The golden glow of flaky French pastries line the shelves, complemented by the cakes nestled in chilled display cases. The scent of soups, sandwiches and desserts fills the air, mixing with the aroma of fresh coffee and breakfast.
Here at Pâtisserie du Soleil located in Woodbine, Ala Nahal enjoys his life as the owner of the restaurant. The creativity shown by Nahal and his team of 26 has brought them success over the past 20 years in the form of loyal patrons, granting them staying power despite the harsh economic times during the past decade.
After Nahal moved to Alberta in 1988, the Iranian-born, French-trained chef found his passion for pastries when he started working for Amandine Bakery in downtown Calgary.
“I wasn’t trained as a pastry chef and I was mostly trained as a cook. While I was working at Amandine, I showed some interest by helping the owner Shotaro Kajita. He [is] a master pastry chef from France,” says Nahal.
Following a managerial position at Amandine, Nahal opened his own bakery under the name Terra in 1999, taking the time to further develop his technique.
“This career is not about money, that’s for sure. It’s about creativity. Every day you come to work, you can execute what you imagine into reality and make a product that people can enjoy,” says Nahal.
The name for the bakery had to be changed since its first opening due to a challenge from a B.C. business under similar branding. Coming up with another name was a struggle for Nahal, until an evening drive with his wife offered him the clarity that he was seeking.
“The sun hit my eyes as I turned the corner. Soleil. Then my wife said it. ‘Pâtisserie du Soleil,’” Nahal says.
The difficulties that small operators face in the way of financial support is a topic rarely spoken about publicly. According to Nahal, in the face of recessions and property tax hikes, it lies on the owners to carry the additional weight.
“We haven’t laid off a single staff in the past five years, we haven’t cut hours, and we haven’t reduced wages. So we carry all these hardships on ourselves as owners, but the bank doesn’t see that you’re doing everything right,” said Nahal.
As a business that offers catering, custom cakes, as well as operating a full restaurant cafe, maintaining the supply of helping hands since the 2015 recession has been a trial that the bakery has managed to endure on its own strength.
“Every time you present your case to the bank or government financial institute, the answer is generally no, because you’re a restaurant owner,” Nahal says.
Despite the pandemic, they are open for dine-in service and even opened a second location in the East Village in July.
With the perception of the bank being focused on franchises and corporations, the limited opportunities for local businesses to grow has been a cause for much frustration for Nahal.
“If [they] help us, we can open more businesses. We can help grow the economy, and we can make the city be more vibrant,” says Nahal.
Within Calgary, the strong ratio of franchises to local eateries has had lasting effects on its appearance to the outside world according to Nahal.
“People don’t come to Calgary because when you look at the food scene it’s 75 per cent franchises versus 25 per cent mom and pop. Where is the culture in that?” says Nahal.
If a focus on local business is achieved in the future, Nahal believes that Calgary could develop and further strengthen its status as a destination worldwide. He recalled one of his visits to a New York Starbucks, where there was no line up to be found.
“You go across the street, there’s a mom and pop cafe with a lineup out the door. People would rather wait in that line to get their coffee over crossing the street,” Nahal says.
The hopes for Calgary’s continued evolution in the food sector is an ideal held deep by Nahal, where the move away from using factory-frozen pastries could act as the means to pull people away from the franchised operations towards fresh foods from local businesses.
“We have a lot of great bakers, but not enough businesses. They could be multiplied if the demand transferred from the frozen bakery to the local bakery,” said Nahal.
Despite the financial pressures of operating in tough times, the recipe for success is found within Soleil’s freshly baked goods, a source of pride for Nahal.
“Make the people come to your establishment twice, three times, even four times a day every day,” he says.
With the bakery stretching past 21 years of operation, the impact that Calgary’s loyalty has had on the business has not gone forgotten, with Nahal taking the orders of long time patrons and adding them officially to the menu.
“We actually have an item on our menu called Harold’s Breakfast. Unfortunately, Harold [Swanson] passed away. Seven days a week he used to come and anytime he wanted to go on holiday, he used to call me and say ‘Don’t worry, nothing happened,’” said Nahal.
The loyalty shown to Soleil itself stretches past the patrons of the business and towards the team of the 26 employees running the bakery inside and out.
“I truly look at them as my children,” said Nahal. “Some of them have been with me for over 12 to 13 years.”