Sean O’Donnell was travelling in Australia in 2015 when the call came.
It was his mother, Catherine O’Donnell, proprietor of Willow Cakes and Pastries and soon after, Sean was homebound to take the reins at the popular Niagara-on-the-Lake bakery.
It may have seemed a stretch for someone who studied business and journalism, and swam competitively, to take over this little patch of carbohydrate heaven on Mary Street. But, really, it made sense for a guy who grew up napping on flour sacks while his mom baked, and who was Catherine’s first hire when she opened the shop in 2004.
As Catherine steps back from the day-to-day operations, Sean is stepping up to ensure the family legacy continues with every cup of coffee and decadent Toberlone cheesecake served. Niagara Culinary Tours caught up with Sean to find out his vision for this community hub.
What inspires you every day in your business?
I’m trying to find different roads of revenue and things to keep the business interesting and that’s what keeps me going every day. Plus it’s also the family legacy. (Catherine) started it in her basement over on Harmony Drive and then moved it into this place. Then with it being a staple in the community like it’s become — I’ve had people coming in twice a day for the last 13 years. I owe it to them to keep going.
Tell us about the role you see Willow Cakes and Pastries playing in the community in Niagara-on-the-Lake?
You have bakeries and patisseries and coffee shops and wholesalers but not one that incorporates that and still has a community feel. Those cups (on our shelves) have the names of people who are regulars and come in here and grab their mug every day. I think that unique vibe and aspect of this business has been what’s kept people coming through. They’re able to witness every day what’s going on in the kitchen. They know now that they’re getting a cheesecake or mousse and it’s different than the store-bought things they’re getting. They’re getting bang for their buck and that keeps them coming.
What are some of the big sellers, the cornerstones of Willow Cakes and Pastries?
We’ve got the Café Royale, which is a mocha chocolate mousse/white chocolate mousse, chocolate ganache and Oreo cookie crumb base. We’ve got the white chocolate raspberry mousse, which is exactly how it sounds: white chocolate mousse with raspberries throughout. The New York cheesecake, the carrot cake — that’s my great grandmother’s recipe. The Toberlone cheesecake has become a staple as well. It literally is called that because there’s Toblerone on it. It’s a chocolate-peanut butter fusion with chocolate chunk and caramel and an Oreo cookie base. It’s got that decadence but takes you back to your childhood with spoonfuls of chocolate and peanut butter. It’s pretty insane.
Has being in Niagara, and more specifically in Niagara-on-the-Lake, enabled you to do things with the business you wouldn’t have been able to do elsewhere?
What I’m interested in doing is taking advantage of the influx of youthful entrepreneurs coming into town. It’s not just the mom and pop shops or the retired teacher opening a clothing shop. It’s people with the anticipation and expectation to make money in this place doing niche market jobs, like The Exchange (Brewery) and Oast (House Brewers), for example. It’s something we haven’t seen here in a while and I’m noticing that in my clientele as well. I love everyone who comes in here but it’s nice to have the energy of the conversation in the building again. With the business, it’s allowed me to open things like Willow Branch Catering where we’re doing high-end in-home to small corporate functions. That was something I’d never thought I’d be able to do. I’ve made a business partner over the past year and we’re in the works for a design concept for some kitchen materials. Being able to get in touch with younger people who are entrepreneurs has been a lot of fun because it creates a lot of different experiences.
What can we look forward in the year ahead?
We’re renovating in February. The look is changing drastically. There will be more seating. I’m looking at incorporating a wine bar for after hours. We’re taking advantage of the space we have because after 13 years we realize there’s some pretty decent wasted space in this building. Plus it’s an old building, too. That’s definitely going to be the game changer and with that the growth of Willow Branch is happening. New cakes, new facelift, same staff.
Is there a baking trend we can look forward to?
Honestly, I’m looking forward to trends being on the out. I’m so tired of cupcake trends and doughnut trends. We make them and we love them but you can only do so much with cupcakes. I’m more interested in cake sculpting and that kind of thing. That’s where the real magic is.
Written by Tiffany Mayer