If you're a lover of European pastries, living in Charlotte has been challenging. Charlotte had European bakeries sporadically, but as a rule not historically. In the late 1800s, the impoverished, war-ravaged agrarian South did not attract the enormous waves of European immigrants coming to the US. Instead, these Europeans settled in the industrialized North and Midwest. Some of these immigrants were bakers and pastry chefs from France, Italy, Portugal and Germany, who set up shop in small communities throughout these areas of the country. Fast forward a hundred plus years, and you'll find bakeries and pastry shops in these same communities that have been in business for three generations or more.
Charlotte, however, is home to the latest influx of immigrants: the Latinos. The Latino population here has fostered dozens of bakeries and pastry shops. That community supports these bakeries by buying bread in these bakeries on a daily basis.
European bakeries are also based on the premise of daily shopping. Bridgette Shaw, owner of Marguerite's French Bakery, acknowledges this. She noted, "In France, people come into the bakery and buy bread every day. And then on the weekend, when they have a little more money, they buy desserts."
Marquerite's, named for Shaw's French mother (whose picture is the store's logo), opened in September of 2004, but the concept had spent years in the incubation phase. In her youth, Shaw spent summers with her mother's family in France and the rest of the year in Miami. "In France, I learned about community, family and healthy food. Everything there is centered around food." She adds that many of her French first cousins have become chefs.
Shaw moved to Charlotte with one child in 1995 for an IT job at Microsoft. She soon married, had twins, and at some point realized the daycare was "teaching their values and morals" to her children. "If anyone screws up these kids, it'll be me." She opted to devote time to her children. When her youngest entered school, Shaw decided to return to work in management by marketing a product unique to Charlotte.
Shaw was drawn to food but decided against opening a restaurant. It was her mother's Buche de Noël which directed her to baking. "Every Christmas, my mother would make a cake -- the yule log cake or buche de noël. In France, you can easily buy it, but we could not find one in Miami. So my mother had her own method of doing it. After she died, I learned to mimic her formula. The next year, I made 10 cakes for neighbors and friends."
Soon the orders grew and Shaw began wholesaling these cakes to Dean & Deluca. With this success, she decided to open a French bakery/pastry shop in Charlotte. However, she knew in order to be viable, she would have to sell more than a single product. She spent a year teaching herself how to make French pastries. She incorporated in July 2001, but after 9/11, her investors backed out and her idea was shelved. She continued to sell wholesale.
A year ago, she opened her shop in a secluded space on the Overstreet Mall level of the Charlotte Plaza building, back in the far corner overlooking the parking deck and neighboring Rainbow Deli. "My shop should be on a city scavenger hunt. I have customers coming in all the time saying, 'I finally found you.'"
The shop is small -- only 900 square feet -- and Shaw is at 110 percent production. In order to bake bread, Marguerite's requires a larger kitchen. She is currently in negotiations to relocate to a larger space near downtown. Sixty-five percent of her business is wholesale to gourmet shops and area restaurants. In addition, she sells restaurants the components for desserts so they can assemble in-house.
Shaw's concept is to replicate the France boulangeries and pâtisserie of her youth and bring the product line to Charlotte. Her products and prices are consistent with what she came to love in France. "The prices must be such that people can afford their daily bread." She also places the pastries in a white box, wrapped with ribbon and a shop sticker.
With her in the kitchen is Georges Boucher, a French baker. Boucher started his bakery apprenticeship at 15 and first came to the US as a boulanger. "You cannot have a bakery without a boulanger," Shaw said. She will have boules and baguettes at the new location.
Shaw's shop is barebones, but the tasty products produce memories that send your thoughts to your favorite Parisian arrondisement. Croissants are buttery and delicate, while morning buns and the chocolate Grenache in the desserts are decadent. Fruit tarts are simply classic.
This fall, one student on externship from the baking program at Johnson & Wales University will have an opportunity to learn from Shaw and Boucher.
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