“No matter which way I go, I always come back to food,” says Azra Zahirovic, owner of Real Sweets Bakery in Hamilton.
Whether in Bosnia, where Azra grew up with a love for fresh food and cooking, or in Ontario, where she came as a refugee in 1996, food has clearly always had a major pull in Azra’s life — and this pull only grew stronger when she found herself amidst the abundance of fresh food in Southern Ontario.
“Local has always been my thing,” Azra tells us, “I always wanted to do something with fresh, local food.”
And in the spring of 2012, she did just that, opening Real Sweets Bakery with recipes she had designed at home over the years.
Although the small business is fairly young at 5 years old, it is vigorously growing, and Azra’s sweets now have quite the reputation, especially among those who appreciate local. After all, the bakery was founded on the grounds that buying local makes a difference.
“We live here and the food around us is plentiful, flavourful and fresh; buying local makes all the difference in taste, and has a ripple effect on our economy,” Azra explains. Now, all her products proudly wear the Foodland Ontario logo.
The wholesale operation, including production and packaging equipment, is located in Hamilton in a 4,000 square foot facility, where everything is made from scratch using local ingredients. “We have a unique product,” Azra says, “no one has what we have.”
The famous all-butter pastry pies are known for their simple local ingredients: advertising that products are free from lard, margarine, antibiotics, hormones, preservatives and additives. They also have minimal sugar. “It’s like anyone making it at home,” Azra adds.
After mastering the sweet pie with fresh Ontario fruit—like strawberries, apples, blueberries, peaches, pumpkin, cherry, mixed berry—Azra added savoury pies to her repertoire, sourcing local meat and vegetables too.
The meat, apple and pumpkin pies are flying off the shelves on a regular basis. In particular, the Ontario apple pies are a favourite staple, with Martin’s Apples in Waterloo supplying Azra with fresh cut apples year-round.
Like any successful business, Azra has noticeably cultivated some valuable relationships, working closely with her suppliers, retailers and local farmers. Oak Manor Farms in Oxford County is another local farm she’s built an important relationship with for their high quality flour.
Having suffered from fibromuscular dysplasia, Azra knows the value in healthy eating and quality ingredients all too well. At home she tends to her own organic gardens; and it was this desire for real, simple ingredients that put her on the path to quality home-baking too.
“All these recipes come from a part of my life,” Azra explains, which has included some fun experimenting in the kitchen.
Growing up in Bosnia and not eating processed food, Azra tells us that she found cakes in stores here too sweet and artificial, so she started baking her own to sell. It was the popularity in her cakes that would soon lead to the celebrated pies.
A strong relationship with the Waterdown Farmers’ Market, where Azra’s been for 4 years now, has provided her with a testing ground for new products, where she can acquire feedback from the many customers she has come to know. “The people come back and back again, they love it!” she shares.
In addition to a couple markets, Real Sweets Bakery products are presently in 8 retailers, soon to be more. Azra’s busy expanding her vision, currently meeting with new potential partners while also hiring for herself. She’s even developed an Ontario spelt pastry for one buyer (a premium grain suitable for gluten intolerance).
Nature’s Emporium is the bakery’s biggest buyer, with roughly 3,000-5,000 pieces going to them every month. “They really embrace buying and supporting these local, quality products,” Azra says.
Real Sweets Bakery currently has over 20 products, but Azra confidently tells us that if we call her in 5 years they’ll have over 80.
This October, the bakery is taking part in Grocery Innovations Canada, a great opportunity for business growth (find them at booth 1837).
And there’s more in the oven, too. Azra has her sights on export opportunities where her products can be appreciated and promoted by other countries, which she credits to the quality of products here, like Ontario butter.
“There is a difference in the taste,” she says, “food here is absolutely amazing and we should share it with the world.”
We couldn’t agree more. So it’s a good thing we have passionate people like Azra on the job!
Check out Real Sweets Bakery online here to learn more about the products and where you can find them.