Bakers Journal


October 28, 2008

Even before opening the doors of Willow Cakes & Pastries in
Niagara-on-the-Lake, a sweet, yeasty-cinnamon aroma fills the air. How
could customers not file inside to choose from an array of temptations?

A Niagara-on-the-Lake bakery and pastry shop reaches a milestone in sales — and aims for more.

Pastry chef Catherine O’Donnell at the counter of Willow Cakes & Pastries in Niagara-on-the-Lake – a bakery she opened just four years ago. 

Even before opening the doors of Willow Cakes & Pastries in Niagara-on-the-Lake, a sweet, yeasty-cinnamon aroma fills the air. How could customers not file inside to choose from an array of temptations?

Willow Cakes’ proprietor Catherine O’Donnell has been serving up delectable edibles since 2004. Having reached a milestone of $1 million in sales last year, her philosophy is as simple as the natural ingredients she uses for her culinary creations – “maintaining core business values, personal service, staff excellence, and handmade, quality baked goods.”


Willow Cakes & Pastries is a cozy home-style bakery and coffee bar. O’Donnell’s culinary artistry is apparent with one glance at the display case, which is filled with an array of butter tarts, croissants, cheesecakes, chocolate truffles, quiche, breads, muffins, cakes and cinnamon rolls. O’Donnell’s signature items – White Chocolate Raspberry Mousse, Café Royale, Lindt Chocolate Caramel Cheesecake, Tomato Herb Bread and Pecan & Caramel Crème Brûlée, to name a few – round out the offerings.

 Willow Cakes’ selection of treats often includes seasonal fruit and ingredients grown locally in the Niagara regions; Willow’s welcoming storefront.

She remembers the life-changing childhood moment that set the course of her career: the day her “Nan” took her to Toronto’s King Edward Hotel for tea. Enveloped by the air of the occasion, the beauty of the pastries and the explosion of tastes, O’Donnell immediately knew she was “sold” on a career as pastry chef. She baked apple pies through high school at Chudleigh’s Farm in Milton, enrolled in the Baking and Pastry Arts Management course at Toronto’s George Brown College and invested four months’ more study at the Callebaut Chocolate Institute in Belgium before donning the official apron.

O’Donnell believes that continuous education helps maintain a competitive edge.

“You get sheltered when you own a business,” she says. “It’s important for professionals to continue to learn and experiment in their trade as new ingredients and techniques emerge.”

Her own learning curve began under the direction of mentor John Higgins and working as a pastry chef under world class chefs Peter Oliver and Stephen Treadwell. Along the way she accepted a position with Vintage Inns in Niagara-on-the-Lake and her love affair with the town began.

“Sitting by Lake Ontario, hearing the birds, being able to ride my bike on the trail and not have the city noise is just paradise,” she said, explaining why she opted to start her bakery business away from metro Toronto. She makes the hour-long drive once a month to get “a fix of the hustle and bustle” but is happy to escape the metropolitan mayhem and call Niagara-on-the-Lake home. 

“I have been blessed by a community, a staff and two amazing (teenage) children who have all bought into the business and who believe in me,” O’Donnell said. “You can sell the best product in the world, but without community and family support, it’s meaningless.”

Situated in the agriculturally rich “banana belt” of Niagara’s wine country, O’Donnell feels lucky to have “seasonal orchard pickings of strawberries, cherries, raspberries and peaches right at our doorstep” and is thrilled to participate in the Niagara Culinary Trail, which promotes and supports local foods, businesses, and farmers.

Of setting up shop outside of the city, O’Donnell admits there is a price parity issue.
“We are able to offer New York City or Toronto-quality products but small town communities aren’t as willing to pay the same prices”. 

The crunch is further felt as commodity pricing on things like gasoline, chocolate, dairy products, flour and packaging increase. Despite taking a hit to their bottom line, Willow Cakes & Pastries decided not to increase their prices, opting instead to find creative internal cost saving measures as they “ride out” the economic roller coaster. O’Donnell also tries to overcome the price mindset by emphasizing the value of fresh and natural ingredients used in her handmade bakery items.

“It’s what sets us apart (from grocery store bakeries). No mixes, no artificial bases. We use the best ingredients and strive to make everything from scratch.”

As a shop in a tourist town, Willow Cakes & Pastries abides by the peaks and valleys of seasonal business. During the first few months of the year O’Donnell subsidizes the shop by teaching baking to international students who are enrolled in the Niagara-on-the-Lake Chef School. From late spring on, the streets begin to crowd and business stays brisk until the end of September. The winter season is sustained through a regular customer base and an “amazing” Christmas season.

Aside from retailing baked goods, O’Donnell’s business savvy is apparent through related business ventures including the sale of gift baskets, special occasion cakes (that come with a promise of a 24-hour turn around time), entertainment catering, a bed-and-breakfast food product line and successful wholesale business. In addition, O’Donnell and her staff of 22 custom design and exquisitely decorate about 400 wedding cakes annually.

Her slant on industry trends? She’s of the opinion that consumers are leaving the health-conscious phase behind with the knowledge that desserts, when eaten in moderation, are not off limits anymore.

“People are feeling less and less guilty about desserts” and are welcoming the opportunity to fully experience them. Specifically toward the future O’Donnell foresees “a bigger push for fine desserts to complement wines,” and is currently in the planning stages of creating a new dessert bar, with an anticipated spring 2009 opening.
Serving desserts, breakfast and light lunches, Willow Cakes & Pastries is the place to enjoy an endless variety of “sugar and spice and all things iced” – and a place its customers, both local and from-afar, have embraced. / BJ

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