It is a mild fall Saturday morning in Edmonton, and a long line of patient pastry-seekers stretches south down 124th Street outside of Duchess Bake Shop. It seems the crowd might be gathered for something momentous, yet there is no special occasion; they wait simply for the opening hour of their favourite French bakery.
This is Duchess Bake Shop, Edmonton’s six-year-old patisserie. Minutes after opening, the undeniable fresh-baked aroma and happy buzz that fills front-of-house is a match to the bustle behind the scenes, where bakers dollop macaron batter onto baking sheets and swiftly pull hot trays laden with golden croissants from the ovens. Everything is made fresh daily, and there is always a crowd to please.
While admiring the busy scene it’s hard to imagine that Duchess Bake Shop started with modest roots. The idea for the French bakery was inspired by co-founders Garner Beggs and Giselle Courteau’s time spent in Tokyo, Japan. The couple would visit the gourmet patisseries that lined Omotesandō Avenue—described by Beggs as the “Champs-Élysées of Tokyo”—and bring their purchased French pastries home to their Tokyo apartment to dissect them. “Every day we would go and buy some macaron and bring it home,” Beggs explains, “cut it open, and ask, ‘Why do we like this one?’”
The charming small-scale patisseries on Omotesandō Avenue inspired Beggs and Courteau to bring a similar concept home to Edmonton, a city devoid of French bakeries at the time. With university degrees but no formal chef training, the couple returned to Canada in March 2009 and, alongside their Northern Alberta Institute of Technology-trained co-owner Jacob Pelletier (described by Beggs as a “vunderkind of pastries”), opened Duchess Bake Shop after a whirlwind seven months of preparation. The shop began with only six employees, yet within the first month of operation it was clear Duchess Bake Shop needed to expand. “People in Edmonton are really excited about trying new stuff,” Beggs explains, “and they’re very supportive of local businesses.” By January of 2010, Duchess Bake Shop acquired the retail space beside its shopfront, and the bakery has since continued to grow. Today, Duchess Bake Shop employs sixty-five people.
The neighbouring space was used for Provisions, the bakery’s retail shop that sells cooking ingredients and utensils. The bake shop orders gourmet ingredients in bulk for their own cooking—think Germany’s finest marzipan and Bourbon Barrel maple syrup –and shares what’s not needed in the kitchen with Provisions’ customers. “Our goal and mandate is not just to make good food but also to encourage people to bake, to encourage the art of pastry and baking, and [to use] ingredients that are good,” Beggs explains. He wants his customers to know that quality ingredients don’t have to be expensive. As customers become accustomed to Provisions’ prices and the quality of baking the products permit, he hopes they will eventually begin to demand more honest pricing from other retailers—the high price of vanilla, Beggs admits, bothers him particularly. The unnecessary cost “convinces people not to use it, or to use artificial vanilla,” he complains. At Provisions, all goods are priced honestly.
Following the bakery’s vision for transparency, Courteau’s cookbook Duchess Bake Shop has been met with awards and acclaim since its publication in late 2014. It is a collection of the recipes used in the bakery verbatim, made with the gourmet ingredients supplied at Provisions.
What are the future plans for the company? “The big thing I’m super excited about is we’re going to be doing a breakfast and brunch restaurant, and also a teaching kitchen,” Beggs says. “I think our entire society will benefit if people are inspired to cook for themselves, to bake for themselves … An educated consumer is a good thing for everybody … It keeps businesses on their toes, and it keeps people honest. I think it’s also really important just in terms of people knowing what they’re eating.”
People often ask Beggs where he can attribute Duchess Bake Shop’s success. “We never spent a penny on advertising,” Beggs admits. “We’ve just made as good of food as we can possibly make, don’t pull any punches on technique and level of quality and ingredients, and sell it at a reasonable price.” You will find no elaborate bells and whistles at this bake shop—pastry-seekers line up on Edmonton’s cold streets simply to taste an honest baker’s fresh creations made with real ingredients.