What else would you call it when going to work means getting to play all day?
by Joelle Kidd
We are in the midst of a fast casual revolution. This relatively new dining category has grown in popularity in recent years, displacing the time tested grease-bomb image of fast food with innovative takes on fresh, healthy fare. Gold star chefs now sling burgers, tacos, pizza, and anything else that will fit into paper containers, and quick eats take cues from a full spectrum cultures and styles, all served at clean, modern, order-at-the-counter spots.
Winnipeg has hopped wholeheartedly on this bandwagon, and it is hard to remember the landscape as it was a few short years ago, when Kawaii Crepe came on the scene.
“At the time, no one thought a crepe could be a meal,” owner Phil Salazar remembers. He recalls friends and family members reacting to the business idea with skepticism. “Everyone would ask, ‘you’re only serving crepes?’”
Salazar’s wife and business partner, Candy Lam, is the dreamer behind the cute shop. A trendsetter by nature, Lam’s entrepreneurial spirit had led her to own a clothing store, Para Mix, in Osborne Village. During frequent buying trips to Japan, Lam spotted crepe stands serving crispy, cone-shaped versions of the beloved French pancake, spun on circular griddles and filled with fruits and sweet toppings. She brought the idea home.
As plans for Kawaii Crepe took shape, the couple made some modifications to reimagine the treat for Winnipeg. In Japan, crepes are smaller, usually served from street stalls as a sweet snack between shop hopping in Harajuku. Kawaii Crepe increased their diameter, added savoury options, and set up an indoor shop more suited to wintery Winnipeg.
Like crepes and chocolate, Lam and Salazar complement each other perfectly. An entrepreneurial fashionista and a stalwart accountant, the two tackle their business with a ‘can-do’ attitude.
Neither owner had a background in restaurant ownership, and behind the scenes, the learning curve was steep. Laughing sheepishly, the couple recalls when they first opened the Osborne Village location with no dishwasher and only a tiny camping stove on which to cook bacon. “The staff really grew together,” adds Salazar – at the beginning one employee manned each grill; now, each of the staff can spin up to six crepes at a time.
Despite bumps in the road, this unique take on the crepe made waves. Osborne Village has long been testing ground for culinary concepts, with recent businesses like Kawaii Crepe, Nuburger, and Green Carrot putting down roots in this hip centre before branching out to suburban locations. The trend-conscious ‘hood has proved the perfect place for a business with a potentially narrow market to test its mettle.
Kawaii Crepe’s appeal has passed this test with flying colours, and a second location across from St Vital Centre is nearing its two year mark. Locations are being scouted for a third restaurant.
The menu and ever rotating specials at these colourful spots are created collaboratively, with input from Phil and Candy, their corporate chef, Kawaii Crepe’s employees, and even customers. Often the menu changes based on seasonal availability; the restaurant sources most ingredients locally and makes the sauces that top their crepes from scratch. Other times, inspiration comes on a whim.
“We ask, is it unique? Is it fun? And then we try to make it happen,” says Lam.
Three years ago, the marketing team for the movie The Hunger Games approached them to create a crepe based on the opulent Capital city from the film. The result, featured on these pages, is a decadent mix of nutella, brownie chunks, and fudge.
Offering a case study of the business’s fun, spontaneous spirit, Lam laughingly recalls an occasion three years ago, when a customer asked if Kawaii Crepe would cater their wedding. Excited by the prospect and sure that her team could figure it out, Lam agreed. When she brought her husband the information the next day, they realized the wedding was in Kenora – three hours away.
The team rallied, and soon they had trucked a small staff and several griddles to their first catering gig, where a room full of excited guests watched their dinners and desserts expertly swirled, cooked, and folded before their eyes. It was so successful that catering has now become a lucrative revenue stream, as well as a way for the staff to bond. “We call them field trips,” says Lam. “It’s fun – it doesn’t feel like working.”
The couple behind that first catering request returns to the restaurant every year, on their anniversary, to get a crepe. Creativity and business savvy go hand in hand at Kawaii Crepe. “It’s a game,” says Candy; Phil adds, “but we have mortgage payments.”
These owners agree, however, that the bottom line is not the first priority. It is the idea, the product, that drives a successful venture. For Kawaii Crepe, passion, smarts, and a little fun is the perfect recipe.