Fans of the lower Johnson Street area of Victoria will recognize the bright blue building that houses Willie’s Cafe and Bakery.
Regular customers of B.C.’s oldest bakery may be surprised to see that the business has shut down. While a sign in their window on Thursday read that they are closed for kitchen renovations, social media posts and Google listings state the business as permanently closed. No public statement has been made.
The bakery runs out of a heritage building that was erected in 1887 by Louis Franz Wille, who opened the original “Wille’s” Bakery at the site. The Wille family owned and operated the business for nearly 100 years, until the property was sold in 1976.
For Gordon Stewart, it was a natural move for him to work in the bakery his great-grandfather established.
“When I was going to Central Junior High and Vic High, I used to go down there and clean the pans and do all that kind of stuff, and go in early Saturday morning to help out,” he said. “It was kind of a family thing.”
Stewart worked in the bakery for 20 years and said it was always buzzing with customers.
“My God, on Saturday morning it was lined up out the door; we’d sell 1,000 loaves of bread on a Saturday,” he said. “The oven was a Dutch oven, it measured 12 by 15 [feet] and held 305 loaves at a time, all done with a long wooden stick called a peel.”
The bakery offered 32 varieties of bread, all baked on bricks.
After 20 years in the business, the flour got to Stewart’s lungs, and he contracted baker’s asthma, a common occupational allergic disease caused by long-term exposure to flour.
“I jumped at it and sold it because I was mad. The doctors told me if I didn’t quit, I’d die.”
Stewart, who had assumed ownership, sold the business in 1976 and moved back and forth between Smithers and Victoria. He worked for the Department of Highways, as a corrections officer, and eventually became a cattle rancher in Smithers before returning to Sooke, where he now resides.
In the meantime, the building played several roles under different ownership, including a wool shop, and a bed and breakfast, until it was once again re-opened as a bakery in 1999.
The new owners at the time, Mike and Shellie Gudgeon, renamed it Willie’s Cafe and Bakery, adding an extra “i” in honour of their son’s name, while still posting on their sign that the business was established in 1887.
Stewart found this a bit contentious, and said he approached the owners several times to inquire about changing the name back to Wille’s, and was told it would be considered.
“I don’t want any money, I just want to see it how it was,” Stewart said.
He was surprised, however, to hear that Willie’s had closed, but he had no idea the reasoning behind it.
In the end though, he hopes to see the business continue. “If I won the $50-million lottery, I’d buy the building and start the business all over again,” he said.
The current owners of Willie’s Bakery did not respond to a request for comment by the time of this writing.