Contemporary food trends in Calgary have been popping up and continuing to grow over the past few years, encouraging chefs and bakers alike to showcase their creativity. While new spots are gaining traction, traditional places are holding strong with a new wave of foodies that are exploring the world of baked goods. Here’s four local pastry spots that stood out for their modernization or traditionalism.
Hidden Gem hitting trends : Butterblock
Karen Kong, the owner and head baker of Butterblock on 17th Avenue S.W., has a long history of working in restaurants and bakeries, including Teatro, EAT and Alforno. Kong’s bakery is inside the Devenish building, and off-the-beaten-path spot officially opened in February but has been operating for over a year.
“I’m sure in every baker's life that you honestly imagine it like you imagine your own wedding. It’ll be perfect if it’s marble top and it’s so bright, you have all your equipment set up the way you wanted and organized,” said Kong.
Receiving her pastry arts diploma from the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT), Kong’s training and experience led her to open her own establishment, but not without a few challenges.
“I went to the bank, but couldn’t get any loans that I wanted, that I was asking for, so I started going to search for cheaper equipment and not your storefront that as you can see is not right off the street, looking for cheaper rent and cheaper equipment. It really helped that I was in the industry for a while.”
Butterblock wasn’t Kong’s dream setup, but the out-of-view space has worked out better than she expected. Especially since Monogram Coffee had reached out to Kong to start baking for their locations, and she was soon supplying their entire pastry case.
“Which was a struggle for me, because I was renting kitchens. I didn’t have my own place but business was growing at the same time. I started thinking that I needed a spot where I needed a kitchen.”
The open concept kitchen lets Kong talk to customers while she’s prepping, rolling out fresh croissants (plain, stuffed, chocolate, or sandwiches), scones, cookies and a weekly feature on Tuesdays.
“It makes them [customers] choose instead of a big brand of like Safeway, where you don’t know where the cookies [are] from, you don’t know if it’s from a mix or if it’s like actually done by scratch; versus you see me doing it in the bakery, you see me scooping it, you see butter around, flour around, that's a totally different thing. I think that’s what is getting people to support business, and choosing where they’re going.”
Kong’s use of social media led her Instagram followers to contribute to her success, and trying to find her business made it more interesting.
“Because it’s hidden a lot of people were messaging me on Instagram when I first opened, saying, ‘I can’t find you anywhere on 17th,’ but I am getting a lot of people [coming in] getting so happy when they’re like, ‘I finally found you!’”
The upswing in Calgary's culinary growth also pushes Kong to try new pastries and trends, much like the new fascination of the cubed croissant.
“I feel like when you come back to Calgary, people talk about what they have seen and ate and done in other countries and they’re craving for that experience, but they can’t get it in Calgary,” said Kong. “I think people are just wanting to try new things, they’re more open now that Instagram is so easy and you’re seeing things that you really want to try, versus them seeing a good old traditional thing that you have always seen all your life.”
“It’s something different, I think that’s what Calgarians are wanting and I think that’s what gets them excited.”
Two favourites became one: Decadent Brulee
Decadent Brulee is a combination of two previously separate bakeries, Decadent Desserts (est. 1983) and Brulee Bakery (est. 1997).
Pam Fortier bought Decadent in 1997 and then joined the two shops in October 2016, keeping everything exactly the way they were in terms of recipes and combining all the products.
“When people love something that much you don't want to change it, and I’m just happy they’re here. I make two different chocolate chip cookies and when someone is new to the whole scene they go, ‘Well why would you make two chocolate chip cookies?’ Because the Brulee people love the Brulee chocolate chip cookie and the Decadent people love the Decadent.”
Favourite cakes like the lemon crème and diablo torte keep regular customers coming back from when Brulee started with Mary Ann desserts, which was in the Devenish building 30 years ago.
“So as much as both Decadent and Brulee had a deep base of long-time customers, every day there are multiple people who say they’ve never been here before. ‘Google, that’s how we found you or just walking by,’” said Fortier.
Tucked away in the lower level of a building on 11th Avenue S.W., the cozy bakery feels small town European in the middle of Calgary's downtown. The important part of Fortier’s business is making everything from scratch. While other bakeries are using mixes or already made products, Fortier wants to remain all in house.
“I can buy brownie mix, I can buy anything, right from having cakes that are already done and you can just thaw them and put them out and back up have the cake mix and the fillings,” said Fortier. “What the salespeople will tell you [is] it’s more consistent, it saves you on costs, it helps with your productivity, staff costs and whatever. They never really talk about the taste.”
Seeing more bakeries conform to getting their products delivered keeps Fortier searching when she travels to bakeries that still make products the old fashioned way.
“There’s a wording where they’ll say, with bread, with cake, whatever, baked fresh daily, not made fresh. So it’s looking at the semantics of how they’ve phrased it.”
Another noticeable change in the bakery scene for Fortier is the amount and size of wedding cakes being purchased.
“I think more and more people are having smaller weddings, where they’ll say I want to come in for a tasting and a consult, and when you poke around for a little bit they’re only having about 18 people, and they want a six-inch cake with no extra decorations and a few cupcakes.”
A lot of couples are completely opting out of the cake as well. “Young people are rewriting the book on weddings I think and ditching the fusty stuff, the old days stuff and keeping the traditions that they like, which is kind of cool,” said Fortier.
While the long-standing shop focuses on keeping the customer favourites well in stock, they do incorporate new ideas and creativity to see if customers grab onto them.
“I’m just grateful people love something enough that you have to keep making it. But we do try and I’ve got staff and I’m always looking at different ideas.” The younger bakers at Decadent Brulee pitch in their ideas for features as well.
“[But] there are somethings we just can’t not make,” said Fortier, referring to the staples from each store that are customer favorites.
A century of classics: Glamorgan Bakery
While Glamorgan Bakery opened in January 1977, the family who started the shop has 100 years of unbroken baking heritage.
Started by Don Nauta and Rudy Bootsma, the spot they purchased was already being used as Eric’s Bakery. Since they bought an existing enterprise, it wasn’t hard to build on to the place as business started growing in Glamorgan.
“Over the years it just expanded. It got another bay and knocked out the walls so we’re actually three bays now. It’s Dutch heritage baking, both of them started baking in Holland before they came over to Canada,” said Jamie Bootsma, who recently married into the family.
Her husband, Steven Bootsma, has been working there for 13 years, and the two are in the process of taking over the operation.
“We’re trying to keep it very much consistent and the same so there won’t be much notice, and it is a number of years transition period,” said Jamie Bootsma. She will be focusing on running the store and managing while her husband continues baking.
The bakery focuses on classic baked goods: bread, buns, cookies and cakes, keeping the customers coming back for the consistently fresh-from-scratch products.
“The most popular items are definitely our cheese buns whether you buy them fresh or eat them right away or you can buy them frozen in a box and bake them at home, that’s been really popular,” said Jamie Bootsma. “Also, the rolled Florentines are well known, it’s actually an almond brittle with a mocha buttercream in the middle and the end are dipped in chocolate.”
Their summer feature rotates through fresh fruit tarts, but otherwise, the company maintains its known menu.
“Our customers love that they know what they’re getting and it’s been consistent over the 40 years that we’ve been here, so it is more the tradition and it’s European inspired, especially Dutch.”
Calgary’s tough economy isn’t sitting negatively against the locally run business, as they’ve seen an increase in sales with customers making room in their budgets.
“It’s interesting because bakeries are counter-cyclical to the recession, so when there is a recession going on we actually see a spike because more people aren’t eating out at restaurants but they still want to have the luxury of good food, so bakeries actually get busier during those times.”
The Glamorgan Bakery will continue to focus on classic, traditional baked goods as they move forward.
“It’s been a family-run business for forever and it’s going to continue being that way,” said Jamie Bootsma.
European favourite takes different shapes: Ollia Macarons & Tea
Opened on November 2014 by David and Lindsay Rousseau, Ollia Macarons & Tea wanted to bring a taste of Europe to Calgary.
“When you are born in France you kind of realize how you lucky you are surrounded by amazing food only when you leave the country,” said David. “I only later in life got back to doing something with my hands. I wanted to create things with my hands, and I got trained by a very talented chef in Victoria, B.C., and we decided with my wife to come to Calgary and open something, like a store.”
David says the French pastry shop thrived with his wife’s background in marketing and his culinary training — he knew the niche market pastry idea would be the right fit for branding the company.
“You not only get one right, you get five, six, or eight because they are delicious. They are colourful, you can do any flavour, change [the] flavour, you can really have fun with macaron than moreso other pastries, and that’s what I like.”
Featuring savoury and sweet flavours, such as strawberry basil, Shirley Temple, champagne, and blue cheese pear and pecan, Ollia likes to experiment with their creations.
“When we arrived, we were at the beginning of that food trend in Calgary that Calgary is still experiencing. Gone now are the days of steak and potatoes. Now you see restaurants that are really amazing and so it does really evolve in terms of us — we have a lot of foot traffic. People are [coming] more every year. We’re busier than last year and so that’s thanks to people recognizing that we’re doing a quality product and they are really enjoying our brand.”
Changing the shapes as well opens up to new trends or events going on, like featuring Star Wars macarons for “May the 4th be with you”, which celebrates the movie franchise.
“We get our inspiration from what we like as a whole, what makes sense depending on the seasonality and particular events. Some particular events are more conducive to doing fun stuff like the Star Wars and May the 4th. We both [take] our inspiration from anything and everything.”
Other stores, restaurants and bakeries are carrying their product as well, including shops in Red Deer, Lac La Biche and Lethbridge, where Rousseau attributes their success in wholesale to good branding.
“I think if we look at France, for example. We see more and more shops that are migrating to one type of pastries, like éclairs, macarons, madeleines ... so does that mean that's going to translate from the Canadian or Calgary market? I don’t know. But I think what people really recognize in Canada, in Alberta, is the strength of branding.”
Ollia also hosts macaron classes to help fans learn the difficult pastry technique. But David Rousseau says they don’t quite give away “all our secrets.”
- By Casey Richardson