When I was in university I said, “I just want to retire and open an ice cream shop.” But I didn’t have to retire to do it. Haha. I always joked about it with my friends. I was obsessed with the idea of opening up a liquid nitrogen ice cream shop seven years ago. A pipe dream. It’s funny the way things work out.
– Christinn Hua, owner/recipe developer of Toronto’s Millie Creperie and Millie Patisserie
This is the story of how desserts have found new legs in the food scene, most notably in Toronto (as a case study). It’s also a story about how five young chefs and entrepreneurs made a commitment towards their craft, and have decided to stick to time-consuming, small-batch artisan methods in the wake of rising food costs, demands for value and commercialization of every commodity possible.
It’s also a tale of how I’ve never been satisfied just accepting observations as they are. (Which might have been the very reason I found myself spending too many of my formative years tucked away in a science lab trying to elucidate a curious, but against what literature would suggest, finding. I digress.) There has to be an explanation to observable trends, especially when it comes to a high-stakes market like food services.
I wanted to know why. There had to be some market trends to explain why not one, but over 30 businesses have opened and thrived in this competitive (and seemingly hostile – I mean, desserts seem to be the first victim of those concerned with health or nutrition) environment.
So I went on a mini-mission, as encouraged by my new editor at Globe & Mail, to profile some of the newly opened businesses and local talents to suss out their motivations given how fickle customers can be.
Here were five individuals from separate paths, all helping to make our scene more delicious. Below, a few quotes gleaned from the notes I took for the piece that shed further insight to their career choices.
While the article explored what and whys of the phenomenon (I do encourage you to click on the above link to check it out), it was a pleasure to profile the whos who were involved in the changing scene.
Unfortunately, due to the word limit, I couldn’t include many of additional excellent shares from these owners, pastry chefs and confectioners in the article. Below, a collection of insights gathered from these dedicated, hard working talents.
David Chow, Chocolatier
“It seems for a while Toronto was lacking. If you look at Montreal or Vancouver the pastry scenes are so much more established, but Toronto never had anything set. But now it’s bourgeoning and people are demanding better and better things. It will be exciting in a year or two.”
“Any small business is scary to get into, especially in the food business because people – especially in Toronto – can be fickle, so that’s a big risk. But if you do a really good product, with really good ingredients and it tastes great, then people will walk in and grab it, hopefully. It’s very rewarding; there’s nothing else like it.”
“I want to keep it small at the end of the day; the bigger you get, the harder it is to control the consistency and quality of your product. I’d like to keep it smaller, a more niche market, do more interesting things – still do things for normal palates, but also for adventurous palates. If someone comes to the store and asks about a chocolate bar, I can tell them about it because I made it myself four days ago with the six ingredients that went into it. I want to keep it like that, educating people…”
I’m the only employee – I have to deal with the front of house, the actual business side of it: the finance, the marketing. I was surprised at how difficult it is and have a greater appreciation with that side of the business. The best marketing for me right now is word of mouth and Instagram. So social media is a powerful tool especially for burgeoning businesses. It’s usually those who are more social media savvy [that are aware and actively seeking the product].
Stephanie Duong, owner/pastry chef of Roselle Desserts
“I was getting close to graduation [from George Brown] and it made me realize that there weren’t a lot of places in Toronto that I really wanted to learn at: there weren’t a lot of pastry shops and restaurants were cutting down on their pastry department. It was discouraging, in a way. So we went abroad, to France, where it started. I needed a change and it just so happened that the school was testing out the French pastry program and see what the response was, so I jumped on that and stayed on to work. Little did I know that was Bruce’s plan as well. We both ended up staying there for a year: he stayed in Paris for a year, I was in a little town in the middle of France and then I moved to Paris. We saw the level of pastry and it was so inspiring. I worked at Jacques Genin – his product was exceptional. Pierre Hermé – Bruce and I would go eat, and dream that there should be something at this level in Toronto.”
“We came back January 2013 and we didn’t find a place until December 2014. We had a tight budget and had to be under 1,200 square feet, the layout had to be right as well. I had experience working in restaurants and managing places, but nothing prepared us for committing to opening up a place. Usually the harder decisions are made first: finding the location, negotiating the lease, a lot of that was seeking advice wherever we can, a lot of reading, and praying we were making the right decision. A lot of things we’re learning as we go: costing, a lot of things we’re doing ourselves like accounting, training, fixing the washroom… in an ideal world I would just be making the cakes.”
“I’ve always wanted to have my own place, I love working and wanted something long term. I’m creative and I saw myself doing things. [RS: More creative artistic freedom, control vs business and being own boss? SD: Yes.] Being in industry, with the long hours, you can’t do that forever unless you’re going to be an executive chef at a hotel or consult. No one is a pastry cook for more than ten years. With our prices we try to be more efficient with our time, try to do things that make sense without compromising quality.”
I love meeting people, even before being in industry. Food is love – it’s something that unifies people, it’s something you share together, and dessert is like… what makes you happier than when you eat ice cream or cake? To have a place to be able to create things like that and talk to customers is the best part of my job. I love it.
“I think there’s always a market for good desserts or pastries, but when restaurants cut back on desserts (because they’re not making any money on it, people aren’t excited when it comes to desserts. Whereas if you put time, i.e. Richmond Station, people are excited about dessert now because they made it a thing. I think when you have a good product; people are going to be open to it.”
“We don’t have any other means of marketing, but on a day to day basis 70% are non-Instagram, they’re regulars that love our stuff because they’ve had it. Instagram’s great, and I guess people like to try stuff, but I find a lot of people will just come and chase the next thing and you know…”
Christinn Hua, seen in header, owner of Millie Creperie and Millie Patisserie
“I think everyone always wants to do what they love. I’ve always had a sweet tooth… and sometimes when you get in it you realize maybe that isn’t a good basis for why you do something, but that was the initial appeal. I loved sweets and I couldn’t find exactly what I was looking for, so I’m going to make it myself.”
“I studied business and worked in real estate investments; I learned to code. I wanted to work in a start-up, and in a way this was a start-up. I did that for a year, but I wanted something brick-and-mortar. In today’s world, everything is online, so I wanted something [concrete].”
“It’s not getting started that’s the hard part; it’s after you start that you realize the commitment you’ve made. Finding a location (I spent eight months)…”
“It was hard breaking into the market. I mean the Market’s great, your neighbours are awesome, it’s a mixed bag with the crowd, but you have great neighbours and the community is amazing there. People didn’t know what anything was, so I had to explain to them things like what a crepe was, then what the Japanese twist was. ‘So it’s like a cone?’ ‘Yeah, it’s like a cone.’ So you find ways to explain to people what it is. It’s hard to explain: it’s something you have to see and taste. Once they taste it, it’s like ‘okay, I get it now.’ The response was positive after the education, and that took a while.”
“It’s a unique product they can’t find anywhere else. There were points where I was like ‘if I make it, they will come,’ but it’s a tough industry. It’s trying to manage the risk, because so many restaurants/businesses close because people don’t pay their rent (I worked in real estate) and it’s a scary prospect. I don’t want to bite off more than I could chew.”
I’m hoping to open a third. Most of my aspirations come from wanting things I want to eat for myself. Haha.
Cori Murphy, pastry chef, alo Restaurant
I think people are getting more and more interested in desserts. They are more willing to spend the $5 on a handcrafted chocolate bar made a local chocolatier or order one of every dessert at the restaurant just to try them all.
The menu at alo is a great way to get people into dessert. We have a pre-dessert to bridge the savoury and sweet side, followed by a choice of chocolate and then a seasonal dessert.”
“Working in an independent shop versus a restaurant kitchen is quite different. It’s not so much the workload as it is the lifestyle and product. Working at Patrice Patissier, I would start at 8 a.m. and have all the entremets and petit gateaux ready for the opening at 10:30 a.m. I would work anywhere from 9-16 hours depending on the time of year and events (at that time, the wine bar was also open). The restaurant has similar hours, just starting and finishing later and a majority of it being dinner service.”
“I prefer restaurant. I like the rush of service, the noise, creativity, plating, even being in the weeds can be fun. It’s an exciting (and sometimes stressful) environment to work in. I do really enjoy working in a patisserie, though. I absolutely love French pastry. I would love to open my own place one day down the line. I would love to do something along those lines. Hopefully in Toronto, though the rent is a little terrifying. ”
Sanober Motiwala, owner of Scoop Shop
I never had any illusions of grandeur and thinking I was going to get rich going into the food industry as a business owner. I just found an area that fascinated me, enjoyed and was a challenge. When I first started, and was going to the markets, TUM and the standard circuit of food events it was more “do I have something that someone would want to buy and eat?” It was wonderful to get positive reception to the product. That gave me encouragement to put out the sort of things I was thinking of doing. It fueled the passion.
“I had modest projections, so my numbers are modest within the first year and I hope that over time it can grow. I would like to be at a point to draw salary from my business. If I didn’t have the catering, the farmers market, the events and other stuff, I probably wouldn’t have jumped in and opening up a shop. There are so many things with opening up a shop. That’s a critical part in terms of my sales projects and figuring out my budgeting for the shop, it doubles up as a production space in the back for the other things we do which is primarily in the summer time.”
“Running a small business I’ve enjoyed doing, learning different things, even doing the marketing, as much as doing a new ice cream flavour.”
“They’re small batched, made from scratch – which allows us to tweak things/having full control, use local dairy and fruits.”
I didn’t want to be a jack of all trades in the food industry. I thought it would be more of a risk to do ten things, and do an average job at them, than to do one thing and excel at it. People can come to you because you’re the specialist in that space – hopefully they’ll think of us when they think of ice cream.