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The Village Bakery rises again

Dave Thompson was "ski-bumming" in Rossland, B.C., this March, like he's done for the past several winters, when he got a phone call beckoning him back to Haines Junction.

Dave Thompson was “ski-bumming” in Rossland, B.C., this March, like he’s done for the past several winters, when he got a phone call beckoning him back to Haines Junction.

The call was from Boyd Campbell, owner of the Village Bakery, where Thompson has been baking for six summers.

Thompson remembers Campbell telling him it was “now or never,” and a deal was struck for Thompson to lease and run the business from Campbell this summer.

Campbell built the bakery in 1988 and ran it seasonally until last year, when he decided to “pass the reins on.” He put the bakery for sale in May and when it was still for sale at the end of the season in September, the future of the popular local hangout was uncertain.

Thompson says “people were understandably bummed out” that the bakery might not open this year and that word spread quickly when he purchased his business licence at the end of March. It was welcome news for the village’s 600 residents, especially because the Junction has limited services and no grocery store.

Elayne Hurlburt, who was at the bakery’s weekly salmon bake on Friday, swaying to the folksy tunes of the Katie Tait band, says she felt “energized” when she heard the news.

“It’s a very social place and it’s always had very good food,” she says. She would have been “very sad” if it didn’t open again.

The semi-retired teacher says she was part of a group that started coffee house music events at the bakery in 1992. These morphed into the popular Friday evening salmon bakes that include a full buffet spread and free live music on the outdoor patio.

Thompson, 31, finds his new role both challenging and rewarding.

“It’s kind of humbling how much support there’s been from the community,” he says.

The skiing and mountain biking enthusiast admits it was a big decision to come back to the bakery and says he was aware - or thought he was - how much work it would be. But he decided to “sit in the chair and see what happens.”

Campbell says Thompson was the “logical person” to take over the bakery. Campbell is helping his protege with the business side of things because while Thompson has an undergrad degree and a master’s degree in kinesiology, he has a lot of new ropes to learn in this job.

“I can bake in my sleep,” Thompson says, but the business operations are new to him.

He says it helps that he has an amazing team supporting him. Among the bakery staff is his best friend John Lewicki, another multi-year fixture at the bakery who is now the day cook, and his partner Katie Simpson, who was scuba diving in Honduras when Thompson made his big decision. Simpson, who Thompson says is “very much a people person,” has taken on the role of day supervisor.

Even with great staff, some businesses in Haines Junction may feel the impact of less tourist traffic this summer, because the cruise ship company Holland America is no longer doing its overland bus trip between Beaver Creek and Whitehorse.

Darlene Sillery, acting chief administrative officer for the Village of Haines Junction, says losing Holland America will have “a definite impact” on the community. The village’s St. Elias Convention Centre rented facilities to upwards of four tour buses a day all summer and the bakery provided daily packed lunches for them.

But Thompson says he’s “not at all worried” about losing the Holland America bus groups.

“Where Boyd had to pay people to bake, I do not,” he says. “That kind of levels the playing field a bit.”

Along with managing the business side of things, Thompson will remain on the overnight baking shift, making almost everything from scratch, every day.

He says he’ll try to offset any loss of business by catering more to locals. He’s changing the menu more often, offering a weekly made-to-order pizza night, lowering bread prices and providing some basic grocery items.

“That’s getting some people in the door,” he says.

Mid-interview, the phone rings and Thompson answers: “Bakery.” It’s a woman from Whitehorse, calling to reserve five tickets for the salmon bake a week from now. Thompson writes down the woman’s first name on a scrap of paper but doesn’t ask for her credit card information. It seems that while Thompson is bringing some of his own ideas to the business, the laid-back culture of the bakery persists.

Thompson’s lease agreement with Campbell is only for this summer and when asked about his future plans, Thompson doesn’t make any promises.

“Let’s get through this season,” he says, but adds: “I can’t see myself really going back to working for somebody. Ever.”

Towards the end of the conversation he reveals a bit more.

“It’s not for everyone, ya know (running the bakery) ... working four months straight-through, all the time - not for everyone.”

He pauses. He’s been working since at least 5 p.m. Friday (its 9:30 a.m. Saturday morning) and probably has a couple of more hours to go before he can retire to the trailer out back for a few short hours of shut-eye. He looks introspective for a moment and then suddenly full of conviction.

“I think it’s for me.”

Karen McColl is a freelance writer and rolling stone who recently settled in Whitehorse.