Industry News | March 18, 2014 | QSR Exclusive Brief

Chicago Pastry Chef Tells Her Baker's Tale

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Launching a new concept in an already crowded segment often requires creativity and differentiation. For Christine LaSorda, owner of A Baker’s Tale, a new concept gave her the opportunity to turn a childhood vision into reality while delivering a unique consumer experience.

Opened March 18 in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood, A Baker’s Tale offers high-end pastries and a limited lunch menu in a whimsical fast-casual setting.

“Ever since I was a kid, I enjoyed reading, I loved stories, and I just thought that was a really important part of my childhood. I wanted to take that whimsy and nostalgia you get when you read a book that you did when you were a kid and all those memories, including food memories, come back,” LaSorda says. “I thought I could combine that with baking and make it into something cool where people would have a really good experience when they walked in.”

LaSorda, an Illinois Institute of Art–trained pastry chef, says she turned to a California-based design firm to help her carry out her vision. The result is a space she describes as a cross between Alice in Wonderland and Willy Wonka, “without being cutesy.” Guests are greeted by a life-size tree with leaves made from book pages, wooden tables are offset by plush chairs in jewel-tone colors, light fixtures resemble upside-down teacups, and artwork depicting scenes from Alice in Wonderland hangs above dark-green booth seating.

“I think that [the concept] needed to encompass all of the senses; it isn’t just about the food,” LaSorda says. “I wanted to create something that was an entire experience, that would feel like a different world, and I don’t think you can do that with just food.”

She says consumers increasingly expect more from the limited-service industry, and delivering an environment that transports them into a certain state of mind was her way of delivering more. That isn’t to say the menu isn’t a draw in itself, though. LaSorda says another way A Baker’s Tale will stand out from the crowd is by offering unique flavor combinations.

“We do have classic flavors, but we’re doing things that are going to surprise people,” she says. “One of the first recipes we developed is our honey cupcake with a blueberry compote filling and a basil buttercream. I think it represents well the unique twists we’re trying to put on things.”

She says offering different types of éclairs and cream puffs will also be a differentiator for the brand. “We do, for example, a banana split éclair where we use fresh bananas and a strawberry mousse, a chocolate mousse, and a vanilla mousse, topped with ganache and a cherry.”

LaSorda says value was also a key concern, and offers pastries that range in price from $1.25 to $8. In addition to sweet treats, A Baker’s Tale will serve locally roasted Passion House coffee, Benjamin Tea, and a small lunch menu that can differ day to day. LaSorda says the lunch menu leaves room for creativity and seasonality and will feature items like sandwiches.

She says the food and sensory experience are enhanced by an engaged staff. “We pay our full-time employees a salary instead of hourly, and we’re trying to inspire a lot of loyalty and good energy… so that will trickle down to the customers,” she says.

Despite opening in a Chicago neighborhood that already boasts well-established bakery concepts, LaSorda says she’s positive about the success her differentiated brand will bring. She adds that expanding into catering and opening more units is something she and her team are interested in.

“There’s going to be growth, and I think people are always going to want something that’s reasonable priced but still a good product and makes them feel good,” she says. “We deliver on that.”

By Tamara Omazic