If there's one thing Shobna Kannusamy is certain of, is that the impending closure of her 10-year-old Coal Harbour bakery Soirette is not the end of the beloved pastry business.
While Soirette's brick-and-mortar location at 1433 Pender St will close its doors for good on Sept. 21, fans of the bakery's whimsical cakes, holiday cookie boxes, and gorgeous macarons won't have to say goodbye forever.
"I love pastry so much," Kannusamy tells Vancouver Is Awesome over the phone. "I'm not leaving the Vancouver pastry scene, but I am coming back in a different capacity."
Brand identity, personal identity
Kannusamy's name might not be familiar to many, and that's no accident. For the bulk of the run of Soirette as we know it, Kannusamy opted to put the emphasis on the brand rather than herself. As Soirette grew in popularity in Vancouver, keeping pace with other top-ranked patisserie major players, like Thierry or Ladurée, Kannusamy focused on maintaining brand identity. Knowing how much customers adored her stunningly decorated cakes and macarons, Kannusamy kept her face and name out of the spotlight.
But something changed. Actually, a few things changed.
Kannusamy says as the George Floyd case unfolded in the U.S., and generations of systemic racism were being exposed there and here in Canada, conversations in the public sphere shifted. We were "talking about what matters," recalls Kannusamy. "I was thinking about my past."
As an immigrant to Canada who had to establish her own support network, and with no easy answer to the ubiquitous "Where are you from?" question, Kannusamy felt more at ease keeping quiet.
"People are afraid to tell their story, especially if they feel it's not a story people can relate to," attests the pastry chef. She knew she had to get out of her own way.
"What I've learned in the past 10 years is how it doesn't make sense to hide who you are," says Kannusamy. If you look at Soirette's Facebook page, the photos section over the last year or so includes personal snapshots from Kannusamy's own family. Now she's firmly putting her name out as she relays this current chapter closing for Soirette and starts to reveal details of what's to come for her and the brand.
It would be tempting for customers and the general public to connect Soirette's closing to the coronavirus pandemic - simply put, at the end of 10 years on the lease for the Pender Street shop, Kannusamy and the landlord could not agree on terms for a renewal.
But many may be surprised to know Kannusamy credits the pandemic for making Soirette stronger, and for bringing about a deeper change of personal mindset.
Soirette was among the first Vancouver businesses to join Breaking Bread, an online portal created at the onset of the pandemic by top Vancouver hospitality PR pro Shelley McArthur Everett to unify independent restaurants with an aim to encourage ongoing customer support. "It was our Noah's Ark," Kannusamy reflects on the movement that welcomed a stream of small businesses like hers to come aboard to stay afloat.
As restrictions took hold and people stayed home, Kannusamy also found immediate ways to shift her business model, with friends offering to do deliveries, and Soirette launching curbside pick-up and other take-out friendly options.
"It was incredible," recalls Kannusamy. "Not only did we survive, we thrived."
Kannusamy says she was blown away time and time again at the love her customers showed her, many buying more than usual just to give Soirette additional support. "I was floored. They were buying just so we wouldn't close."
When it takes a village, sometimes you have to build your own
So Soirette carried on, flourishing through the hardest times. While customers gave the business support, Kannusamy continued to lean on the network she had built for herself from the ground up as a business owner, at work and at home. She didn't have a life coach or mentor, so on her journey Kannusamy forged strong relationships, crediting them for ongoing support. It takes a village, as the saying goes, and when you start a new life in a new country, you often have to build your own.
Her network includes key clients and vendors to award-winning local business owners and sister Debra and Laura Saimoto, who not only helped design packaging for Soirette but also did treat deliveries themselves, and celebrated Canadian pastry chefs Thomas Haas and Bruno Feldeisen. At home, Kannusamy's husband Nilesh has been her rock; he and their 12-year-old son have helped her put into focus that she is ready for more balance in her work and personal life.
At the Soirette shop, Kannusamy says she has had team members who have worked for her for years - anomalies in a business known for high staff turnover rates - but also a team of fellow immigrants, like herself, for whom COVID-19 has meant overwhelming uncertainty about when they can next travel abroad to see family. That includes Kannusamy herself, who is hoping to be able to return home to Malaysia to be with her family.
"We have been forced to reevaluate our lives at this point," says Kannusamy, who, as a small business owner can't simply take off and close down for several weeks. "There's no such thing as 'time off,' because we are so small."
The timing feels right for Kannusamy to bring this segment of Soirette's story to its close, but she wants to make it clear that Soirette will not be gone for good. She already is thinking about doing pop-up events and ensuring customers will still be able to enjoy her signature cookie boxes on holidays, and what she can create for next year's Hot Chocolate Festival, an event she's long been a part of.
Helping the next generation of women business owners
In realizing her personal story was one of her best assets, Kannusamy has pledged to make the next iteration of Soirette and her entrepreneurial presence in Vancouver about helping the next generation of others like her: women, including women of colour and immigrants, for whom she can be the mentor she herself never had. Soon she'll begin a coaching program at UBC, and prepare herself to address the gaps she sees in her industry, and "strengthen the confidence of women in the industry." Kannusamy also plans to give back to her community more by upping her volunteer work with Growing Chefs, a Vancouver organization for youth she is particularly passionate about.
And in the meantime, before Soirette wraps up Sept. 21, there is much to celebrate. The bakeshop will spend its last weeks turning out stunning mooncakes for Mid-Autumn Festival. Their beautiful Clair de Lune collection is available for pre-order now, with pick-up available Sept. 3 to 21.
You can see those treats and everything else Kannusamy and her team are making on social media if you follow Soirette on Instagram and Facebook. That's where you'll also start to see more of Kannusamy, as she shifts further to open a window into her life, with plans to offer recipes, baking tips, and more.
As the farewell celebration for Soirette gets underway, it's time for Kannusamy to shine.
"I've learned you are stronger for showing the world who you really are."