The Story of Coach House Shortbread Company
Shortbread was always an important part of the Christmas season when I was a child. It was something my Mom always made, using a recipe she had inherited from my Scottish great-grandmother and my siblings and I always loved it. I can still remember sneaking into the kitchen during the holidays and stealing some from the cookie jar when no-one was looking! Eventually, I became curious about how this delicious treat was made and my Mom began to teach me. Her recipe was very simple – just Butter, Flour and Brown Sugar - but I learned quickly to make absolutely sure the Butter was at just the right temperature and the oven as well, or the cookies wouldn’t turn out. I began looking forward to helping her make them each season and she was glad for the help. My favourite part was always the clean-up when I got to eat-up the last bits of cookie dough.
Around 1984, as a student at the National Ballet School, I began to bake-up batches of shortbread each year as gifts for friends and family since I was totally broke and couldn’t afford to buy gifts. People really seemed to enjoy receiving them. It was during this time that I began experimenting with the recipe a little. As wonderful as the family recipe was, I had encountered some different textures and flavours in other recipes that had really piqued my curiosity, most particularly the recipe my dear friend Adrienne was using. Through a long process of experimentation, I learned that shortbread can be made to have a whole variety of textures and flavours, depending on the proportion and type of ingredients. I gradually developed a recipe that had the qualities I liked best from the many different batches I had been making over the years: crisp at the bite, not too sweet, and with what Cynthia David of Food and Drink Magazine described as “a meltingy tender heart”.
In 1986, after I completed my studies at the National Ballet School and was working for a time as a dancer with Opera Atelier, I began studying Opera singing which took me to New York City to study. I was very homesick at Christmas and decided to comfort myself with a batch of shortbread. One night, my landlord tried one without knowing I had made them. He loved them and asked me where he could buy them. I told them I had made them and he commented that I should try selling them to stores as he was sure they’d sell. This got me thinking seriously about the possibilities…
As it happened, he asked me to make some for him to take to his store in Trump Tower - called Jean-Claude Jitrois – to sample them, the reaction was a total surprise to me: People wanted to know where to buy them. I decided to make a large batch and I approached a Store in Trump Tower to see if I could interest the owner in selling them along with some other stores on Fifth Avenue. I quickly found myself with 8 stores up and down Fifth who liked the product and were willing to give them a try. However, I realized quickly that I couldn’t keep that up for long as my time in New York was drawing to a close and I would be going home. I decided to continue my new venture back home in Toronto.
Upon arriving home, I told my sister Cathy about my adventures and she suggested she take some cookies to a party and giving them to the caterer who had a wonderful gourmet food store in Toronto’s tony Yorkville district called Dinah’s Cupboard, so I baked some-up right away. The owner, Dinah Koo, tried the cookies at the party and phoned me late that week to ask me if I would like to sell them at her store. I was thrilled! We met, discussed pricing and I had my first Toronto client.
At the same time, I realized that I couldn't keep making these out of my Mom's tiny kitchen, and I decided to find an alternative. Dinah Koo suggested to me that I ask David Wood of David Wood Food Shop fame if I could rent his pastry kitchen at night. At the time his store was just about the hottest gourmet food stop in Toronto, and I was a bit shy about approaching him, but I did, and he said yes!
For a time, I worked in that kitchen from 11 pm until 5 am whenever I needed to bake. Pastry Chef Daphna Rabinovitch and Chef Karen Barnaby were working there at the time and were very patient with my occasional late-night intrusions. They were also both very encouraging and kind.
By1992, I had acquired about 10 very good retail clients, but I felt cut-off from my customers, and I wasn’t happy about having to consider mass-production to keep-up with my orders. I really wanted to keep making them by hand. I met with the then President of the Canadian Specialty Food Association – Donna Messer - to seek some advice about the specialty food business and she suggested I try selling my shortbread at the One of a Kind Show in Toronto. I loved the idea of connecting directly with my customers and applied that year. I was delighted when I was accepted right away.
After having a wonderful success at that show, I made the decision to stop selling my cookies wholesale and I closed all my wholesale accounts but for one: Dinah’s Cupboard – a client I continue to have great relationship with. I must admit that I am very happy I made the decision to opt for a small-scale enterprise over a large scale monster. It allows me to keep control over the quality of every stage of the making of my cookies and biscuits.
Around that time, at the suggestion of my friend Maria Silveri, I had begun toying with Savoury Shortbread and was struggling to reconcile these new ideas with the cumbersome and obscure references within my old company name and brand. That desire to choose a more representative name and brand combined with the irresistible allure of the historic coach house I was now working in inspired me to change my company name. That's how 'Coach House Shortbread Company' grew out of 'La Zecca' and 'Doubloon's.
Over the last few years, with the encouragement of my life-partner Will, I have taken steps to allow my business to grow further without betraying my commitment to my seasonal, artisan-based methods. It’s been 25 years since I started in 1986, and this year I opened a new Shortbread Showroom where customers can shop while I and my dedicated staff bake, and I have hand-picked a select few stores across Canada to sell my product seasonally. I have a wonderful time working at this small scale as it allows me the luxury of really enjoying my work at a pace I can sustain myself.
Proprietor & Baker,