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The Next Big Thing: Desserts Studio – A Baker on a Mission

October 25, 2017

By Charmian Christie, The Messy Baker

Most people start a bakery to sell pretty cupcakes or perfect pies. Linda Cheung started her business, Desserts Studio Inc., to “help youth and adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and/or learning disabilities by providing opportunities for meaningful employment.  Both her children are on the autism spectrum and she worried about how they would fare when she was no longer around to care for them. “Kids on the autism spectrum face challenges at all stages of life.  My kids are aged 19 and 15, and our current challenges are related to employment and meaningful work,” Linda says. “Youth and adults with ASD face unemployment rates of 70% or higher. They lack options.” Her deliciously creative solution harnessed her son’s passion for baking and piggy-backed on her own skill set.

“My son loves to bake,” she said. “It was also one of the few things I was good at,” she joked. So, launching a bakery employing people with ASD where possible was a logical solution. Yet Linda knew she couldn’t just hang up a sign and sell cupcakes. To ensure she started with a solid base, Linda took baking courses at George Brown and earned her diploma. She then set about recreating the items she made at home with her children, ensuring they didn’t trigger her son’s nut allergy. Her resulting baked goods use premium ingredients with no peanut or tree nuts added. To keep the ingredients as clean as possible, Desserts Studio uses natural flavours and spices, and chooses less processed options where possible, for instance, using arrow root instead of modified corn starch, and non-GMO sunflower oil instead of canola or hydrogenated shortening.

Desserts Studio also accepts custom orders to accommodate requests such as gluten-free, dairy-free, and reduced sugar.

Helping Hands

While Linda faces all the expected hurdles of launching a small business, such as production and marketing, her unique social mission adds hiring challenges to the mix. Enter Ready, Willing and Able (RWA) a government-funded program that connects employers with job hunters who have intellectual disabilities or ASD. Not only does RWA vet the candidates to fit Linda’s needs, it provides on-site help as the new hire learns the job.

In addition, if customers are accessible by TTC, Good Foot Delivery can courier the desserts to the customer’s door.  Good Foot, a not-for-profit delivery service that employs individuals with disabilities, is a perfect match to Linda’s company mission.

Where the Magic Happens

Linda’s company leases an Accelerator space at FoodStarter where she runs a small but very efficient 230-square-foot bakery equipped with commercial ovens, mixers, and other professional baking equipment of her own.

“We are very grateful to have our own space at Food Starter, as it allows us to test our business model,” Linda says. “We experience all the challenges and hurdles of starting a business, but we have the advantage of being surrounded by experts, mentors and other entrepreneurs that we can talk to.  We can find the solutions now that will help us grow and be a successful, viable business moving forward.”

Filling the Void

“There are many people with ASD and/or learning disabilities who seek employment, but not enough opportunities to go around,” Linda says. “We seek to employ those who have a passion or background in baking but have not been able to find the right opportunity.”

Fortunately, baking is an ideal business to fulfil Linda’s finely-tuned social mission.

“Baking everything from scratch gives lots of opportunity for hands-on skills training,” Linda says. “

They can be a success.” Her older son has mastered many kitchen skills such as, scaling, rolling and weighing cookies, and rolling pie dough and filling pies.  When her younger son is old enough, he too will join Desserts Studio, starting with simple tasks.

The community

Delivering exceptional baked goods is still Dessert Studio’s priority. Currently, they sell cakes, pies, tarts, cookies and more sweet treats online, at People’s Church Farmers’ Market, and with the Food Starter table at the St Lawrence Farmer’s Market. They also attend special events and festivals around Toronto. Future marketing goals include expanding their reach by growing their online presence and creating a wholesale business-to-business model that sells their desserts to independent cafes, and local restaurants.