VANCOUVER—Pastry chef Eleanor Tsang has fond memories of her home economics class at Little Flower Academy.
“I remember in one of the first lessons we had, we made chocolate cupcakes,” she said. “It was near Easter, so my class partner and I got pink icing, sprinkles, and rabbit jellies and decorated them really nice. I remember getting extra marks for special decorations.”
Now, Eleanor and sister Kathleen Tsang run the brightly-coloured Sweet E’s Pastries and Sweets on West 41st Avenue in Vancouver.
Eleanor had no idea her passion for decorating cupcakes at Catholic school would grow into running her own “cake boutique” many years later. After graduating from LFA, she actually pursued a post-secondary degree in chemistry.
The sciences student never forgot her love for baking. She enjoyed preparing meals and watching cooking shows, dreaming about running her own kitchen. After getting her chemistry degree, Eleanor signed up for cooking school.
When the hotel where she worked went through some staffing changes and was suddenly in need of a pastry chef, she saw her chance. Eleanor worked as a pastry chef for several hotels, then realized she wanted to start her own business. “I enjoy creating new things.”
Eleanor approached Kathleen, who was working in the museum field, with the crazy idea that they open a bakery together.
“I had come to a point where I felt burnt out and I didn’t want to do it anymore,” said Kathleen. “The timing worked out: Eleanor was looking for her own place and I was looking for a new challenge.”
The sisters teamed up and spent a couple of years working on a business plan. Sweet E’s Pastries and Sweets officially opened November 2005.
“We were in that time where everything was giant. Cakes were super tall. It’s fine, but you can’t finish all of it. There was nothing out there for if you wanted just a little bit,” said Kathleen, Sweet E’s manager.
The sisters made small treats their specialty, selling miniature tarts, four-inch cakes, and truffles on a stick, an invention they nicknamed truffle pops.
“It’s still our little niche, the little things,” said Kathleen. “It’s like the ‘sushi’ of desserts. You can get a whole plate of different flavours, but all little bites, each one perfect and contained in itself.”
Eleanor said on an average day, Sweet E’s produces between eight to 10 dozen cookies, about five large cakes, eight small cakes, four varieties of tarts, and a few hundred mini-tarts and other bite-sized desserts, not counting custom orders. On weekends, they sell even more, to say nothing of Christmas.
You learn a lot about people’s families when they come in, because you’re sharing their birthdays and weddings and anniversaries.
“Every year it’s different,” said Eleanor, who tries to track trends in the pastry world.
“Some years it will be all about the cookies and that’s what everyone is wanting. Some years it will be all about tarts, or the larger cakes. I guess it depends on the economy or what people are looking at or what’s trending at the time.”
Some trends have come as complete surprises to the Tsang team. Eleanor never understood red velvet cake, while Kathleen couldn’t wrap her head around cake pops.
“The idea seems foreign, that you take scraps of cake and mush them together with icing and put them on a stick and sell them,” she laughed. Even stranger to both sisters was the discovery of how much presentation affects cookie sales.
“We have our cookies on display in jars or on plates,” Kathleen said. “Sometimes, if a cookie isn’t selling on a plate, I’ll put it in a jar, and all of a sudden they will look so much more delicious and exciting and people will want to buy them.”
Lemon Crunch cookies sell well from a jar, but biscotti only goes out the door when it’s displayed on a plate. The sisters are still trying to figure out why.
Kathleen and Eleanor have been best friends since they were young, but that doesn’t make running a small business together easy.
“It’s hard,” said Eleanor. The trick is knowing your boundaries. “You have to make sure you have your own spheres of what is your thing. You have to learn to step back at the right time. It’s not always easy to know when.”
Their youngest sister, Theresa Tsang, works as a stage manager for the Vancouver Opera, but helps out at the bakery when she’s in town. So does their mom.
The best part about running Sweet E’s, say Kathleen and Eleanor, is cheering the neighbourhood with a dose of sweetness. “When little kids come in and say: ‘Mom I want this!’ For me, that’s the big thing. That’s the reward,” said Eleanor.
“You learn a lot about people’s families when they come in because you’re sharing their birthdays and weddings and anniversaries,” added Kathleen.
The sisters have crafted custom birthday cakes for all ages: one-year-olds to 107-year-olds. “That’s really special.”