Why does a man who makes a comfortable living doing public relations for Merrill Lynch and helping start-up businesses succeed leave it behind to work more than 60 hours a week at a cupcake shop?
Owning it, for one, and being his own boss, for another.
Robert Plante’s cupcake shop Simplement D Liche opened on Montreal’s bustling St-Denis Street in June, but the project has been a dream for Plante and his partner, Ken Lee, for close to a decade. Lee works a 9 to 5 job marketing pharmaceuticals, and is more than happy to don a Johnny Cupcakes T-shirt evenings and throughout the weekend.
“We were just baking at home, for friends and family, and at one point I remember we couldn’t keep up with demand,” says Plante. “People kept telling us, ‘Oh, you guys just have to open a shop!’ We would get orders from people we didn’t know and we had to ask, ‘How did you hear about us?'”
Plante and Lee had some money saved and were going to buy a cottage. Plante became disenchanted with his career and wanted to do something that would not require him to help rich people and companies become richer. He wanted to use his expertise to help himself.
Plante and Lee started looking around for the shop they had always pictured for themselves. When, after months of searching, they could not find exactly what they had in mind, they decided to return to a ground-level store on St-Denis that Danielle Tetrault introduced them to.
“I had shown the place five or 10 times, and no one could really see what could be done with the space,” remembers Tetrault, who lives above the shop and was the contact person for anyone interested in leasing the space. “Then these guys came in and had patience and a vision.” Tetrault knew that Plante and Lee wanted to open a cupcake shop, and the idea of living a few steps above one made her very excited.
The two men worked with the space they had, which was not much. After more than three months of renovations and thousands of dollars and hours of manual work, the old textile shop with cracked walls, mouldy hardwood flooring and no charm was turned into a sleek and modern cupcake shop adorned with a white marble communal table, glass counters and displays and a full kitchen.
The shop looked ready, but as they found out on opening day June 25, Plante and Lee were not prepared for their first retail experience.
“We were opening at noon,” recalls Lee, “and people were waiting outside. Whenever someone ordered a cappuccino, I would have to call Robert over to make it.”
Plante and Lee’s foray into the baking business was fuelled by their own frustrations about Montreal being almost completely devoid of great cupcake shops. The city’s bakeries are traditionally more French, so bread and croissant shops greatly outnumber those that specialize in cupcakes and desserts. Plante believes that cupcakes are a trend that have taken off ferociously in other North American cities, but QuÃ©bÃ©cois families are only slowly starting to get introduced to them.
“People walk in and ask us ‘Well, aren’t these just like muffins?’” recounts Plante. “For starters, muffins are made with cereal. It’s a breakfast food. Cupcakes are a dessert.”
Plante and Lee, who just celebrated their fifth wedding anniversary, take great pride in assuring every customer who walks in that all their products are chemical-free and that they use only natural ingredients. Just don’t expect them to divulge their recipes, or what any of those natural ingredients are.
“Some other guys use Crisco for their frosting, but it really leaves a weird sort of film at the top of your mouth,” explains Plante. “People accuse us sometimes of using squid ink in our triple chocolate cupcake because it’s so dark. They just can’t believe that we don’t. We had to work with our suppliers to make sure we were getting the highest quality ingredients. I was sent chocolate flavoured chips once. I sent them back.”
Plante and Lee occasionally post a secret word to their Facebook and Twitter pages that allow customers to get a free cupcake on a certain day. The passwords are usually names of obscure towns in Quebec, like Shawinigan, Massawippi or MaskinongÃ©, complicated names that Plante admits brings him a great joy to hear customers attempt to pronounce.
Simplement D Liche carries a rotation of 50 varieties of cupcakes, including dulce de leche, red velvet, raspberry chocolate, and carrot, a Plante family recipe. Simplement D Liche also carries special seasonal flavours. In October, they carried apple and have just introduced a pumpkin variety for the fall.
The triple chocolate and peanut butter cupcakes are especially scrumptious: moist, impeccably decorated and perfectly sweet, these desserts will introduce your mouth to a whole ‘nother level of flavour and freshness.
“We test out all the recipes and we are responsible for quality control,” jokes Plante, rubbing his stomach. Plante and Lee’s years of finding, tweaking and perfecting recipes are getting their cupcakes a lot of love online, with food bloggers from New York and tourists from Boston and Toronto writing that they are some of the best they have ever had.
Plante encourages amateur bakers to experiment with cupcake recipes and to be prepared to mess up. A lot. Plante and Lee think their cupcakes put a modern spin on what is a very old tradition that is regaining its popularity.
Just don’t call these desserts muffins.
Simplement D Liche is located at 3964A St-Denis. The shop is closed on Mondays and open from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tue-Fri, 12 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Saturday, and 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday. For more information, visit www.dliche.ca.