“I’m thrilled,” says Mary Mohammed when she hears that Mary’s Bread Basket is to be inducted into The Coast’s Best of Food Hall of Fame. “I never thought it would come this far.”
“It” is the business that she founded in 1983 at the age of 53, in the brand-new, not-yet-fully constructed Halifax Farmers’ Market, the outgrowth of a flourishing home-baking business that was derailed by a visit from a health inspector. “I’d started baking health bread because one of my sons had asthma and allergies. Soon I was making more than my family and friends could eat. I started selling it at the Dairy Deli, and then at a health food store on Spring Garden Road, and my sales just grew from there. But one day a health inspector showed up at my house, and said that I faced a $200 fine or time in jail if I didn’t stop selling bread I’d made at home. I worked hard for my money, and I didn’t think I’d look cute behind bars, so I stopped.”
But Mary, a “true Bluenoser,” born in Nova Scotia after her parents arrived here from China, didn’t stop for long. If she couldn’t sell the bread she made at home, she thought, she’d open a bakery.
“My husband didn’t like that idea,” she says. “He was from the old country, he wanted to be the one who provided for the family.” It was a rough time, but eventually her husband---who was born in the West Indies and worked for the Defense Research Establishment of the Atlantic in Dartmouth ---came around. It took a year to secure funding and find a place to set up shop.
“We visited many banks,” Mary says, chuckling, recalling that her lack of business expertise did little to convince bank managers that she was a good investment. “Once, a bank manager asked me, ‘What will you do if you get more business than you can handle?’ I guess he was hoping I’d say I had a back-up plan, but I just looked at him and said, ‘I’d laugh all the way to the bank!’ He laughed and laughed.” Once she had funding, Mary set up shop in the Farmers’ Market, in a shop that was so small that “customers would come in one door and stand at the counter, and then they had to go out a different door, because there was no room for them to turn around!” Business was slow in the beginning, but as devoted customers braved the construction zone and word of mouth spread, things began to pick up. A contract to supply a local Sobeys store brought in some extra money and greatly increased exposure.
“People were so surprised that the business took off so well, because I never had much publicity or did much advertising,” Mary says, crediting occasional shout-outs from local radio personalities and articles in The Coast with boosting business. As people began to flock to Mary’s Bread Basket, Mary added the now-famous cinnamon rolls and other pastries to her repertoire, realizing that “over the counter, people want something fast, that they can eat on the spot. Bread is something you take home.”
Soon, Mary had to move the business to a bigger location, just around the corner. That’s where people still line up for a Saturday morning cinnamon bun, grins on their faces no matter the length of the line. The smiles could be because “people love to eat things that are hot and fresh and right out of the oven,” or because the cinnamon buns are made with “the best, most expensive” cinnamon available, cinnamon Mary has told more than one person acts as an aphrodisiac. Or maybe it was because they wanted to see Mary.
“People just loved to come down to see me, this funny lady in the white cap,” says Mary, laughing. For 23 years, Mary and her white cap---“I needed to cover my hair, and I don’t like ball caps”---were a fixture at the Saturday morning Farmers’ Market. “Oh, we laughed at the market, but we had some sad times too. When I started the business, I said to my husband, ‘I want to know who eats my bread,’ and I did get to know my customers. We went through a lot together: I watched their children grow up, they told me when they got cancer, or when their husbands died. When I finally decided to sell the business, I cried and cried, because I knew I would miss the relationship I’d had with my customers.”
Mary sold the business to Allan McNeill in May 2006, and continued to work at the counter on Saturday mornings until the following Christmas. “I stayed long enough,” she says. “I wanted to stay long enough to get him on his feet, and then I was finished. It was never my livelihood, it was just something I did for fun, and you can’t do things that way if you have a family depending on you. He has his ideas, and it was time to let him realize them.”
Happily retired, Mary still loves to bake and to spend time with family and friends. And she still laughs and laughs. —Austen Gilliland
1st runner-up: Cinnabon, Halifax Shopping Centre, 453-4380
2nd runner-up: Certainly Cinnamon, 1673 Barrington Street, 423-2466