Baking Up Success - Bienvenue Chez Angela
September 18, 2023
We had a chance to catch up wtih Angie Chambers of Chez Angela Bakery and Cafe, Assiniboine alumna, class of 2017.
The Sourdough Starter
Growing up I really loved family gatherings which were always full of home-baked, from-scratch foods. My first job was in food service – restaurant and catering – and later on, when I took part in a “Spend A Day” session at ACC, I fell in love with the bakeshop.
The Manitoba Institute of Culinary Arts has a long-standing reputation for first-class students coming from great instructors. I personally knew several graduates who had gone on to start their own restaurants or land really good jobs in the industry after getting some work experience. My interest in the program was piqued through the Spend a Day session, where I got to see what it was like to participate in the program. I learned about the history of the building and the land, saw the orchards and got to see firsthand some of the skills that the second-year students had been working on.
I registered for school as a mom of three in my 30’s after a break from work to raise my kids. Prior to that, I had been working in restaurant food service and catering for 6 years, as well as in bookkeeping and office administration for 5 years with a focus on AP/AR management.
For me, one of the most critical aspects of the Culinary Arts program came with experiencing the spaces in between; seeing all of the inputs that are needed so that exceptional things can be created. Assembling or decorating a tart is great and can look wonderful for an Instagram photo, but someone has already done most of the work at that point. Scaling out, making and baking the shells, readying the curd, preparing meringue, mixing a coulis, for sure, but even before that is recipe formulation and scale, ordering the ingredients to make those recipes possible, unpacking the orders and putting them into food-safe storage. And then, when it comes to doing that as part of a successful team, it means doing it without ego and in volume; it means trusting each other to work together so that no one has to do the heavy lifting on their own.
I attribute a large part of my success in building this business to the coaching and inspiration from Chef Bryan Hendricks, who was passionate about learners. He met students where they were and pushed them to grow and learn. He was open to trying new things and was an encouraging presence in the room, while still ensuring that we met the expectations of the program. Chef Joanne Canada-Somers Johnston - or Chef Jo - taught the bakeshop side of the program. She gave me space to learn and encouraged me to push myself and shared her experiences in the industry.
All Sorrows Are Less With Bread - Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra
Whether it be a restaurant, something in hospitality or any other business venture, the most important part is understanding the breadth and depth of the challenge you are taking on.
I started baking at the farmers market in 2017, and a year later we opened at our downtown location. From the time my husband and I started dating in 1994, we’d always loved going out to try foods and share meals with friends. We always dreamed of opening a little café and over the years my husband and I would always say, “this will be on the menu!” when we talked about food we liked. We were actually planning to move to the United States in 2016, but our plans changed unexpectedly, and I thought the time was right to get started on that dream and started entertaining the idea of opening a small bakery.
We did a lot of research here in Brandon to determine the size of the market. We toured other cities across Canada and throughout the west coast of the United States. We wanted to understand what bakeries and cafés were doing that make the locals adore them. We felt that it was important not only to deliver on quality and provide a unique product to our community, but also to serve our community. Now, as a chef de cuisine, I am responsible for menu planning, plating and presentation, food quality oversight, staff development, purchasing and inventory management and sanitation standards; all of the important parts we learned about in school.
But the story of our bakeshop started long ago. We love downtown – we grew up in Brandon – and we wanted to contribute to a reinvigoration here. We have fond memories as children of going to The Gallery to see Santa, walking around Toyland or Hans Christian Toys and dreaming about birthday presents, and having birthday parties at the bowling allies. When we started dating, we frequented places like Kokonos, Jerry’s Bistro, Castelyn’s and more, and one of our first dates was at the Strand Theatre. FUN FACT: When they tore the theatre down, we actually went and reclaimed some of the brick and wood, which now form part of the décor and furniture in our downtown café.
With Enough Butter, Anything Is Good – Julia Child
It is so important to know and be committed to the hard work, the less glamourous work and not just the pretty things you get to put on social media. And, as much as you would love to live out your vision, the most important thing to do is to hold a willingness to alter your course and accept change to meet the needs of your community. But bar none the most important part is finding good people to surround you, to encourage you and who share your passion for the work you’re doing. It's those people that truly deserve the spotlight.
This six-year journey has certainly had its highlights, but it’s one that has not come without challenges. We’ve had bad days where it felt like nothing could go right, and then we hear from some special customer about how we made a memorial for a loved one feel complete. There have been production errors that felt crushing, but then our team came together to overcome and deliver, and then later reflected with us to help improve so that we don’t fall into the same situation again. We had challenges in the depths of the pandemic, but those were met with customers walking in and offering up an outpouring of support, buying meals for friends and neighbors to help us stay afloat. The highlight and the shining light through all of this comes back to our community, again and again. Our customers and our staff are something that we cherish every day. They are why we wake up in the early hours to go to the bakery and why we spend the late nights thinking of ways to improve.
It was a lot of work – much more than anticipated – to get a bakery started. I was very deliberate in choosing what items to include and how to build a team. Navigating everything you need to bring a business online is difficult, and the complexities of a food service establishment add another layer. We were fortunate to start with a good team that had a mix of experiences from different industries, which helped us to work through all the mechanics of getting our bakeshop online.
Growth is a hard thing to manage, so we’ve always tried to do it slowly and intentionally. For us, that has meant a steady increase in employees from early days back at the farmer’s market (with one person helping with dishes) to a team of 30 today.
Of all the challenges that come with managing a team of our size, communication is the most difficult aspect. Hearing and understanding where people are at and what they need to hear in order to grow and to develop a relationship with them is critical. Between our staff and our local vendors, a large part of my daily job is centered in communication.
The most important thing for us is finding a way to empower our team to make critical decisions on their own. Through this, they are able to take ownership in the daily responsibilities and function of the café, allowing us to concentrate on navigating the business growth and sustainability challenges.
The Secret Garden Café is an example of this, where our staff manage the location on their own. Our sous chefs and cooks take care of the prep work and planning, and our front-of-house leaders handle scheduling staff and even training, all of this supported by our operations manager. They are responsible for maintenance, cleanliness and daily operations, and our role is to check in to make sure we can help them find success.
Another key ingredient to our success is the growing number of local growers and producers we work with, now totalling more than 25. We like to know where our food comes from and have thought a lot about sustainability, local jobs, and family farms. So many great quality, tasty products are grown right here in Manitoba, it is an honor to have these farms and familys trust us with their food to represent them in the dishes that we serve. As a result of our purchasing strategy, we’re super proud to know that over 80% of the dollars spent at Chez Angela stay right here in our community.
Our most recent expansion happened in the spring as we expanded our dining area and opened up into the unit next door. There was a bit of a reveal as the curtain barrier was removed, and as the plastic came down our staff gathered in the café, smiles beaming, phones out recording videos, watching as our space more than doubled in size. To see them there, knowing that they contributed to make the expansion possible and seeing them excited for the road ahead was very moving.
It's been a lot of growth in just six years! Future opportunities can and will develop as we have space, capacity and the enthusiasm of our staff. I am very proud of the team we have become through this journey; a team that stood beside us through the pandemic. We were there to support each other and to change our approach, pivot to recover from the loss of our dining room and take on all kinds of new challenges in one of the most deeply impacted industries. I will forever be grateful to the people who stood by and supported us to get us to where we are today.
Baking Memories, One Batch at a Time
I have remained connected to ACC after graduating, now a member of the Program Advisory Committee in the culinary and hospitality program. Through Chez Angela, we are actively engaged in working with local service organizations to help provide for those in need. I have also engaged in the local culinary scene, sitting as a member of the Brandon Chef’s Association.
Today, we’re a 7 day a week operation, open 7am-8pm on weekdays, 8-5 on Saturdays and we serve quality breakfast, lunches, and suppers in addition to our retail bakery. We have bake and serve meals, you-bake selections, and incredible soups. We’re also now open from 10am-2pm on Sundays for breakfast.