Steph Kaptein, Ampersand Bakehouse Owner
Steph Kaptein is a baker who's recently turned her hobby into a full blown business called @ampersandbakehouse. See below for some real talk on what running a bake shop is like and the brand she's trying to create.
Tell me about yourself.
I have a long history within the food industry. When I was young, I lived on a commercial farm and all of my cousins came from the same farming community. Whether it was dairy cows or broiler chickens, I grew up knowing where food comes from. As I got older, I found that food continued to be a part of my career - just in a slightly different way. My last position was as a Foresight Strategist consulting with companies like McCain Foods and Campbell’s.
At one point, I just got sick of talking about food, and wanted to be more hands on. That’s how Ampersand Bakehouse started.
Tell me about Ampersand Bakehouse and the brand you created.
I started baking for fun as a creative outlet. I was obsessed with buttercream flowers and took over our entire apartment kitchen with piping bags and tips. I would bake for every occasion and would often bring treats to the office. Once I started selling at local markets, I needed to legally move my baking to a commercial kitchen. I would find myself finishing my day job, commuting to the kitchen across town, and then baking until 1 AM into the night. I was at this tipping point where I had to make a choice, so I founded Ampersand Bakehouse.
In terms of the brand, I really wanted to do something floral at first. Once I realized that there are literally hundreds of floral-themed bakeries, I really started thinking about preconceived notions of baked goods and who they should be for. That’s when I decided that I wanted my brand to be more androgynous with a contemporary aesthetic. I also wanted to cater to adults (as opposed to children) with infusions of alcohol and espresso.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all about passing the ‘so cute’ test when it comes to the product appearance, but at the end of the day, it needs to taste good. The buttercream icing can’t be too sweet and there needs to be flavour complexity. There’s a dichotomy, and that’s where the ampersand symbol comes in.
How do you come up with your recipes and signature products?
A lot of experimenting and researching different recipes. After reading numerous baking blogs, I began to pick up on different tricks, like adding an egg yolk to make my chocolate chip cookies extra chewy. Often I take two or three recipes for the same product and combine my favourite aspects of each to make my own.
Other times, it’s a complete mistake! For example, I tried this baked donut recipe and the tops of my donuts didn't round out like the bottoms. I was super disappointed that I had these flat sided donuts until I realized I could sandwich two of them together with buttercream icing. Now these donut sandwiches are my signature product that draw people in at markets.
What might people not know about being a baker?
I heard this radio commercial where a baker said it was so fast to get a small business loan that they had all this extra time to organize sprinkles. All I could think was, “Girl, you wouldn’t be organizing sprinkles. You’d be washing dishes! Use that loan and get a dishwasher!” Honestly, I spend most of my day washing dishes. Even when I buy equipment to be more efficient, I end up trying to wash a 20-quart mixer bowl I can practically swim in.
Food startups also have their own set of unique challenges. In the city of Toronto, you legally need to work out of a health inspected kitchen which drastically increases your operating costs compared to working from home. You are also working with a perishable product so ingredient management and product shelf life is an ongoing battle. I think a lot of people romanticize the life of a baker. While I absolute love baking and decorating, it’s mostly dishes and paperwork.
How has baking as an activity changed for you now that it's what you do full time?
It really has changed the relationship I have with baking. Before it was used as a stress release from my full time job, and now it is the stress of my full time job. When you follow your passion, there is always a risk of turning it into something you hate. However, the business side of baking can also be invigorating. I love seeing my brand come to life and thinking about how it will evolve in the future.
I also think about the process of baking in a much more strategic way. Based on upcoming markets and client orders, each day has a different task list. Each task needs to be organized to make efficient use of my limited time. For example, caramel needs to cool from its hot liquid form before it can be added to buttercream so I try to make that first. Baked goods need to cool before they can be decorated so I’ll make donuts one day, and then ice and sandwich them the next. There’s lots of juggling, but I love when I can get into a zone and rhythm.
What’s your absolute favourite thing about going full-time as a baker?
I love seeing the final product whether it’s packaging a client order in bakery boxes or filling my display case at a local market. It’s so satisfying to see my hard work in such a tangible way. Desserts are food, but they’re also art. I used to paint in college, but only had so much wall space for the finished product. With baked goods, it’s edible art. You have the joy of creation and when it’s eaten, you have the opportunity to make more.
It’s also incredible seeing people light up when they see my display case filled with bright coloured donut sandwiches. There is this uncontrollable impulse for passerbyers to exclaim ‘so cute’ which makes my heart smile. At the end of the day, a donut should just add joy.
What's next for you?
I’d love to open a standalone storefront. I have a vision for Ampersand that’s hard to fully bring to life through temporary markets and popups. I want to expand the brand to include apparel and enamel pins, but also partyware like bright coloured acrylic cake stands and cake toppers. Ampersand Bakehouse needs a home, even a little hole in the wall.
You can catch Steph all over the city at different pop up markets. Follow her on Instagram @ampersandbakehouse to stay in the loop, and be sure to try her signature donut sandwiches. And don’t worry, if you’re a fall-loving, pumpkin spice person, that’s on the menu too.