– Story by Sandra Jones Photography by Don Denton
Kate Cram is living proof that you can’t go wrong when you find career inspiration on an episode of Oprah. Indeed, serendipity crossed paths with talk show television in the ‘90s when this prolific chef and serial entrepreneur was finishing high school in Ladysmith.
“My Dad saw an episode of Oprah and the guest was the executive chef of the Four Seasons Hotel in New York. My parents knew my passion was cooking and baking and they wanted me to go to the best school available,” recalls Kate. “They figured that this chef would know where that was, so my Dad tracked her down and called her.”
The answer: The Culinary Institute of America. Five days after her 18th birthday, Kate and her knife set jumped on a plane and headed to upstate New York for the two-and-a-half-year program.
“The great part was that it taught me all of the practical skills but also the business management skills.”
Both would prove to be necessary ingredients when Kate ultimately returned to Ladysmith and opened her first restaurant, The Sunflower Café. But when the Old Town Bakery became available, she bought it and closed the café.
Under her guidance, Old Town Bakery experienced spectacular growth, but years later, Kate began experiencing health issues.
“I ended up changing my diet and going gluten-friendly. Our two youngest sons were also affected by gluten and couldn’t eat anything at the bakery.”
That was the motivation for the launch of Wild Poppy Bistro in 2013.
“We focused on gluten-free and some vegan options, neither of which were mainstream at the time. A lot of people doubted the idea and thought it was pretty risky being so tailored to one specific thing. But we truly believe that we make gluten-free really delicious and a lot of people come in and don’t even realize they’re eating gluten-free.”
Standards for producing the range of bread, muffins, cookies, cakes and baked goods are exceptionally high and the harshest critics are at home when Kate develops a new recipe.
“I had a four-year-old when we were creating the recipes for Wild Poppy so I’d start there: ‘Will this pass the Ben test?’” Kate laughs. “If it did, we knew we had a winner.”
Wild Poppy opened its doors during Ladysmith Days and Kate was surprised and overwhelmed by the response.
“A mom brought her daughter in and she got her a gluten-free donut. The mother was crying because she had never been able to get her little girl a treat she could safely eat. We realized pretty quickly that what we were doing had an impact on people’s lives and was so much more than what we envisioned.”
Customers quickly came from up and down the Island as well as from farther afield.
“We are a destination for people with dietary restrictions, for those who follow keto or paleo diets and for many who are looking for delicious but healthy options. We have customers who come to Ladysmith from Calgary or Vancouver to visit family and pick up big orders to take home.”
For Kate, running two food-based businesses and a staff of more than 50 requires early mornings and long days.
“I love the morning bakes and coming in at 3 am when you’re the only one on the street. For me it’s therapeutic to be busy with my hands. I think my secret ingredient is love because when you’re really happy and enjoying what you’re doing, it goes into the baking.”
While Wild Poppy began its life as a dine-in restaurant and bakery, the COVID-19 pandemic prompted Kate to adapt their offerings and pivot into a take-out market.
“We had just leased the unit next to us with plans to create a bigger restaurant, but then COVID-19 dictated we could only have six people in our dining room. We knew we’d have to change what we were doing so the market seemed like the right idea.”
Wild Poppy Market still features their sought-after baked goods plus many savoury items from their restaurant menu.
“Our bestsellers are probably our breads, our muffins and our cheesecakes, but also our salads,” says Kate. “I like to think of our salads as a rainbow. There are so many beautiful vegetables, and we combine crisp greens with some grains, roasted vegetables and proteins like free-range roasted chicken or wild sockeye salmon. We take a lot of pride in using fresh ingredients and the response has been fabulous.”
While public demand for gluten-free products has more than caught up to Kate’s original vision for Wild Poppy Market, it’s her artistry in creating the products that has people lining up for more.
“I use a blend of five or six different starches that varies depending on what we’re making. That’s why they taste so good and aren’t like a ‘rock’ the way some gluten-free products are. It takes more time and we have to carry more inventory but it makes a way better product.”
The pandemic environment has affected the steady supply of the high-quality, specialty ingredients that Kate relies on to create her recipes.
“We import a lot of ingredients from Germany and they were out of shipping containers so we’ve had delays in getting our products. Even getting it transported from Montreal is taking extra time these days.”
Island-sourced products also play a prominent role at the market.
“We carry a local selection of jams, jellies, vinegars and more. As summer approaches, we’re going to carry fresh flowers and produce from a couple of different farms. We like being able to pull all of these specialty products together, support other local producers and be a hub.”
In fact, a third community hub is under construction at their newly leased space.
“We’re opening an ice cream shop next to Wild Poppy Market. Families will be able to wander down in the day or evening and enjoy a specialty coffee or ice cream and take it to the beach.”
Despite the pandemic and the pressure it places on the restaurant and food industry, Wild Poppy Market, as well as Old Town Bakery, continue to evolve and thrive.
“We have customers that come every morning and we try to make them part of our lives as much as we can. We’re part of the Ladysmith family and if we didn’t have their support, we wouldn’t have survived. Whether people come to us for the socialization or because of food sensitivities, we believe that our businesses are an important part of town life. We’re excited about what we do and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
Check out the Wild Poppy Market online.