Artisanal baker Benjamin Manea, here with his wife Sharon Weiner, was recently diagnosed with ALS. Steve Kidd/Western News

Life takes an unpredictable turn for well-known South Okanagan baker

Walla Artisan Bakery and Café owner Benjamin Manea diagnosed with ALS

There is a biting irony in a Yiddish saying that seems all too true in the mind of a Penticton man whose world has been turned upside down after he was diagnosed with ALS.

Man plans and god laughs, it says, and Benjamin Manea could not think of a better way to sum up the unpredictable turn his life has suddenly taken, with doctors telling him he has about three years left to live.

Slow and steady, just like the passion and love he puts into the bread he makes at his Walla Artisan Bakery and Café business, was once Manea’s mantra. Believing “I had all the time in the world,” he is now running out of it.

“All along, time was my ally in extracting flavours from bread, pickles, pastrami, etc.,” he recently wrote in a letter to his customers. “Walla will have to be liquidated, along with its legacy; the bread that was baked here and all other things that made your life better and brought a smile to your face — will fade into history.”

There is no cure for ALS, and the disease is eventually fatal, attacking the motor neurons, and the brain loses its ability to control the muscles.

“He’s gradually losing the muscles that he needs to work, so he has no choice but to close the business suddenly,” said Manea’s wife, Sharon Weiner.

Walla has been open for about a decade, started after Manea moved to Penticton and couldn’t find any bread he liked. So he taught himself to bake.

“It took 10 years to build this business from just an idea. It wasn’t in existence before that,” said Manea.

Related: The rise of traditional baking at Walla in Penticton

His flavourful breads are well known throughout Penticton, and even beyond. Because they are fermented over a long period — up to seven days — they are digestible by people with celiac disease or otherwise requiring low gluten.

“He’s really been providing a service, not just to people in Penticton, but all through the whole Okanagan Valley and the Lower Mainland. People are constantly coming and taking 10, 20 loaves back with them,” said Weiner.

Manea and Walla Bakery can also claim credit for Penticton’s community market on Saturday morning. When the Farmers’ Market couldn’t make room for him and some other non-farmer bakers, he came up with the idea of a second market.

It’s an idea that has turned out to be a huge boon to Penticton’s downtown, with thousands of shoppers crowding the streets on peak days in the summer.

“This year, of course, we’re not going back to the market,” said Manea, adding that because of the success of Walla, they were planning to expand this year, with a larger floor space and more products.

“Also, we were about to create a pub in the space above the café,” said Manea. “It was supposed to be called Walla After Hours, from 4 p.m. to midnight, serving local beers and pairing with our food.”

Those plans are gone, as Manea shuts the business down over the next few weeks instead.

“To run it in this capacity, in this configuration, required a crazy person.”

“It’s not just about baking,” he said. “It’s about cooking: making pickles, smoking pastrami and all this. My schedule is 100 hours a week. The market was 110 hours in the summer.”

“You have to be dedicated without compromise. I don’t think anyone would take over Walla as it is now.”

Manea also has exacting requirements for his bread, with years of trial and error.

“It should be a symphony of flavour, it should be balanced,” said Manea. “My idea was to extract maximum flavour.”

Weiner adds that his exacting palette was responsible for the amazing food at Walla.

“You really can’t give it to somebody,” said Weiner.

For the future, Weiner said they hope to take time together.

“Hopefully have time for some relaxation and rest … spend time together, to be able to cherish every moment together, that’s what you have left,” she said.

They are planning to sell the equipment at Walla, either as packages or perhaps as a commissary (rental) kitchen.

“He has equipment there which would be perfect for a commissary kitchen, which Penticton badly needs. There are people looking to produce small batch food for the market, but they have to have a health-inspected facility,” said Weiner. “I thought it was a great idea that maybe an individual comes and buys it and then rents it out to people or a group of individuals who all want to get together and buy it and maybe use it in that way.”

Weiner said Jill Bradenton, manager of the Cannery Trade Centre where Walla is located, has agreed to act as an intermediary for anyone interested. She can be reached at 250-488-0521.

Manea is continuing with plans to give a talk at the Shatford Centre at 6:30 p.m. on April 9, Beyond Sourdough: a foray into non-traditional artisan baking, talking about his approach to breadmaking.

Physicist Stephen Hawking, who died earlier this month, was one of the most famous people with ALS.

“He was amazing because he lived 50 years with the disease. But the prognosis is three years,” said Manea. “It’s an inevitable decline because all the muscles slowly fail, and you can’t breathe anymore. The heart fails.

“I don’t fear pain, I don’t fear death. But I don’t like to be incapacitated.”

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