Donna Marie Artuso, event planner and self-proclaimed foodie, was out for drinks one night in Washington, D.C. with a group of Americans and expats like herself. Not surprisingly, the discussion quickly turned to desserts, specifically Canadian desserts. When one of her innocent U.S. friends inquired about the term 'butter tart,' the conversation came to a complete halt.
"The Canadians whipped their heads around," Ms. Artuso recalls. "What do you mean, what's a butter tart?"
The evening rolled on, the Canadians enlightening their U.S. counterparts in the wonder of their nation's confections. They considered the near-perfect Nanaimo bar; how the top layer of chocolate and wafer crumb-base pair exquisitely with the custard-cream filling. They relished in the infinite uses for maple syrup: not just a condiment for pancakes, but a perfect partner for scones, sugar cookies and biscotti. And of course, they basked in the pure heaven of biting into their favourite flaky pastry, the butter tart, while lamenting the difficulty of finding this quintessential dessert in the States.
Story continues below advertisement
"At the end of the night, I have my concept tarte au sucre," she recalls. That's when the idea for Canadian Sweets and Treats was born.
Ms. Artuso had always toyed with the idea of getting into the catering business, but she knew she couldn't go into full-service. "It's not a life, it's a job and I just couldn't go there," she recollects. But dessert catering would be more manageable, and she knew there was an under-served market in D.C.
Indeed, she had the idea, the money and the drive. The only trouble was, she didn't have a chef.
"Then the most amazing thing happened" she says. "One crisp autumn evening, I was out in my front yard when I saw the new neighbour raking her leaves. I hadn't yet met them so I went over and introduced myself, told her to knock on our door if she needed anything. Over the course of our chat, I asked Soni what she did and she said she was a pastry chef," she recalls. "I knew the universe was speaking to me."
Soni Karnik and her family had just moved from Pennsylvania where she had run a bakery for a couple of years. Her background was in management consulting and she had attended culinary school in Paris, France. Within 20 minutes of meeting, Ms. Artuso and Ms. Karnik were already talking about going into business together.
Ms. Artuso admits "it was totally reckless." But they both decided that their serendipitous encounter was too big to ignore.
"Such coincidences are really very rare," says Ms. Karnik. "When they do happen, there has to be a cosmic reason we were put together and we just went with it."
Though technically Canadian herself – she was born in India and has been an U.S. citizen for two years now – Ms. Karnik says when you're involved in food you become a citizen of the world. With the Canadian concept, she says she was "game on, as long as the flavours are interesting."
Following their first three-hour business meeting, it took about two months of hard work for the Canadian Sweets and Treats to get off the ground.
An event Ms. Artuso had heard about from the Canadian American Business council, a panel discussion hosted by Maclean's on Canadian-U.S. relations, gave their company the boost it need. "I called to see if they'd be interested in ordering Nanaimo bars for the event, and they loved the idea," she says.
Most of their business so far has been from word of mouth and they've already catered for all types of events in Washington, from the IMF, World Bank, Embassy and numerous think tanks. David Wilkins, the former Ambassador to Canada, orders Nanaimo bars every time he has Canadians visiting in Washington.
Ms. Artuso is overwhelmed by the response. "There's a huge number of ex-pat Canadians. I didn't expect to serve really any market outside of that until Americans started tasting them, so we could probably have a nice little business and only sell to Canadians," she says.
Butter tarts and Nanaimo bars are the top sellers, but their wide selection of maple, shortbread and cream cookies is also a hit with customers. They also make maple-walnut biscotti, ice wine biscotti, chestnut tarte with maple-chocolate drizzle and dark-chocolate flourless hockey puck cakes. With the exception of butter, flour and sugar, all ingredients are from Canada; the maple syrup comes from a friend in Montreal, the ice wine from Niagara and every time Ms. Artuso returns to her condo in Toronto, she brings back a suitcase full of Bird's Custard.
Story continues below advertisement
The bakery currently operates out of a rental kitchen and all of their orders are made online. In the short time since they've been open, the company's made pretty impressive strides strides, including partnerships with local restaurants on the Hill.
Starting on July 1 - fittingly, Canada's birthday - Good Stuff Eatery, Chef Spike Mendelssohn's fabled burger joint, and We The Pizza, one of the hottest eating spots on the Hill, will be carrying their Nanaimo bars for $2 each.
It seems their plan to open a storefront this fall, and spread the good word about Canadian Sweets and Treats, can't come soon enough.
Join The Globe's Small Business LinkedIn group to network with other entrepreneurs and to discuss topical issues: http://linkd.in/jWWdzT