30 Years of Silver Hills: What We’ve Learned
Three decades ago, in 1989, three friends who believed in the incredible benefits of sprouted bread started a bakery. Brad Brousson and Stan and Kathy Smith named it Silver Hills Sprouted Bakery after the British Columbia guesthouse where the first loaves were made—this was where the demand outgrew their capacity and things really took off. And the rest is history, right? Not quite. In 30 years, they’ve learned more than a few lessons about health, running a business, and what matters most.
Tell us about some of Silver Hills’ firsts. What was getting started like?
Stan: Brad made our first loaves of sprouted grain bread in his Mom’s kitchen and 6–12 months later was baking in a small little bakery. For us, the first loaves of bread coming off the line was like a work of art. When you start something the focus is about the product and getting set up. Then you wake up and say, “Oh wow, we have a business,”. There are certain emotions you experience when you see the first packaging, like, “This is real! This is a real product!” And something as simple as walking into a store and seeing the product there. I remember being in a store in Vernon, BC and seeing Silver Hills Bakery products and thinking, “That’s us!”
Brad: Getting into Save-On-Foods after some health food stores had first taken us on was a big, big thing. Then we got into Capers, which became Whole Foods, and then Choices.
Kathy: Those were big catches.
Brad: I couldn’t believe it. You can’t imagine how many times we had sent samples and our story before. Finally, they said yes.
Stan: Growth is incremental but there’s a real excitement around a new piece of equipment and seeing the bread coming out. You see the product and you’re proud of it. I think what surprised us the most was that the bread was loved by people who were not concerned about health; people who were accustomed to choosing foods on the basis of taste alone were choosing our sprouted grain breads just because they tasted great.
What was it about sprouted bread that made you believe it could be a successful business?
Stan: Stone-ground bread was really the only whole grain healthy option back then, but sprouted grain bread introduced whole grain bread with a different texture, look, and eating experience. It was lighter and had a bit of a nuttier taste. There was a clear science behind it that explained why it was different and potentially better—if you take a kernel of wheat and it starts sprouting, logic would tell you that would change things inside the seed—when it’s ready to grow there’s more nutrient availability for starting the growth of a plant. We thought it was a cool idea, so we made it, and sure enough, other people started asking for it. When we realized that people were enjoying sprouted grain breads over other breads that weren’t even whole grain, it gave us confidence to continue to grow.
Brad: When I was a boy my Mom made bread for a friend’s husband who had cancer because we believed there was more benefits than just a regular loaf of bread. We started making sprouted grain breads for the guests at the Silver Hills Lifestyle Spa. Initially people were asking for 2 or 3 loaves and then they started asking for boxes of 15 loaves. That’s a lot of bread for a family to take home!
Kathy: All three of us were very fortunate that we had parents who were always looking for healthier ways to live and whole grain bread was standard. It’s so special that we had that even though at the time we didn’t recognize or appreciate it.
How has your health changed over the years? What strides have you made?
Stan: The really cool thing about being involved in the health industry is that you’re often one of the first people to find out about new ingredients, new foods, and problems with existing foods.
Kathy: Yes. Like don’t just get wheat, get organic wheat without the sprays.
Stan: You just keep finding out more and more. And if you use the knowledge for your own benefit it helps in being able to share with other people. You can say, “We learned this and we’ve started incorporating it ourselves and it’s been fantastic.” Most importantly we’re way more careful now about not just eliminating less healthy foods, but in being more intentional about choosing foods based on their nutritional value.
Kathy: Exactly. You could say we’re “nutritarian”.
Stan: We’ve started to realize we need whole plant foods, and we keep trying to do that now. And by getting a variety of whole, plant based foods it improves total nutrition. But health is more than food. Even with something simple like drinking water, studies show the importance of getting enough and health implications of being dehydrated – which can happen even without the sensation of thirst. There are also activities like sleep and exercise. These things make such a huge impact on health. I exercise more today than I ever have in the past.
Kathy: There’s always new information and new opportunities; something to be grateful for. To focus on getting to do what we love, that’s so awesome. We’re doing what we love and what we believe in.
Brad: It makes it so easy to get up in the morning. I just talked to someone this morning and shared how important it is to be careful and conscious of what you put into your body, and he looked at me and said, “I’ve lost 50 pounds, just because of that. What I’ve done is avoid meat and add more fruits and vegetables to my diet. I can’t believe it.” It was just a three-minute conversation but it’s easier to talk about health now because more health related information is out there. We’ve experienced it personally, and we’re seeing it change people’s lives.
Kathy: Hearing stories of people who have been helped is really like payday. Someone I talked to this past week was going up north and he said to me, “I can’t live without this bread. I don’t know what you put in here, but I can’t live without it.” It’s so great because it’s increasing their quality of life by eating our bread, and it’s so simple.
What were the biggest growing pains for the company?
Stan: Entrepreneurship seems to be 90% hard work and 10% panic. The reality is when you’re trying to grow something, it’s always changing. And when you’re small, little decisions can have huge long term implications. Like the choice of a distributor or where you’re located. We started in Lumby, BC and while that location was driven by idealism on our part, it was a great incubator place because we could make mistakes, learn from it and get back on track in a quieter way. We needed that long runway. We needed to be able to have the experience of that steady growth.
Brad: Stan said it, it’s just hard, persevering work.
Stan: For us it wasn’t so much, “If this doesn’t work out, we’re dead.” It’s more, “This is really hard going. How do we get there from here?” When you have a small company and you’re serving a community, you develop systems and get everything working smoothly, and then you aspire to serve customers in different and larger regions and that means you have to think and move in a totally different way. As you keep growing you realize that what you did at that level doesn’t work at this level. You have to start all over again and try to figure it out.
What were some big exciting milestones for Silver Hills?
Stan: Squirrelly bread was a real milestone for us. It was amazing. Brad came to me and said, “I have this idea to make Squirrelly bread,” I said, “That’s the stupidest name.” I wanted it to be done right and not have some quirky name. We had other breads that were good but when Squirrelly bread came out with all those seeds it was a big success. When it was toasted all the seeds had a great aroma and the bread tasted great. It seemed like just overnight we were baking more Squirrelly bread than anything else. And the name proved to be a brilliant move on Brad’s part.
Brad: Big 16 too. Today Big 16 and Squirrelly are neck and neck for the #1 spot.
Stan: One of the other big milestones was when we had our farm in Lumby. It had been a hog farm and all the neighbours hated the smell of it. We wanted to have a bakery in the country and the regional district said, “We will let you put a bakery there, as long as you sign a covenant saying you won’t have any hogs.” We thought that was great since we didn’t plan to have farm animals anyways. We got a combine and tractors and we grew peas and spelt and other ancient grains to use in the breads. There was something very gratifying about having the farm and bakery connected. Probably the biggest milestone for us was choosing to move to Abbotsford, BC in 2002 and then in 2014 we made a second move to our current location which is also in Abbotsford.
Brad: And we made that move without stopping production.
Kathy: I still can’t believe we did that.
Stan: Knowing that our products were available in every single province, that was exciting. And then in all the states in the US.
Kathy: I remember thinking the building at Lumby was such a big building. And then our next place, I thought, “This is HUGE, are you sure?” and then again with our current location, wondering if we should rent half of it out. We need to keep a journal of all of the blessings.
What are you looking forward to?
Stan: Finding more healthy solutions for customers. Thirty years ago, if you were organic, you were a bit crazy, but now there’s a lot of people who are crazy along with us. I think the healthy food community is looking for companies to provide new ideas and solutions and we look forward to being part of that and to discovering ways to make it easier to eat healthy. But now that the company has grown we succeed by making the team a success. It isn’t Brad, Stan, and Kathy sitting around a table saying, “Well, I think we should make this or that new variety”. It’s about a team of people working together.
Brad: And customers want to believe in the company that makes the products they eat. That person I talked about earlier comes to The Sprouted Oven (the Silver Hills retail store and bakery in Abbotsford, BC) because he knows that he can trust us.
What are your ingredients for a healthy, balanced life?
Stan: Having a company is a lot like having a newborn baby. There’s no such thing as balance sometimes. It can often be 24 hours a day. It’s balanced in the sense that the business is both fun and work. Balance to me is not how much time you spend on something but how much you enjoy it.
Kathy: I think that having passion for it is the big difference. No matter who you’re talking to or where you go, it’s just part of the conversation. It just weaves through my life.
Stan: Kathy can get a conversation with someone transitioned onto a health topic in less than five minutes.
Brad: I would add that when you’ve got grandchildren or aging parents, keeping the balance with exercise is so important. When you exercise, your whole brain and body chemistry is different. It’s easy to neglect, especially if you’re short on time.
Stan: The principle that’s always worked for me is arranging my day in order of priorities. The most important thing is to make sure your thinking is correct. The second thing is that you’re only as good as the body you live in, in terms of effectiveness. You’ve got to get your exercise right out of the gate. Then the rest of the day can frazzle as it goes on, but you’ve done it.
Kathy: But it can be hard to switch to the mornings.
Stan: I know that if I spend an hour exercising in the morning, I make up that hour in the day. If I stop exercising, which I have at times, you spend the day fatigued, even though you shouldn’t be. When you exercise, you’re energized.
Kathy: Every morning I make time to connect with God. I don’t know what the day is going to bring but it’s OK as long as I don’t face that day alone. It really gives me peace and confidence that no matter what comes my way, I can take it on. It makes a big difference in my whole perspective.
Brad: All the money, all the time, all the humour won’t solve some of your problems.
Kathy: One of the most important ingredients for a healthy balanced life is working with great people. Having a team that shares your passion and values is not easy to find. I’m delighted to have the team that we do. It’s a family of people all pushing in the same direction. It’s energizing. We really do appreciate everyone; we can’t do this alone.