Say It With Cake
Winnipeggers have been celebrating their biggest moments with Baked Expectations for 30 years
By Jen Zoratti
It’s no surprise many Winnipeggers have an emotional connection to Baked Expectations. Many of life’s milestones are marked with cake, and thousands have celebrated birthdays, showers, engagements, graduations and weddings with owner Beth Grubert’s now-classic recipes.
For Grubert, that’s the most amazing perk of running a neighbourhood institution. She has seen kids grow up within those walls. Her Osborne Village restaurant has served as the backdrop to many first dates and engagements.
In fact, Baked Expectations is, as its front window art exclaims, celebrating 30 years of firsts this year. Great product certainly accounts for some of the eatery’s longevity, along with a welcoming, baby-blanket familiarity that keeps people coming back. Most of the restaurant’s fans — and there is a dedicated legion of them — have a ‘usual.’ For them, dessert is a ritual. Many visiting former Winnipeggers make it a priority to satisfy a “Baked” craving.
Grubert is a product of the restaurant industry. Her mother, Mel, was a talented baker while her father, Oscar, owned Champs Food Systems, the company that brought Kentucky Fried Chicken to Winnipeg as well as several concept restaurants, including Mother Tucker’s and the beloved Garden Creperie. It was a summer spent at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris in 1981 that set her on her sweet path. She was inspired by a popular new concept called Just Desserts that had just opened in Toronto, and was eager to bring the idea to Winnipeg. After all, why couldn’t dessert be a meal one went out for? Since opening in January 1983, Baked Expectations has set the standard for such specialty spots in this city.
It was her dad who found the restaurant’s prime location, then a pharmacy. Grubert immediately saw the potential of those huge, street-facing front windows. The lineup of goodies in the much drooled-over display case was modelled after a Bar Mitzvah dessert table, unique to Winnipeg’s vibrant Jewish community of which she’s a part. Rich in tradition, Grubert’s recipes are culled from all over. Some are family favourites she adapted, such as the mocha torte, a modified recipe of her mother’s. Others, like the cinnamon torte, came from members in the community.
While trendy salted caramel desserts and red velvet cakes have earned coveted places in the showcase, she recognizes the value of consistency. As much as people are tempted by new treats, they almost always fall back on their dependable favourites — like the dark cherry cheesecake or the beloved shmoo torte, both of which have been showcase staples for three decades.
Just as the menu has benefitted from stability, so too has the restaurant’s interior. The chalkboard menu, black and white checkered floors, and red chairs have been virtually untouched by time. The restaurant stays fresh with its playful and decidedly modern branding, from the cute T-shirts the servers wear to the ever-changing art on the front windows.
A dedicated, hard-working team helps Grubert execute her vision, including right-hand bakers Melissa Buiskool-Leeuwma and Lolita Tabib, but she’s also more hands-on than diners may realize. Beth routinely makes commissioned wedding cakes herself.
She has also created a unique learning environment for pastry chefs looking for something other than a corporate hotel chain or a grocery store assembly line. Pastry chefs for whom, not unlike Baked Expectations regulars, dessert is a priority.
Grubert is a tough cookie and, like most successful entrepreneurs, knows exactly what she wants. “I’m a bit heavy-handed when it comes to my vision for what’s beautiful,” she says. “I lean on people a lot and I expect a lot.”
Grubert is often asked why she doesn’t open a second location. “The truth is I’m afraid that it won’t capture what we have here.” Baked Expectations certainly is a buzzing hub of activity, its steady hum created by a diverse cross-section of Winnipeggers: hip 20-somethings tucking into Sunday brunch, girlfriends catching up over a slice of cake, elderly couples enjoying a cup of coffee and a piece of pie. From birthdays to bon voyages, there’s always something happening.
“I had someone write in to say, ‘I just wanted to let you know that I’ve been living in Vancouver and I’ve never found a place like this,’ she says. “That’s overwhelming.”
Perhaps Baked Expectations’ magic is easily explained. After all, it’s as Beth says: How can people be in a bad mood when they come to eat cake?