“I had a successful corporate career, but food was my passion. Leaving it all behind to open a bakery was the best decision I ever made”
Jean Blacklock spent more than two decades working as a lawyer and at a bank. Her true calling? Opening Prairie Girl Bakery
Jean Blacklock spent over 20 years working as a lawyer and at a bank, but in her spare time, she fantasized about icing flavours and cake textures. In 2011, she took the plunge and opened Prairie Girl Bakery, which specialized in cupcakes and grew to five thriving locations across the city. When the pandemic led to a tough decision to shutter the business, Blacklock didn’t let that deter her from doubling down on her lifelong passion.
I grew up on a farm in Saskatchewan, where work meant early mornings throwing bales of straw and dessert was eaten after both lunch and dinner. Growing up, I baked recipes with names like Lickety-Split Cake and Mrs. Robinson’s Graham Wafer Squares. By 12, I was lighting bananas and rum on fire in my copper flambé pan, baking Black Forest cake and cajoling Dad to buy cherry kirsch at the Saskatoon liquor store. My high school side hustle, JB Catering, offered duck breast in cherry sauce and chocolate mousse cake to its clientele, which consisted of my married sister, Patti, and her lawyer friends.
At 17, I announced that cooking might be my career. My parents turned to Patti to let me know that a career means medicine, law, engineering or, maybe, accounting. My sister was kind, and I followed her advice to become a lawyer without resentment.
I earned business and law degrees at the University of Saskatchewan, graduating in 1985 and moving to Calgary to start my career, excited to see what the big city held for me. I specialized in estate planning and loved its deeply personal aspect. I remember one client, a 40-year-old man given only weeks to live, who said, “Jean, it’s okay—I’m just gonna play the hand I’ve been dealt.” I also remember the 70-something rancher with thousands of acres and millions in the bank who was shrouded in sorrow, powerless to change the hatred in his family.
I was lucky: skilled with clients and with my parents’ tireless work ethic, I developed a reputation in the Calgary wills and estate community and became a partner in my early 30s, never questioning whether a career in law was really for me.
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But my passion for food never waned. I took loaves of homemade bread with ramekins of salted butter and strawberry jam to associate committee meetings. I discussed my Christmas brunch menu with Marilyn, my best friend down the hall: French toast casserole or ham-and-cheese strata—or maybe both? When I won $100 in a contest for Calgary’s most decadent dessert, I made my first-prize chocolate caramel tart for the lunch room at work and gave the recipe to anyone who asked. If people thought my fixation on food odd, they never let on. Mostly, I’ve noticed that, when good food appears, airs and graces fall away and people just eat.
Five years later, a search firm called. Their client, a bank, was looking for a wealth-services executive. I travelled to Toronto on my first business-class flight and wore a red two-piece skirt suit to my interview with the bank’s chief operating officer, on the 68th floor of Canada’s tallest office tower. Soon afterward, I accepted an offer to be the Prairies private banking market leader in Calgary. Once again, I worked hard and enjoyed much of the experience: learning about revenue targets and expense control, taking part in amazing leadership courses, running creative projects, and hiring and mentoring great people.
But I didn’t really fit in. I was too emotional, too expressive. I didn’t take a beat before replying to annoying emails. I didn’t nod and smile at meetings that struck me as silly. I worried constantly about work: something always came up that felt like an emergency, and even cooking and baking stopped being an oasis.
In 2003, five years after I’d joined the bank, I was transferred to a different role in Toronto. I put my head down and focused on work, lunching on broiled peppers without olive oil to lose the pounds I’d accumulated by eating chocolate chips and peanut butter. At the head office, the bank introduced a new vice-president of communications. The first time I saw Andrew, he was at a podium, speaking quickly and eagerly about improved client newsletters.
“What’s-his-name is so annoying,” I said to my colleague Diana. “He needs to tone it down a bit.”
I don’t remember when I first shook Andrew’s hand or registered his kind eyes, but his enthusiasm for those newsletters was the first of many lessons he taught me: to really care about the job that’s in front of you, even if it’s producing a newsletter few will read. I noticed how he could bring a light note to even the most serious work, calling the latest crisis a “clean-up in Aisle 6” or asking if there was another way a problem might be MacGyvered, a verb we accused him of making up but that turned out to be in the dictionary, meaning to repaired with what is on hand.
Although his career was the heavy-hitting one in our relationship, Andrew lavished more praise on me—my “restaurant-quality” mushroom risotto, the Santa tins of assorted bars and cookies I made each December. Before I met Andrew, my skill in the kitchen had always been appreciated, but with him, it felt unique and important.
In 2008, Andrew and I decided to get married, and the markets crashed, events that together resulted in the head of human resources appearing at my office door to deliver those casual-sounding but carefully scripted sentences that fire you without saying so. Before she left, she asked about the ceramic cupcake on my desk, and I mumbled something about loving to bake and maybe opening a cupcake bakery, now that I’d been fired.
I met with search consultants and thought about going back to law, working at another bank or training to be a mediator. But, all the while, I doodled in the margins of my notebook about the flavours I would make if I opened a cupcake bakery, which of course I wouldn’t do because it was not realistic or practical.
After a few months, it was Andrew’s insistence on my creativity and potential that moved the scribbled menu out of the margins and into the world. My trust in his opinion outweighed my hesitation about myself. In 2011, after two years of preparation, I opened a sparkly bakery in downtown Toronto specializing in cupcakes and cakes. My mom and dad had died in 2009 and 2011, respectively, and it felt good to settle on the name Prairie Girl Bakery. Sometimes, working out front at our first store on Victoria Street, I sensed my parents’ presence; I could almost hear them exclaiming about what Jeannie was up to now.
By the time the pandemic hit, PGB employed over thirty people across five stores, three right in the heart of the financial district, one in Yorkville and another in Markham. We were always busy, with both walk-in customers and catering orders: 12-pack boxes of cupcakes for banks’ Pride Day events, towers of mini cupcakes for lavish weddings, individually boxed “classic size” cupcakes for sales conferences and bar mitzvahs. We were known for our lineups on Fridays in the First Canadian Place concourse.
The end started with our St. Patrick’s Day orders. Around March 13, 2020, customers started cancelling their orders of chocolate mint with shamrock toppers. At first, it was only one or two tentative-sounding customers, but soon it was a flood of cancelled events. Over the next two days, the management team and I met several times, first closing one store, then two. By March 16, all of our stores were closed, and even the bustling Bay and King corner was emptied of life.
That night, I went into the dark store on Victoria Street. I hadn’t been alone in the store for years. Like a restless teenager, I opened the cooler out front and found a box of cupcakes, beautifully piped, unclaimed. I took them home and put a chocolate salted caramel and a vanilla coconut on a plate for Andrew and me to share. Between big forkfuls of soft cake and buttery icing, we talked about the team’s applications for the government’s salary assistance and closing up for a few weeks. We had no idea what was coming.
For the rest of that year, Toronto’s downtown opened in fits and starts. As 2020 wound down, with no sense of when the core might open up for good, Andrew and I started to talk about closing Prairie Girl permanently. On a snowy day in January, I made the call. I left the corporate PGB office, walked to the building’s formerly crowded elevator bank and took an elevator to a random floor. I knew whichever floor I chose would be dark and empty, a perfect place to sit alone for a few minutes and reflect. Soon, the elevator door opened and the familiar building security guard stepped out. In a normal world, she might have pulled out her two-way radio and said, “Tenant in distress on wrong floor.” Instead, she just smiled kindly and got back into the elevator.
I don’t know anyone who got through the pandemic unscathed, and my loss was saying goodbye to the business I loved. Still, the decision to open PGB was one of the best I ever made. Working in the food-service business was a calling like law and banking never were. Even those gruelling final months taught me a lot, like how to make hard decisions on the fly and when to let go.
In the aftermath, I turned, as always, to baking, and I slowly felt the pull to open another bakery, one that would celebrate sitting around, drinking great coffee and enjoying old-fashioned treats like sticky buns and banana pudding. And then, just as I found a quaint corner location, Andrew decided that, after twenty-one years at the bank, he was ready to leave and join me in my food adventures for a few months. A few months became a year, and now we find ourselves immersed together in Sticky, always thinking of fresh ideas to test and new directions to try.
We have such different skills, and all of them are useful. Andrew forges relationships with suppliers; I come up with maple-pistachio-cherry sticky buns for Christmas. Andrew glides through the Nutritional Facts Table software; I write cheerful copy for social media and the website.
Most days are long, and the lists are endless. Weekends find us in the store all day, then picking up local takeout on the way home: Delhi-style butter chicken from Mannat Indian, Motor City pizza from Detroit Pizzeria. At home, we feed the cats and set the table, just like Mom would always do, even just for a quick lunch after church: tablecloth, napkins and cutlery all laid out with care. We place our takeout containers in the centre, slump into our chairs, and suddenly I’m back at the farm, Dad digging into Bananas Foster and ice cream, saying, “This is something, Jeannie. This is really something.”