Yuri Jmaeff said he’s been around a bakery for as long as he can remember.
“Since I was small enough to fall into the bowl of a 20-quart Hobart mixer.” Fortunately, the mixer wasn’t running at the time.
Jmaeff came to Creston from Fruitvale, where he had been running his own bakery for five years, but in a rental property whose owner wouldn’t sell.
“My dad (Alex, a master baker) was in Vancouver picking up supplies and someone pointed out an ad listing a bakery for sale in the Kootenays,” he recalls. “He called me and we decided to check it out.”
Jmaeff agreed to purchase the building, which had been sitting abandoned since the previous operator left town.
“That was in the winter of 1986. We thought we’d be open by Blossom Festival.”
No such luck — there was a ton of work to do and Alex supervised much of the renovation and rebuild while Jmaeff kept working in Fruitvale. It took eight months of work before opening day.
“Dad said he would help me to start it up, but that it would be my bakery. I always remember him saying, ‘It’s not what you do — it’s how you live your life.’ That was a defining moment for me — I’ve never forgotten those words.”
Jmaeff is proud to have become Creston’s longest serving “food business operator” but has some regrets about never having taken a baking course.
“I learned so much from my dad, who studied baking in Chicago,” he said. “And of course, I’ve done tons of reading. I was invited to write the master baker exams by the American Institute of Bakers, but it just never worked out for me — one of the few regrets in my life is not getting the accreditation for my knowledge — it would be nice to have that piece of paper.”
His work at Alex’s bakery in Port Alberni — where the family had relocated from Nelson when Jmaeff was a child — became more formal when he worked for several hours each morning before going off to high school. Even before that, he’d fill in if one of the other bakers called in sick.
After graduating from high school he played junior hockey for a year, did a year at Malaspina College, then went to work for a construction company.
“I mixed mortar for the old Italian bricklayers,” he says. “They loved my mud — it was consistent, never too thick and never too watery. When they had to work overtime they always requested that I get the extra hours, too, so I could mix their mortar!”
Jmaeff smiles when he remembers reading an ad in Washington’s Nickel’s Worth advertiser when he was in Fruitvale.
“There was an ad for a 20-quart Hobart mixer. I needed one so I called the guy in Spokane, but he wouldn’t tell me how much he wanted. ‘You need to come down and see it,’ he said.”
Jmaeff left work that day and drove to Spokane. The owner was a retired German baker, but he still wouldn’t tell the young business owner how much he wanted for the mixer. Eventually, he told Jmaeff just to take it.
“I’ll come up and see you. We’ll work something out,” said Henry, the baker.
“About a week later, Henry and his wife, Ann, arrived at my bakery wearing their ‘whites’ (traditional bakery garb),” said Jmaeff. “Henry came into the back and just started baking with me. Ann started washing dishes and cleaning up, then she ended up serving customers!”
Jmaeff began fast friends with Henry and Ann, then with their children. He would eventually serve as a pallbearer at Henry’s funeral and remains friends with his offspring.
“Henry was like a second father. He shared his recipes and taught me so much.”
By investing his life in the Creston Valley Bakery, Jmaeff says he has fulfilled a dream.
“I was renting in Fruitvale and the owner wouldn’t sell to me. I didn’t want to feel temporary and coming to Creston was a great decision. My dad was right when he said, ‘If you want to make a business successful you’ve got to be in it for the long haul.’
“It seems almost unbelievable that on Sept. 16 I’ll have been open for 26 years.”
It was a good business decision when Jmaeff decided to add a deli to the bakery business, he says.
“What better way to get people to taste my bread than to get them to have lunch at my place? And the community has supported me from day one. I still have regular customers who came in on that very first day. And I really love to see young families come in to buy their family packs of bread — it’s a very satisfying feeling.
“It still amazes me that customers might have to park a block or two away and then walk down the street to buy my bread.”
Being a “scratch baker” is important to him. Increasingly, it’s something that the market is supporting, too, as customers want natural (he uses no preservatives), healthy food.
A couple of years ago, he introduced a line of artisan breads, using flour milled at the Pride of the Valley Flour Mill, a non-profit enterprise operated in Grand Forks by the Doukhobor Heritage Milling Society.
“That old hammer mill produces the most incredible flour,” Jmaeff says. “I’ve never used any other flour like it.”
There is even more heritage in those artisan breads, too. All are made from a rye sour starter that Alex brought back in a suitcase from Russia a dozen years ago.
“That was pre-911,” Jmaeff smiles. “I don’t think you could get away with that today.”
Much of his bakery’s success he attributes to his employees, many who worked through high school and have gone on to other careers.
“I’m always hearing back from them, asking for a reference or updating me on their life — what a wonderful feeling!”
Support from retailers and restaurants is a big deal to Jmaeff, as well. He supplies locally to, in no particular order, Famous Fritz Meats and Deli, Real Food Café, A Break in Time Caffé, Jimmy’s Pub and Grill, Chatka Family Restaurant, Broaster House, Sirdar Pub, Wynndel Foods, Coffee Creek Café, Crawford Bay Store, Paul’s Superette, Wynndel Foods, Kokanee Inn and the Creston Golf Club dining room.
“It’s great when I go out and see my products in other businesses — what a satisfying feeling. And it reminds me that I’ve always meant to order plastic bags with the bakery’s name on them!”