
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Soft white Vienna bread was one of the main attractions until the whole-grain revolution of the 1970s and ’80s. Metropolitans (affectionately known as Mets), meanwhile, remain a big draw. Rare these days, they were once a widely available indulgence: dainty cupcake-sized treats rolled in coconut, crowned with a generous ring of icing and topped with a dollop of jam or chocolate.
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Petits fours are also prized: once a staple of tea parties and bridge nights, the little square almond cakes, coated with jam and marzipan then individually dipped in fondant, are becoming hard to find. Then there are the date and raspberry turnovers: soft oatmeal cookies filled with dates or raspberry jam, folded over, egg-washed, and baked. Cookie assortments, brownies, and custom cakes have also helped make Tait’s an indispensable part of culinary life in Brockville.
In 1957, Tait’s was bought by Bruce Mazurek. He and then his sons, Stephen and John, ran the bakery for a combined 55 years. In 2012, though, the Mazureks sold to new owners, who soon hit a rough patch. In August 2015, regular customers were dismayed to find the store closed. But just two months later, Jay Leroux — a Tait’s employee since 1989 — and his partner, Melanie Day, took over, reopening under the new name and bringing the Mazurek brothers on board in an advisory capacity.
Some of the recipes are so old that no one remembers when they were first introduced. “The original recipe for the brownies goes back 70 or 80 years. The Metropolitans have been around as long as I’ve been around,” says Stephen Mazurek. But customer demands do evolve: people now ask for gluten-free bread, and while Mazurek notes that Tait’s “used to sell trays and trays of doughnuts,” now patrons tend to go for muffins in the morning.
When Tait’s reopened, “the response was fantastic,” says Leroux. “People are looking for more natural products. And a lot of people came here as children, and there’s that one little item, like the Mets, that you’ll never get anywhere else.”
These days, Tait’s offers lunches, catering, and wholesale baking, but it inhabits the same heritage building that John Tait occupied, and its glass cases full of cakes and pastries, its racks of bread, and its bins of cookies haven’t changed much. If Mrs. Tait is still around, she must be pleased.
Sarah B. Hood is a freelance writer and the author of We Sure Can!: How Jams and Pickles Are Reviving the Lure and Lore of Local Food.