Tucked between Pearl Court Restaurant and Chen’s Acupuncture & Herbs in Toronto's East Chinatown sits Andrea’s Gerrard Street Bakery. Given the unexpected location, the bake shop is a hidden gem, but only in the geographical sense. With the growth of the area plus the lure of the ultimate indulgence in her treats, Andrea Mut's shop is anything but a secret. Famous for her butter tarts and many other handmade baked goods, Andrea has not only established a successful brick-and-mortar for sweet goodies on the east side, but she's found success in big-ticket catering with the likes of Ryerson University and the AGO counted as her shop's clients.
We checked in with Andrea on how her bakery dreams ended up in East Chinatown, what makes her treats so scrumptious and how she's helped Ryerson University bake the perfect cookie.
WHY DID YOU OPEN YOUR BAKERY IN THE MIDDLE OF EAST CHINATOWN?
The way I ended up in East Chinatown started with the space that was for rent. My husband and I had finished consulting with a financial adviser to assess our situation and we had just begun looking at spaces. I wanted to be in the East end as I live near Danforth and Jones. It was important to me to be close to home to reduce travel time and be closer should my kids need me. Although we didn't expect to be interested in leasing the space, we felt it was important to go look at it because the rent met our budget and we knew it was a busy area. The space needed a lot of work but our landlord was very accommodating and since the space was set up as a bakery already, and there was equipment we needed that we could purchase at a good price, it was an opportunity we felt we wouldn't be able to find anywhere else.
HOW DOES YOUR BAKERY FIT IN WITH THE NEIGHBOURHOOD?
Because we were former residents of the area, we knew that there was a lot of potential for change around this busy intersection. We felt there was a lot of opportunity for new types of businesses to move in and thrive as well as help existing businesses increase their customer base. We're bringing new people to the area, and the support from the business community has been fantastic. The residential community has been equally or more supportive. We've become a part of people's routines which makes us a great neighbourhood business. We wouldn't survive without our wonderful and supportive neighbours living and working nearby. We have a very diverse clientele and that hasn't changed since day one. It's part of what makes East Chinatown so interesting, fun and exciting.
WHAT'S THE BEST ITEM ON THE MENU?
The best item on the menu depends on you. Most of the items we sell are some form of childhood favourites. They evoke certain feelings and memories for each individual. If your mom or grandmother made scones when you were little you will be partial to the scones. If it was carrot cake then that will be your favourite. Our butter tarts are the biggest seller and were publicly voted best in Toronto on Blog TO last year. We like to keep things simple using basic, good quality, delicious ingredients, which is what I think evokes those childhood memories. Our grandmothers weren't putting things like Matcha Tea in Nanaimo Bars or bacon in butter tarts. I'm not saying that those things aren't delicious it's just not what we do.
HOW DID YOU BECOME INVOLVED WITH BAKING FOR RYERSON UNIVERSITY?
I was approached by Joshna Maharaj shortly after she was hired by Ryerson to transform their food services department to a focus on local, sustainable purchasing and scratch cooking. Joshna wanted to bring in smaller cookies for their catering department as many cookies were being thrown out because they were too big. They wanted the current bakery to change the size of the cookies to meet their needs but they were unable to customize the size as they had machinery dispensing the dough to an amount that wasn't adjustable. She knew that I'd recently started my own business so she reached out to me to see if I could produce what they were looking for. I was able to accommodate since we do everything by hand, which meant we could make cookies any size they wished. We also follow their model of scratch cooking and use the best quality ingredients including locally produced chocolate from Chocosol Traders and produce from 100km Foods. Having Ryerson as a customer has impacted my business in many positive ways. Not only has it helped financially but I have also met lots of wonderful people and built new business relationships. With our experience in filling orders for Ryerson, we were able to take on the AGO as a new customer this year.
YOU'VE SPENT TIME LIVING ABROAD. OF ALL THE PLACES YOU'VE BEEN, WHERE DID YOU FEEL MOST INSPIRED?
That's a tough one. I have traveled to many places and am inspired by all of them. Funny enough, most of the places I've spent time in don't have a dessert culture like we do here in North America. I was first inspired in Spain by the simplicity of food and how wonderful everything is when you just use good ingredients and don't do much to change them. Let the ingredients shine. This was also the case when we spent six months with our two boys in South America in 2009-2010. This was where the inspiration for the empanadas was born. They sell them everywhere in South America, especially in Argentina and Chile where we spent the majority of our time. I'd been making empanadas previous to our trip but really fell in love with them there. Our beef empanada filling recipe comes from a family friend on my husband's side who was from Argentina. The rest of our fillings are not exactly traditional but are our own twist.
WHAT DIRECTION DO YOU SEE YOUR BAKERY TAKING IN THE NEXT FEW YEARS?
At the moment my plan is to focus on fine-tuning the business as it is now. I can't even consider expanding until I spend some time managing and organizing what we already have going on. Running a small food business is like a game of Jenga. One thing changes and everything can come falling down if careful consideration isn't taken for every move. This is my focus moving forward. For the past three years, I've been spending the majority of my time baking, training staff and running the day-to-day operations. With seven employees, plus myself, who depend on the success of my business for their own income, it's my responsibility to focus now on how the business is running in order to keep everyone happy and the bakery growing and succeeding.
HOW DO YOU SPEND TIME IN THE NEIGHBOURHOOD?
I don't spend a lot of time in East Chinatown when I'm not working but we do love to eat at Mimi's, and a walk in Withrow Park is always nice.