To most Ottawans, Elgin’s eclectic little bake shop with the timeless pink logo has grown to be nothing short of iconic.
Whether during the bustling morning week day foot traffic or while stumbling home from the pub after midnight, peering through Boko Bakery’s windows for a glimpse of their topical treats (and sometimes munching on them) has become a ritual for many.
This might explain why when, on November 25, 2018, owner Yoko Sakiyama and her family served up their last batch of breads and cookies from their “little shop on a busy street” at 280 Elgin last month after 36 years in business they were, justifiably, packed.
On top of a very busy post-retirement schedule moving all her well-loved equipment and baking supplies out of the little shop her family has come to call home, Yoko was kind enough to provide some wisdom and retrospective in the Boko afterglow.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Apt613: First, thank you for taking the time to chat at what must be a very hectic time of transition. This must be an emotional time for you, too. How does it feel to be capping off 36 years in business?
Sakiyama: I was taken aback by the amount of support I received since announcing our closure. It was so moving. It feels amazing to have been a part of something that has affected and touched so many lives.
It is bittersweet, but I feel so proud of what I was able to accomplish by simply baking breads and sweets for the people of Ottawa.
It is bittersweet.
Your cookies rule. I wasn’t surprised to see you were all out by afternoon on closing day. What prompted the decision to give out free treats for your closing weekend?
We have always promoted our new products with free giveaways and donations. We believed that this was always the best way to get people curious about what we had baked up.
It was only natural that we spend our last day giving back to our wonderful patrons, but also to raise funds to donate to Jack Purcell community center and Elgin Street Public School.
We received so much help from the community over the years, and it felt great to be able to give a little back to help them along their journey.
With designs inspired by everyone from Kanye West, to Ned Flanders, to Spongebob Squarepants—your shop always had the most creative cookie concepts. Where did you get your ideas?
My father and I began this decorated cookie project years ago, only during holiday seasons. It slowly evolved into a mainstay once my son suggested he try his hand at decorating them, since he has always had an artistic itch. A blank cookie canvas and his love for drawing ended up being the perfect match.
His inspiration came from pop culture and his upbringing, as well as things he just thought were funny or a little edgy. Creativity was the backbone of everything in between the walls of 280 Elgin St and we’ve tried our best to stay that way.
How to be unique and nostalgic were definitely [things] we would constantly talk about during our family meetings. And finding a creative way to express that was so much fun.
His inspiration came from pop culture and his upbringing, as well as things he just thought were funny or a little edgy.
Of the thousands of unique cookie designs, did you ever have a favourite?
The Cookie Monster cookie [which was], one of the first designs that customers really seemed to enjoy and comment about, and any design that was fairly easy to execute. Sometimes time crunches were real!
I understand Boko Bakery has always been a family-run project since you first opened in 1982. Would you say your kids are as passionate about baking as you are?
I believe that my passion for baking has evolved over the decades. It was truly a survival business in the early stages. It went from investing 18 hour days, sleepless nights and no days off—all to support my family—to then eventually having the support of my family and really being able to explore more opportunities the bakery had to offer.
It was truly a survival business in the early stages.
I feel that the passion my family brought to the business in the last decade was to constantly try and make Boko Bakery better in any way shape or form.
A passion for growing and learning through baking is a blessing that we will all continue to cherish. It has taught us all a great deal about community, family as well as what it means to be a part of a family owned-operated business.
Being a woman entrepreneur isn’t easy. Is there one thing in particular that inspired you to start up your own bakery in Ottawa?
I experienced my fair share of discrimination being a woman in business, many people treated me poorly and there were definitely times were I would find myself crying alone in the back room.
Luckily I was able to release some of the frustration on the bags of flour—exceptional punching bags!
I now realize that it only made me stronger as an individual and made me into the person I am today. I was inspired by a fairly common need—to support my children. Through my hard work I wanted to provide a greater opportunity than I had growing up.
With so many years in business on Elgin, you must have some wild stories. Looking back, is there any one memory that stands out?
Our hours of business.
Our location was very unique, with many pubs and late night spots we found ourselves staying open until 1am–2am for several years to provide sweets for dinner goers and pub crawlers alike. With baking starting at 4am this meant we weren’t too far off a 24 hour business.
We found ourselves staying open until 1am–2am for several years to provide sweets for dinner goers and pub crawlers alike.
Some might say the changes spurred by gentrification in many Ottawa neighborhoods (like Centretown) is troubling. Many staple family-run businesses like Boushey’s grocer (who closed their doors in 2016) and now Boko, are closing. How do you feel about this?
As far as family run businesses go, I believe they have a huge advantage on larger corporations and societal trends.
There isn’t much politics or bureaucracy, which makes family-run small businesses super flexible and mobile.
If shop owners put in the work, and create a loving community around them and support one another, I think we can have a very nice diversity of establishments co-existing with one another.
And finally, we have to ask, what comes next for you post-Boko?
For myself at the young old age of 65, I will be devoting most of my time to care for my father (92) who waits for me in Okinawa, Japan.
My mother passed away 3 years ago at age 86, and I was fortunate enough to have had my children watch over the Bakery while I visited Japan during that time.
[At] this stage of my life, [being] with loved ones is very, very important to me—and our families’ focus is to take some time off and do exactly that. It will be a great opportunity to recharge, and bake up [some] new recipes to try in the coming years.