George Brown alumni turns hobby into Leaside bake shop
“When I first started at George Brown College about 20 years ago, it was never about a career but a hobby of decorating food and baking beautiful edibles like cookies and cakes,” said Teresa Ho, the proud owner of Charmaine Sweets. “Now when I see this studio, I feel that I have become something because of it.”
Charmaine Sweets is a popular bakery and sweets shop in the industrial area of Toronto’s Leaside neighbourhood. Initially, Ho’s shop catered to just selling cookies but now it has expanded to include a variety of bread, pastries, cakes, croissants, muffins, sandwiches and even coffee on the menu.
“I always love making cakes and cookies for my kids and on special occasions for relatives and friends as it makes them happy and is shared by all,” said Ho. “I always wanted to start my own business, but my husband was totally against it. His concern was how can I manage opening up a shop like this with three young kids?” For a time, Ho stayed home and kept baking for relatives and friends who wanted her to bake for them.
After much appreciation for her work from her family, Ho finally took her business to next level and opened up Charmaine Sweets. She named the studio after her eldest daughter, a professional baker named Charmaine.
Before George Brown, Ho struggled to find a training program. “I applied for cake decorating course at a community centre,” she said. There were only five students in the program to start, and by the second week, the course was shutdown because of lack of enrollment.
Ho remembers her time at George Brown fondly. “I still remember the kitchen at George Brown College. It was so impressive, all the equipment was high class, even during that time,” she said.
It wasn’t just Ho who was excited about her program at George Brown. “I remember how we used to bake something different every day and were allowed to take some home along with us,” she said. “My kids used to eagerly wait every day and say ‘what you got mom?’”
While the business was initially a solo project, today Ho’s family is thoroughly involved in the production and functioning of the studio. Ho prepares cookies, Charmaine does cakes and pastries, and Charmaine’s partner Dustin is the bread chef. The retail and marketing side of the business is taken care of by Ho’s younger daughter Sonya and her son-in-law, Ray.
All the treats at the studio are baked from scratch every day, with premium ingredients. The focus is on cookies, bread and baked treats like croissants and muffins. Among the signature cookies developed by Ho include chewy chocolate gingerbreads, mocha hazelnut crescents, and lime meltaways. Each treat, including specialty cakes, can be packaged into eye-catching boxes or tins and can be ordered ahead of time online for pick-up.
“We do not mass produce, it’s fresh from the oven and once it’s gone it’s gone,” said Ho.
It’s not just the ambience and delicacies at the Charmaine Sweets that makes it a successful sweet shop. The studio derives its success from the love of the people working there and their passion towards the job they do that makes it a café great. Everything at the studio, from the desserts, décor, and the subtle smell of fresh baked goods make you want to come back to the place.