For city bakers, secret ingredient is love
by Aaron Chatha
With the hypnotic aroma, calming heat and all the wonderful options, it’s hard not to love being in a bakery. It’s often said that cakes and pastries are made with love, and that’s an important ingredient in a competitive marketplace. “It’s a romantic idea, (running a bakeshop),” said Alexandra Chan, owner of ITZA Bakeshop, while she added almonds to the croissants she would soon be baking.. “If you want to talk strictly business: the profit margin is tiny and you’ve got to love to do it. I mean, it’s crappy hours. Cooking and baking are crappy hours.”
At 8 a.m. Chan is already baking, and continues working until late in the day. Chan constantly changes her menu, baking seasonal treats and experimenting with new recipes. If something becomes popular, she‘ll make it a regular item. But if not, it’s got to go, despite the protests of those customers who may have liked it. At the end of the day, she has to survive against other bakeshops, not only in the city, but as close as the next block over. ITZA Bakeshop, located in the Devenish Building on 17th Avenue S.W., is run only by two dedicated people, but gets most of its business from repeat customers. “My goal is to be a neighbourhood bakeshop. Know your customers,” Chan said. “Know what they’re doing, know how their families are, who’s getting married, who’s turning one. You know, I get to know that, I get to know their names.”
The same service isn’t as ingrained in chain bakeshops, like those found in grocery stores. But at chain stores, it’s much easier to pick up a cake and go, thanks to their abundance of space and cash. You’ll find your favourites in large stores every day, which is appealing to people who enjoy consistency in their baked goods. But for those working there, there is less room for creativity. Caitlyn McDermott has seen both sides of the coin, having worked at a Safeway bakery for three years before moving to the Lakeview Bakery, which specializes in healthier baked goods, organics, and less-conventional flours such as spelt and kamut. “As for getting a cake from a small bakery versus a large one, I can say from having worked both aspects of the industry, that I would prefer a smaller bakery,” McDermott wrote in an email. “I think more care and attention (are) put into the cakes, whereas in a large store or chain, the cakes are essentially made like an assembly line.
Not to say they’re just whipped together, but the cake isn’t generally made from scratch, nor is buttercream (icing) used to ice the cake.” McDermott’s primary job is decorating cakes, and one of the main reasons she got into the business was to explore her artistic inclinations. While she didn’t get all she wanted working at Safeway, her role at Lakeview Bakery allows her to have fun with her designs and choose what to display for customers. “I love how one day I can decide I want to put out cake slices in the showcase, then the next day I can put out something entirely different like cheescake.” Not all customers understand the delicate craft of decorating a handmade cake.
One of the most frustrating parts of McDermott’s job is when a customer expects something substantial, such as a cake, to be made to order, right there and then. Outside of large chain stores, bakeshops don’t do drive-through cakes. “It’s frustrating how people watch all these cake shows that are on TV now, and just assume that I can whip something like that up last minute,” McDermott said. “Unfortunately, it takes more than five minutes to put a cake together.” But after all the mixing, baking and decorating, these bakers agree that their best currency is customer satisfaction.