Urs Riesen brings a taste of Switzerland to Ontario’s north.
Urs Riesen of The Swiss Pastry Chef in North Bay, Ontario was born into a baker’s family. His father was a baker in Immensee, Switzerland, who specialized in gluten- and wheat-free products, and his brother developed the same specialty at a bakery in Kitchener, Ontario. As a kid, Riesen wanted to become a pilot, but poor eyesight and glasses put an end to that dream. Having grown up assisting his father in the kitchen, Riesen was 13 years old when he decided to become a baker. At age 15, he began apprenticing.
Baker training in Switzerland is not so much about getting your hours in, as about gaining skills, Riesen says. Individuals spend five days at a placement for every one-day in training. There’s also a written and a practical exam that follows the three-year apprenticeship.
Once he finished his apprenticing, Riesen left Switzerland for an 18-month exchange program in Denver, Colorado where he worked as a pastry chef. From there, he moved to Kitchener to work with his brother and saw the bakery through its “growing pains and expansion.” After a brief stint working in a restaurant and candy shop, Riesen returned to work with his brother.
Volunteer needs through his church brought Riesen to North Bay. He was familiar with the area because his in-laws vacationed outside of North Bay on Lake Nosbonsing. The plan was that he would begin working as a pastry chef in a restaurant at a major hotel chain. The offer fell through because of the decreased tourism that resulted from 9/11, but Riesen decided to move there with his wife regardless. It may have been a blessing in disguise for Riesen, who was approved for financial assistance through a municipal program to set up his own business. He bought a pastry shop at the edge of the city centre three years ago and fixed it up. Last year, Riesen was approached by a former staff member of the Downtown Improvement Area, who “said he would like to see a bakery in the downtown,” says Riesen.
He describes downtown North Bay, which has a population of 56,000, as still being spruced up, which means it was the perfect time for him to move into the heart of the activity. The majority of The Swiss Pastry Chef customers – except for those who are no longer within walking distance – were thrilled to see the bakery move onto Main Street, where it expanded to include a larger dining section and street-front display window.
A new location brings new relationships. The Swiss Pastry Chef is now only a few doors down from the Capitol Centre, an arts and entertainment centre, and next year the two businesses will co-sponsor a theatrical production. The public gallery in the Capitol Centre recently helped organize a 10-venue exhibition of photography that included The Swiss Pastry Chef.
The festival has received coverage from the local newspaper, CBC Radio and national art magazines. Riesen is a strong supporter of the arts and has received a number of compliments for hanging paintings by local artists on his yellow and rusty red walls.
Also near the bakery’s new location is the local farmers’ market, where Riesen has a booth. Now locals and tourists alike are discovering the bakery at the market and frequenting the Main Street location. The market only runs during the summer and business peaks during that time. Winter is slow but it gives Riesen an opportunity to take a brief break away from the “long, long hours” he puts in at the bakery. The in-between weather is quite good for business.
“If it’s cloudy, then we’re really busy,” he says, explaining that if it’s too nice, people are away at the cottage, and if it’s too cold, people aren’t out window-shopping.
When asked about future plans, Riesen says he would like to expand to another northern city. Orders already come in from places like Sturgeon Falls and New Liskeard.
“I would really like to become the place for wedding cakes,” says Riesen.
Currently The Swiss Pastry Chef makes an average of three wedding cakes per week. Riesen says the trend in cakes has definitely moved away from fruitcakes to cakes with butter cream, chocolate and vanilla icing as well as some cheesecakes and carrot cakes. To encourage wedding cake business, Riesen attends local wedding shows and, this spring, The Swiss Pastry Chef offered a discount for wedding cakes ordered far enough in advance. In terms of wedding cakes, “I’ve seen everything,” Riesen says, smiling. For example, he has received calls from drivers leaving Toronto for the three-and-a-half hour drive to North Bay, to ask for a wedding cake when they arrive.
In spite of “a lot of headaches,” Riesen says it has all been worth it.
“Two years ago, no one really knew me.”
Now things are changing and The Swiss Pastry Chef is becoming an integral part of North Bay’s downtown core.
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