A Sweet Collaboration
September 15, 2014
By Janine Druery
At 2:00 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon, the large, airy retail storefront
and café of Bobbette & Belle Artisanal Pastries is buzzing. A group
of women laugh and talk over slices of cake; two young men grab lattés
at the counter; and customers saunter in to buy the shop’s infamous
macarons and other treats.
At 2:00 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon, the large, airy retail storefront and café of Bobbette & Belle Artisanal Pastries is buzzing. A group of women laugh and talk over slices of cake; two young men grab lattés at the counter; and customers saunter in to buy the shop’s infamous macarons and other treats.
|Allyson Bobbitt (left) and Sarah Bell of Toronto-based Bobbette & Belle. PORTRAITS by Malcolm Brown
It’s a good thing the proprietors, Allyson Bobbitt and Sarah Bell, are so animated, or they’d never be heard above the voices and the constant hum of the espresso machine. But their speech is lively and their laughter easy as they tell of how they got into the business.
“I didn’t come from a family of fine epicureans,” says Bell with a chuckle. “My mom was a terrible baker – my cakes always rose higher than her cakes did.”
That aside, Bell always had a passion for food, and she decided to study cooking and then baking at George Brown College in Toronto. She then went to work for Oliver and Bonacini, where she rose to head pastry chef at the acclaimed Canoe at a very young age. She then decided to try a new path and became a chocolatier at Soma chocolates.
Bobbitt’s road into the business was perhaps more atypical. Although she grew up with a grandmother who was a wonderful baker, she didn’t follow in the family footsteps at first. She pursued a science degree and then became a teacher. Eventually though, she decided to pursue her passion for art and for baking, and started up a cake business part-time.
“When I stumbled upon creating cakes about 10 years ago I just fell in love with it,” Bobbitt says. “I had always done a lot of art. So it was the perfect melding of the artistic and the culinary.”
Bobbitt and Bell crossed paths when they both taught at the Bonnie Gordon College of Confectionary Arts in Toronto. By that time, Bobbitt was running her cake business and had earned the Canadian Wedding Industry award for Cake Designer of the Year.
“Allyson would bring pictures by the school of the cakes she was making, and I thought she was just as crazy as I was in terms of dedication,” laughs Bell.
Bobbitt approached Bell about the possibility of working together and they launched Bobbette & Belle as a French macaron shop, starting out in a basement before moving into a smallish storefront space and expanding their products. When orders became too much for them to complete there, they knew they had to make the next step – and take a large leap of faith.
IF YOU BUILD IT
The pair opened a 3,000-sq.-ft. artisanal pasty shop in Toronto’s hip Leslieville district, complete with a retail space, a café, a place to display cakes and a giant baking area in the back. It was certainly a bold move, going from a tiny shop to a large, chicly designed store in a stylish neighbourhood.
|The front counter at Bobbette & Belle is chock full of cakes, macarons, cupcakes and other heavenly delights.
“I think the feeling was that ‘failure is not an option,’” notes Bobbitt. “And not to be cliché, but if you build it they will come.”
When they started, there were only three of them baking in the back; Bobbitt’s father sat up front, yelling back whenever a customer would enter the store. Today, the establishment has 20 staff, including bakers, cake decorators, administrative people and front counter staff.
The big, bright space features a wide variety of pastries, cakes, cupcakes, tarts – and their infamous macarons and acclaimed cakes. They also produce a line of packaged products like cookies, toffee and flavoured marshmallows. Everything is baked on the premises, using fresh, whole, high-end ingredients that include Lindt chocolate and Boiron fruit purées.
“We kind of walk a fine line between classic French pastry and more rustic North American-style pastry,” says Bobbitt. And while the products are simply beautiful, it’s about so much more than good looks.
“Our mission is to create the best baked goods you can find in Toronto” – in a beautiful but approachable space,” says Bell. Adds Bobbitt: “There is a lot of classic pastry out there that looks great and it is so tempting to buy it and it tastes like nothing. We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel – we do carrot cake, we do butter tarts, but we want it to be the best carrot cake you’ve ever eaten and the best butter tarts you’ve ever eaten.”
They have also made a complete commitment to customer service, knowing that you can always get somebody in the door once. “But, if you are not really standing behind your product and making a quality product, you cannot get them back in a second time,” says Bobbitt.
Adds Bell: People always talk about location, location, location. For us, its consistency, consistency, consistency.”
LET THEM EAT CAKE
The duo mainly sell their products in their own store, but have chosen a few choice places to share their goods; they are in Holt Renfrew, McEwen and O&B Artisan. They also have a display outside of Kleinfeld bridal boutique at the Hudson’s Bay store in the city’s downtown to showcase their wedding cakes, which have won them many accolades. Their signature wedding cakes sell for between $1,000 and $2,000, but their custom cakes can run up to $15,000.
What does $15,000 buy you? Well, for First Canadian Place, it was a five-ft. exact replica of its building. And cakes for corporate clients and discerning brides and grooms can run that high – creations that have appeared in a variety of magazines across the country.
It can take Bobbitt a month to create one of her couture cakes with all the elaborate sugar flower work that is involved. Sometimes she becomes so attached to the cake, it’s hard to let it go.
“If I go on delivery, I don’t like to leave the cake,” she notes. “I feel really sad leaving it behind. I’m glad I’m not there for the cutting part of it.” Bell merely laughs at this and adds: “Good riddance.”
While everything is falling into place for the duo, they aren’t shy about admitting the bumps they’ve had to smooth out and the hurdles they’ve had to jump over along the way.
|Sarah Bell (left) and Allyson Bobbitt stand by their amazing wall of cakes.
In addition to the long hours and learning how to stretch a dollar, they’ve had to struggle with the difficulties of finding dedicated staff, and learn to juggle their business with their personal lives. They’ve also learned that they can’t do it alone.
“We’ve had to learn to realize when we don’t know something, and to form a team around us who do know what they’re doing,” notes Bobbitt.
And they have learned that they can’t jump on every opportunity that comes along. For instance, while they’ve been the baking experts on the Marilyn Denis show for the last four years, they decided against doing their own show.
“We didn’t get into this business to be celebrities,” says Bell. “We got into it to be entrepreneurs and business owners.”
Bobbitt and Bell are not really involved in the baking aspect of things any longer. They only jump in for the bigger things now, like recipe development, large custom projects, and ideas for growing the business. They really want to stick to the retail side of things and hope to eventually open multiple locations across the city.
For now, they have enough on their plates to keep them busy, including a contract with Penguin to produce their first cookbook and a partnership with Roots for that company’s general store. Most exciting, perhaps, is their new store that is opening the first week of October in Toronto’s Lawrence and Yonge area. It will be smaller than their Leslieville digs, but will have a café, retail section and a basement in which the baking will be carried out.
Their many years of hard work have left them in an enviable position – and made them a rock-solid duo. Bobbitt and Bell’s ability to finish one another’s sentences, expand each other’s ideas and think along the same lines has made them a team in the true sense of the word.
“I’m the right side and Sarah is the left side,” jokes Bobbitt. “Together we make one whole brain.” !
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