Toronto’s Baker and Scone finds quick success
By Doug Picklyk
In April 2014, when chef Sandra Katsiou opened the doors to her small shop on St. Clair Avenue West in Toronto it was going to be an extension of her existing cooking and catering business. She knew her popular scones would be a good calling card—a nice nibble for customers waiting for their meal orders—but word in the neighbourhood quickly spread. On the first weekend, people were lined up out the door and down the block—the scones were a hit. Overwhelmed, Katsiou went into the back of the shop and cried. “That’s when everything changed,” she says.
“It was no more meals, no more food, it was just scones, and we’re talking about thousands and thousands of scones.” The crowds came not only on the weekends but through the week—the demand became constant. Initially she thought she’d be making a batch a day, but the scone has become the driver of her business.
Born and raised in the Toronto area, Katsiou always knew she wanted to be in the food industry. Although she doesn’t come from a family of chefs, mealtime was central to her life. “My family immigrated from Greece, and food is everything,” she says, noting that her grandmother “was an amazing cook and baker.”
A product of George Brown’s culinary arts program, Katsiou has been a chef for 20 years. After a start in restaurants and hotels, for 10 years she worked as a private chef for families and operated her catering service. As a personal chef she would spend summers at people’s cottages often making a lot of breakfast or brunch-time meals. Her scone recipes developed over that time and, after years of receiving compliments, she knew that when she opened her own shop one day they’d be part of the offering.
She had been formulating a plan to open her own storefront for almost a decade, and it was her husband, Charles Baker, who encouraged her to finally take the plunge. The shop’s name, Baker and Scone, is a play on her husband’s family name and her signature product.
She takes pride in being the first scone specialty store in the area. “In Toronto, there are a number of bakeries that I love that have amazing quality scones, but I really wanted to be the first with the idea of having scone in the name.”
It took about a year to find space in her neighbourhood. The 600-sq.-ft. unit she chose was previously a barbershop, and she stuck to a modest budget to fix it up. “I got great help from the Meridian Credit Union,” notes Katsiou. “Where the big banks don’t help little food service operations starting out, Meridian went to bat for me and got me a government-backed small business loan.”
She had enough capital to paint the walls white, buy an oven, set up the counter, a few tables and chairs, and go. Katsiou had an architect help with the layout, but she commandeered the design, selecting colours, flooring and the merchandising. “I wanted to have a different kind of display. A lot of coffee shops and bakeries are behind a Plexiglas barrier, and I just wanted a unique visual in terms of seeing the scones. Lucky for me they stack well, so we can place them in glass jars and put the lids on. It’s that old-style apothecary type of look, and each jar contains a different flavour.”
She acknowledges that the explosively positive reaction to the scones was a shock. “I didn’t realize this, but a scone is a daily consumable item,” she explains. “Unlike a cupcake or a doughnut, and more like a croissant, a scone with a cup of coffee can start your day… every day.”
While quick to admit that she’s not a pastry chef, Katsiou says that if France made a scone hers would be it. She’s taken the classic French laminated pastry technique, like mille-feuille or viennoiserie, and adapted it to scones. “If you look at our scones, raw or baked, all you see are these layers, and within that are pockets of cold butter that then bake and act like pastry.”
At the beginning it was a staff of two operating the shop, Katsiou and her executive chef Erin Featherstone. “She’s a young me, which I love,” says Katsiou. This past summer the shop doubled to 1,200 sq. ft., and it has grown to 25 employees. The front still has limited seating, but now there is a long table in the middle and a production kitchen in the back.
Baker and Scone offers about 50 different types of scones (including seasonal varieties), with a mixture of sweet and savoury. “We rotate the flavours. Of the 44 regular flavours the café sells about 10 to 12 varieties a day until they sell out.”
The café offers a lunch menu with soups and salads. They also sell branded goods including jars of granola, lemon curd and Scone in a Jar (the scone mix), as well as jams, coffee, tea and gift items. The company also offers The Gift of Scone, a gifting program where they’ll package and deliver boxes of scones for customers.
“I love packaging,” says Katsiou, “Put anything in a box and it’s a gift.” She worked with her brother, a graphic designer, on the name and logo design, and she researched boxes making sure she had the right colour, look and printing. “That’s one of the expenses that is really hard for a little business like me, but I had to have it.”
With a full shift of bakers on staff, Katsiou isn’t baking very often and instead thinks about the big picture.
After only two years she’s doing things she thought would take 10 years to accomplish. She has a wholesale department now with about 10 grocers buying frozen, unbaked, scones, which they proof and bake on site. “The goal is to take that idea to retail as well,” says Katsiou, who can foresee customers picking up boxes of frozen unbaked scones from their grocery store freezer and baking at home. “That’s in the next calendar year,” she laughs.
From the beginning she’s also offered Baker Eats: wholesome chef-prepared family meals available every Wednesday for pick-up or delivery. She expects to add more days as the service takes off.
There’s also a catering department for corporate or special events, and she uses the store for hosting cooking classes or renting out the space for small parties.
Katsiou is also working on the first Baker and Scone cookbook. “I work on the dream of growing the business in different ways.”
Despite all of that activity, everything comes back to the scone. “’Handmade with Love’ is our tagline,” she says, “We make here what I like to eat. Not indulgent, but good food made with quality ingredients.”
Maintaining that level of quality is a challenge as the cost of goods is constantly rising. “We have a lot of staff, and everything is made by hand, so we continue to find efficiencies and still do a good job.”
Reflecting on her success leads Katsiou to think about her grandparents. “They came here for future generations, like me, to have an opportunity like this,” she says. Inside, by the entrance to the shop, hangs an old barn-type door painted white. “It’s a door from the basement of my grandmother’s house. I’ve kept that door for 10 years knowing one day I was going to hang it on a wall. So my grandmother is here.”
Like a simple scone, it’s little things that can lead to great and unexpected opportunities. Sandra Katsiou knows it, and although proud of her past, she keeps her eyes on the future with plans for more big things for Baker and Scone.