There were French cupcakes, dressed with luxurious vanilla frosting and crowned with colourful macarons. There were pastel polka-dot bunny cookies, decorated with fluttering eyelashes and ribbons wrapped elegantly around their necks. And there were melt-in-your-mouth sugar cookies, flecked with vanilla and oh so buttery.
It was as dreamy as could be: a sugary paradise in the middle of Yaletown that charmed its way into the bellies of thrilled customers all over the city. For owner Tessa Sam, Sweet Bake Shop was her dessert dreams come to life.
The 572-square-foot boutique bakery was picture-perfect, with pristine white counters, pink walls, and charming antique dishes that cradled Sam’s delicious sprinkled creations. She was not only the talk of the town, but of Instagram, too. Yet, after celebrating her shop’s first birthday, Sam began to wonder about the future of Sweet. Although wildly popular, the bakery was more than Sam could handle in such a tight space, and she often worked 20 hours a day to keep up with demand. Then an opportunity she couldn’t refuse came knocking at her door: a publishing deal. “I really wanted to take this opportunity because I didn’t want to shelve it and lose it,” Sam says over coffee at Dalina. “So, we closed.” That was in 2015. Now, Sam has celebrated the release of Sweet Bake Shop (Penguin Random House, March 2018), which hit shelves on her 32nd birthday.
Growing up in Ucluelet on Vancouver Island, Sam adored baking. At the age of three, she stood high on her parents’ stepstool at the kitchen counter waiting to help bake cookies. At the age of 10, her father built her a stand at the end of the driveway where she could sell her sweet creations. Although she lost an interest for whipping up cupcakes during her teenage years in favour of pursuing a career in broadcasting, when she eventually landed a job in media, she realized she wasn’t doing what she truly treasured. It was then that she found her way back to baking, falling in love with folding and mixing all over again. “Everyone has a positive memory that surrounds food,” Sam muses. “Baking is just a happy thing.”
What allows her to flourish in the competitive world of baking is her ability to stay true to herself. Just like her desserts, Sam is whimsical in nature, and she finds inspiration in life’s little riches. “I like a nice, clean, smooth icing, but I love a fluffy, decadent border with sprinkles,” she gushes. Her specific baking style, which has gained her 175,000 fans on Instagram, is something that Sam says came natural to her. “I’ve always been drawn to soft nude colours, especially with food,” she explains. “I’ve always loved girly, sweet little things like ribbons, bows, and delicate details.” The result today is a very thought-out brand of cheerful pastels and fanciful shapes.
But Sam’s journey towards the completion of her 75-recipe book wasn’t as smooth as the frosting on her cakes. “I was going through a lot at that time,” she reflects. “The store was gone and I still hadn’t really adapted to what was going to come next.” As Sam tested recipes in her kitchen all day long (her famous vanilla cake took 14 attempts before it reached perfection), her relationship—one that was instrumental to the opening of Sweet Bake Shop—fell apart. “It was very stressful, but I came out the other side,” she smiles. “Things are good now.”
With Sweet Bake Shop now helping at-home bakers meet their own sugary goals, Sam’s success begs a question: will she ever open up a storefront again? “The answer used to be yes, but I don’t know,” she laughs. For the time being, Sam has found her bliss teaching popular cake and sugar cookie workshops in both Vancouver and Toronto, and hosting pop-ups at local favourites like Nordstrom Pacific Centre. Once again, she has found her sweet spot.
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