Shortly after he purchased his family's traditional Chinese bakery in April 2004, baker and pastry chef Peter Yuen had to fight off a flood of second thoughts.
“Almost immediately, I was thinking ‘oh dear, what have I done.’ I didn't really know where to start and how to rev up this business,” Yuen says.
He had planned to breathe new life into an old bakery by renaming it La Patisserie P — he says the P stands for passion — and updating it inside and out. His vision was to incorporate the kind of high-end classic and unique European pastries that would draw customers not just from his corner of the city, but all of Chicago. One of the most difficult obstacles Yuen immediately faced was knowing where, and with whom, to start.
The bakery had existed for 22 years as the family-owned New Hong Kong Bakery on Chicago's ethnically diverse Argyle Street. It had been able to survive through years of alternating feast and famine, relying almost solely on a core group of loyal neighborhood customers. The bakery was buoyed by waves of Southeast Asian immigrants that occasionally matriculated into the area. “The neighborhood was very unique in the late 1970s and early 1980s,” Yuen says. “It was sometimes referred to as a refugee camp for Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laosians, as well as some displaced Chinese people. It still is a strongly ethnic neighborhood.”
Despite being involved with the bakery since he was tall enough to reach the bench, Yuen wasn't interested in taking over the family business. After a failed attempt to start a wholesale bakery, Great Panda Bakery, left him in debt, Yuen returned to help out at the family bakery while attending the French Pastry School in Chicago. After graduation and a stint as a pastry chef at French Mill Bakery, he hustled around working two full-time jobs in order to repay his debt. He was a pastry chef for Sofitel Water Tower Place Hotel and the head baker for the Four Seasons Hotel Chicago. He continued to help out around the New Hong Kong Bakery when he could, but he didn't pay close attention to the subtle demographic changes in the neighborhood.
“I needed to know who the customers were at the time I bought the place. I had been out of the loop in the neighborhood with my other jobs, so I had to decide where my customers were going to come from,” Yuen says. “Most of the family was already out of the baking business by the time I bought it, so I couldn't rely on them.”
Yuen knew he had retain a core group of customers, but he also wanted La Patisserie P to expand its business and product line to reach beyond the ethnic borders of the neighborhood and tap new markets. With capability in both traditional Asian techniques and classic French pastry, Yuen set out to recreate the shop and the product line to draw new clientele without alienating the customers he already had.
Competitions as promotional tools
Requiring all new equipment and an overdue renovation, the former New Hong Kong Bakery needed a lot of work. Yuen traveled to major bakery expositions to update himself on technology. At the shows, he took notice of the Bread Bakers Guild Team USA 2005 nationals and the National Bread and Pastry team championship. Yuen had been aware of Craig Ponsford's baguette win at the Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie in 1996, and had followed the American win in 1999, but had realized at the time that he was still far off from that skill level.
“Watching the competitions, though, gave me an idea,” Yuen says. “I thought ‘why don't I enter some competitions? That might help drum up some P.R. for the shop.’”
Yuen had been trying to get the word out about his bakery, but armed with a few awards and competitions, such as being a finalist in the 16th and 17th Annual U.S. Pastry Competition and getting a Best in Taste nod in the 2006 Pastry Chef of the Year race, he started receiving some attention. He caught the eye of Asian-American Chicago Tribune reporter and foodie Monica Eng, for instance.
His business started to pick up, and not only from people in his neighborhood. Yuen discovered that the press coverage was easier to get with a few competitions under his belt, and people city-wide were reading about them.
After competing in several regional and national competitions, Yuen recently won a spot on the Bread Bakers Guild of America's Team USA 2008 viennoiserie category. Despite the potential benefits of such a distinction, balancing it with operating a retail bakery is difficult. Only Yuen can produce certain specialty items, so the bakery does not sell them in his absence.
A staff of seven full-time employees help to keep the wheels turning, and it truly is a family operation. Yuen's wife, Susan, works the front counter and decorates cakes; father-in-law Guo Hong Zhen is in charge of dough production; and mother-in-law, Yin Ye Li, keeps production flowing. Not every item is available in Yuen's absence, but the family keeps the essentials fresh and well-stocked.
Meanwhile, Yuen takes a utilitarian approach to make sure the competitions are worth it for the shop beyond P.R. value.
“During my competitions, I had a small revelation; I realized that there are so many pastry chefs that want to be famous that they devote their whole time to practice. I can't devote that kind of time; that's not practical for me,” Yuen says. “A baker shouldn't do that anyway. People appreciate a good piece of bread; that's what is practical and what we as bakers should be practicing.”
Yuen further ensures competition experience has value for La Patisserie P by specializing in viennoiserie. He saw that viennoiserie could be a lucrative addition to his product line. The historical French influence in Southeast Asia meant, given his neighborhood demographics, croissants already were a natural part of his product line. Practice with viennoiserie can only improve his capability with both Asian and Western laminated doughs, and broaden La Patisserie P's appeal. To help reflect the upgrade in the product line, it was apparent that the bakery itself would require a similar upgrade.
Renovate for your market, not out of it
The dramatic transition between the shell of the New Hong Kong Bakery and the current La Patisserie P took almost a year. “My dad would tell us that he just renovated a decade ago, or tell us that he had spent a couple of hundred dollars on the tables already, and that the bakery was good enough. So naturally, I had to revamp the place,” Yuen says. “And if you have seen the place before and after the change, it's like day and night.”
He decided to go with a classic, timeless style. A lot of new, ultra-modern shops are around these days; people see them in New York and want to replicate them where they live, but that doesn't necessarily work.
Yuen discovered this the hard way. After La Patisserie P began operating in 2005, he opened a second, non-traditional bakery down the street; more in the mold of popular New York high-end chocolate salons and cafes. Complete with super-sleek pastry and chocolate cases and sharp, modern lines, the second shop, Sweet Passions, isn't doing as well as La Patisserie P. “The customers aren't biting at the dessert shop. It's just too New York for Chicago right now,” Yuen admits.
La Patisserie P, though, has been successful with a warm, clean appearance. The inset French doors cost $12,000, but add character to the storefront. Dark, chocolate-colored wood covers the walls to eye level, with the remaining wall painted a rich maize up to the ceiling. Recessed lighting creates a soft, rich space that, while clean and neat, is anything but modern. Three new display cases — one dry, one heated, one refrigerated — provide the frame for the pastries and Asian breads. The complete renovation cost $45,000.
Yuen had to make investments in equipment and space, as very little could be salvaged from the old, diminutive 1,100-sq.-ft. bakery. Yuen annexed the space next door to bump the La Patisserie P up to 1,800 sq. ft. Several walk-in and reach-in freezers and coolers occupy the new space, as well as increased storage and a space for competition practice. Mixers and proofers were replaced, as well.
What worried Yuen the most about the bakery revamp was changing the name. After remodeling, the storefront still bore the New Hong Kong Bakery sign. Yuen was afraid that New Hong Kong's customers would assume that the bakery had gone out of business and go elsewhere, so Yuen cautiously kept the old sing up for a while.
“I was freaking out. I didn't want to lose my core customers or give them a reason not to come back,” Yuen says. “I think a lot of them thought it was a new business, despite my best efforts, but they came anyway. In fact, I think that curiosity to see the new shop, just to take a look and see how it compared to the old shop, drummed up even more business. Once people were used to it, that's when I got rid of the old sign, put up the new one, and La Patisserie P, here we come.”
Since the make-over, annual sales have almost tripled to $400,000.
Traditional Asian sweet breads and filled breads are a staple of the bakery, and the neighborhood demographic calls for them to be a cornerstone of the product line. The products include hopia, hopia baboy, meat- or bean-filled buns and sweet buns.
Hopia is the Filipino name for laminated pastries filled with red bean paste, mung bean paste, coconut or taro. Hopia baboy contains a green onion filling. Each is laminated individually and by hand in the Asian style. Their increasing popularity in the bakery reflects the growing Filipino population in the area, evidence of how small changes in demographics affect bakery product lines. Pan de coco (coconut bread) and pan de sal (salted dinner roll) also are commonly-sold Filipino breads.
“The Asian bread line, especially the Chinese bread that encrusts fillings, traditionally acts as a snack, like a cheap hamburger, pocket sandwich or calzone,” Yuen says. “They are a quick snack that's portable and inexpensive.” Barbeque pork, chicken, curry chicken or beef, ham and cheese and azuki bean paste are common fillings for both baked and steamed versions of the traditional Asian bao.
Though the potential for spies keeps Yuen from selling any of his competition viennoiserie, La Patisserie P also is known for its more traditional French and European pastries. Danish, international cakes and tarts, and the ubiquitous Parisian croissant draw people seeking more traditional fare as well as high-end celebration and wedding cakes.
A long-overdue renovation, coupled with good press from competitions, have created growing name recognition of La Patisserie P as a destination throughout Chicago. Yuen has managed to cultivate this growth without sacrificing the core demographic that had supported the 25-year-old family bakery since it's inception. Combined with all the traveling, practices and expectations, it's a been a tight rope act, but so far, Yuen has been able to strike a balance.
La Patisserie P
…AT A GLANCE
Founded: New Hong Kong Bakery, 1982; La Patisserie P, 2005
Web site: www.lapatisseriep.com
Management: Peter and Susan Yuen, owners; Guo Hong Zhen, bread dough mixer; Yin Ye Li, back room manager
Bakery size: 1,800 sq. ft.
Annual sales: $400,000
Market served: North-side Argyle Street Chinatown (immediate) and greater metropolitan Chicagoland
Product line: Asian sweet breads and filled breads; Asian sweet pastries and filled pastries; European tarts, croissants and pastries; celebration cakes and wedding cakes
…A SAMPLING OF PRICES
|Hopia, 4 ozs.||$0.85|
|Hopia baboy, 4 ozs.||$0.95|
|Melon cake, 5-oz. slice||$0.95|
|Meat or bean bun, 5 ozs.||$0.89|
|Custard tart, 4 ozs.||$0.75|
|Lemon meringue, walnut or pecan tart||$2.75|
|Butter croissant, 3 ozs.||$1.50|
|French mousse cake, 3-in. slice||$3.95|
|Eclair or cannoli||$2.75|
|Decorated cake, 8-in.||$18.00|
Hand laminating, Asian-style
Hopia, a traditional Asian laminated dough pastry, is generally filled with red bean paste, mung bean paste or coconut. The hopia baboy is a Filipino favorite filled with green onion paste. Using the traditional Asian method of making hopia, Yuen laminates each individual piece of pastry by hand instead of separating each piece from a larger portion of laminated dough. Once each piece of hopia dough is rolled out and folded to Yuen's satisfaction, it is filled, closed by hand and left to rest before baking.