Ten years ago, you would have been hard-pressed to find fresh croissants in Edmonton on a Saturday morning. You might have been able to buy them at Bon Ton Bakery and a handful of other small shops. If you were really desperate, there were always the clamshell packages at the supermarket—or Pillsbury Crescents.
These days, Edmonton’s pastry scene is rapidly expanding. Local bread and pastry options have never been better, thanks to pioneering businesses like Duchess Bake Shop and Bonjour Boulangerie. Building on these successes, within the past three months alone, three new shops—La Boule Patisserie, Macarons and Goodies, and a storefront location for pop-up darling Moonshine Donuts—have opened their (oven) doors.
The market for better baked goods “only had one way to go—because it was so small,” Todd Barraclough, baker and owner of Brio Bakery, says. “We’re a city of a million people.” Barraclough, who attended the San Francisco Baking Institute and whose recipes are based on the method developed at Tartine bakery in San Francisco, has been selling bread and croissants at the downtown farmers’ market every Saturday since May 2016.
Giselle Courteau, co-owner of Duchess, remembers doing market research before opening her shop in 2009 and discovering that Calgary, with its similar population, had several times the number of independent bakeries Edmonton had. Opening Duchess, with its Paris and Tokyo inspired menu and decor, seemed like a sure shot, but the dearth of similar businesses in Edmonton surprised Courteau. “We were fairly confident,” she says laughing, adding she was also “slightly worried.”
Alan Dumonceaux, chair of the baking program at NAIT and team manager of Baking Team Canada 2016, thinks the Internet—especially social media—exposes people to both diversity and a previously-unknown calibre of bread and pastry, thus creating new local demand.
“A lot of people don’t know what really good quality baking is,” Dumonceaux says.
Courteau doesn’t entirely agree. “Edmontonians are very well travelled,” she says, “and very adventurous.”
She found an eager and informed market for Duchess as soon as the shop opened.
Now, seven years later, Edmontonians’ context for artisan pastry can be located a little closer to home. Jennifer Stang, who opened La Boule in December 2016, isn’t even thinking about trying to recreate a Parisian patisserie. She graduated from the culinary—not the baking—program at NAIT, and her focus is on innovation, not upholding a traditional standard. “I went to Paris once and I never went into a patisserie there,” she says. “I find it hilarious that we get compared.”
Regardless of the new bakeries’ differing approaches, Dumonceaux says he’s seen “an improvement in the quality with more independents.” He notes that the relative cost and convenience of chain supermarket bakeries have a major influence on the buying habits and expectations of the average Edmontonian shopping for a loaf of bread or a danish. For many people, Edmonton’s urban design makes grocery shopping without a car impossible and bulk-buying at supermarkets becomes the norm. But Barraclough emphasizes that, both in producing and shopping for food, “there are more ways to do it.”
Along with the spate of new businesses, Dumonceaux has seen growth and improvement at established bakeries like Bon Ton and Bonjour and expects to see further evolution as more new bakeries open.
Courteau agrees. “For us, the more pastry shops there are, the better,” she says. “We’re trying to stick together.”
Cooperation is important for independent bakeries and patisseries in Edmonton, which still supply only a small corner of the market for baked goods. The ubiquity of small bakeries in many cities in Europe marks one of the starkest contrasts between a city like Paris, famous for its pastry, and Edmonton, where most people still buy their daily bread from a large grocery store.
Ming Chung, bakery manager at the Sobeys store in Millwoods Common, says his store bakes and sells approximately 100 loaves of white bread every day—and that isn’t counting other varieties of baked goods produced in-store, or any of the pre-packaged bread also available at Sobeys. In comparison, Brio Bakery sells about one 150 loaves of bread total every week.
Recalling a recent trip to Paris, Dumonceaux points out that he paid the equivalent of $11 for a small lemon tart at Pierre Herme, while a lemon tart of comparable quality at Duchess costs about $7. Courteau, the woman responsible for those affordable lemon tarts, makes frequent pastry reconnaissance trips herself.
“We always come home feeling like what we have in Edmonton is pretty damn good,” she says.