Calgary couple who lost everything finds success with gluten-free bakery business

WATCH: Carolyn Kury de Castillo speaks with a couple who lost everything in the economic downturn in Calgary, and is now starting their business all over again with gluten-free products.

Argentina’s economic depression was nothing short of a nightmare for millions of people. The currency collapse, riots, as well as lost homes and jobs drove many to immigrate to Canada in the early 2000s. Sebastian Judkovski and his wife Yanina Rabinovich moved from Buenos Aires and decided to start their lives over again in 2003.

“It was difficult at first being separated from our culture, our friends, our language and our family,” Judkovski said. “It was not easy at all.”

Judkovski was trained as a pastry chef in his home country and opened the Ohh La La Patisserie in the Calgary neighbourhood of West Springs in 2012. For a number of years, he said sales were great, because customers had money to spend on high-end croissants. But then oil prices plunged in 2014.

“We had many ladies coming in saying, ‘My husband lost his job and we cannot come anymore’ or they’d come once in a while just for a little treat,” Rabinovich said. “You feel sad for them and for us as a family. We didn’t know what to do.

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“Sometimes you want to give up, but then you remember you have two little girls, so you have to keep going.”

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Amid tears and the financial hit, they had no choice but to shut the doors on their dreams in 2017, when they closed Ohh La La Patisserie.

“We were completely eaten by the crisis. We lost everything,” Judkovski said. “Since the crisis started, we noted that many–probably 70 per cent of our customers–lost their jobs and as a result, we were a very expensive place to go to. And they just couldn’t afford to come to our place anymore.”

During their years operating the pastry shop in West Springs, Judkovski was asked by customers to create gluten-free treats, and that’s what spurred him to begin again.

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Now, he is renting a kitchen in a Calgary community centre, focusing only on gluten-free items.

“It was not easy at first because we didn’t have many resources left, but we are entrepreneurs and we love Canada,” he said. “For a while, we thought about going back to Argentina–where we have our families–but we said, ‘No this is our home’ and we embraced our culture.

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“We embrace this country with all our strength, so let’s do it all over again.”

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Ohh La La Gluten Free Bakery is now supplying to many clients, including Calgary hospitals, Calgary Co-op stores, Planet Organic, Community Natural Foods and the Italian Centre Shop. The family says it’s been rewarding tapping into a population they say was under-served.

“People got used to trying products that were tasteless or that have a bad texture and I said to myself–since I am a pastry chef–why not turn this into creating products that people could absolutely love and say, ‘Wow, is this for real gluten-free?'” Judkovski said.

While the taste of disappointment from their failed business still lingers at times, Judkovski and Rabinovich are grateful to be living in Calgary with another chance to create a new dream.

“I believe completely that it was the right move and ever since, we love it,” Judkovski said. “We love Canada with all our soul.”

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