And to think he almost went into the orthopedic shoe industry. Marty Curtis could probably use a pair with the amount of running around he’s been doing of late.
Curtis owns and operates Marty’s World Famous Café in Bracebridge, Ont., the Canadian café that has received accolades the world over for the Canadian sweet everyone in the country has an opinion about: the oozing, gooey and oh-so-good buttertart. Most recently, Curtis has been busy promoting his new cookbook, Marty’s World Famous Cookbook: Secrets from the Muskoka Landmark Café, by doing television, radio and newspaper interviews, as well as book signings.
It all began for Curtis in 1996. After a stint in the restaurant industry (starting out at the age of 14 as a pizza apprentice) and some time in real estate, Curtis went to work with his grandfather in his orthopedic shoe business in Orangeville. Scouting out a second location for the business in Bracebridge (in the heart of Ontario cottage country, about two hours north of Toronto), Curtis found a building that was almost perfect for the venture, except for one thing: the size — it was a little too big.
Trying to figure out what sort of business he might be able to share the location with, he spoke to a friend who ran an ice cream shop. When he found out what kind of money could be made selling ice cream, Curtis needed no more prompting. He opened up an ice cream store (what better fit for a cottage country town?), soon expanding into a coffee shop to make it through the winter months. When that caught on, Curtis, with his mother’s guidance and inspiration, introduced baked goods to sell along with the hot beverages.
“I got my inventive mind from my dad, my cooking skills from my mom,” Curtis says.
When the café’s buttertarts became a hit Curtis received a call from the Toronto Star to participate in the newspaper’s buttertart competition. When he won the contest, Curtis’s fame as buttertart king (or “the Michelangelo of buttertarts,” according to chef Michael Smith, who wrote the foreword for the cookbook) became set in stone. With mentions in British newspaper the London Evening Standard and the New York Times, Marty’s World Famous Café started receiving visitors from all over the world.
The famous travel guide Lonely Planet, in its Canada edition, heaped praise on Curtis’s buttertart, proclaiming: “Buttertarts are ubiquitous across Canada. But don’t form an opinion on them until you’ve tried the Marty’s version. With its flaky pastry and molten caramelized middle, this is the buttertart at its evolutionary peak.”
Did the hoopla surprise him?
“Not really,” Curtis says. “It’s not the ingredients; it’s the people who make it for you. It’s the emotional attachment.”
He’s been able to hone in on that attachment. Curtis is a man who knows marketing (even the café’s bottles of water carry a Marty’s World Famous label), knows his business and knows his market. These are people who don’t hesitate to buy a pie (one of Marty’s Big Ass Pies, about 14 inches across and three to four inches deep) for $100, including the pie plate, or the plate alone for $80. Neither do they balk at the prices in the café: a single slice of pie retails for $9, while a single buttertart goes for $3.50. On a summer afternoon, the café’s screen door never stops opening and closing, the line never stops forming. Many people come up to shake Curtis’ hand, simply say hello or get his signature in a newly purchased cookbook.
The cookbook idea started brewing more than a year ago, after Curtis watched a Paula Deen biography on the Food Network. After pitching the idea to Whitecap Books and getting the go-ahead, Curtis says he began the task of trying to figure out what recipes to include.
But did he struggle with including the buttertart recipe and giving away his secret? If he did, he’s not telling.
“I knew people would expect it in there,” Curtis replies.
He also says the idea of franchising, creating a buttertart business empire across the country, didn’t appeal to him.
“I could easily have gone there, but it doesn’t represent me or the product,” Curtis says. “I like authentic, original, one-of-a-kind, special feeling stores.”
So if growing by franchising isn’t part of his overall plan, where does Curtis go from here? He envisions more products like Marty’s Big Ass Pie Plate — and maybe, one day, a food show. Whatever it is, Curtis says he wants it to have impact.
“From a young age, I knew I wanted to affect a lot of people in a positive way,” he says.
And that’s something he’ll keep on doing with the food he creates, the ideas he cooks up and the experiences he creates for people.
Marty Curtis’s buttertarts are large; they’re sold individually for $3.50 or by the half dozen for $18. The flakey pie crust (which originated at a Quebec nunnery) embraces the gooey, oozing filling until that first bite, when the sweet, golden liquid begins to flow.
“The buttertart is so much more than just a small pastry shell filled with brown sugar, butter, and eggs,” he writes in the preface to, Marty’s World Famous Cookbook, published earlier this year by Whitecap Books. “It’s a symbol of Canadiana and is proudly thought of as our national pastry. Over the years Marty’s has won several awards for its buttertarts. We’re known throughout the world, and our customers come from too many countries to mention. It’s now time for our secrets to be known to you, too, in recognition of your custom and loyalty.”
Interested in trying out Curtis’s recipe? You’ll have to buy or borrow the cookbook – or enter our competition (see sidebar).
But just including his most famous recipe in the cookbook wasn’t enough for Curtis.
“The dilemma for me was, ‘How do a I get a tart to every table in the country?’” he says.
He has solved that dilemma by creating a patented buttertart kit. Check it out at visiting www.martysworldfamous.com
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