Coming from a large family in France, Christel Saba — the 10th of 14 children — got into business at age 14 selling baked goods, pastries and confectionary.
By 16 she’d already won an award for unique and personalized gift presentation and then set her sights on learning more about the industry.
“The following years I started to work for my brothers — seven of them are bakers and pastry chefs in Paris,” Saba says from Douce France, her shop on Yonge Street south of Castlefield Avenue. “Then I wanted to get a global view of that job so I went to work in different places and my last position was at a castle (where) we would prepare menus for up to 500 people and I was responsible for the final touches.”
Named after her father’s favourite song, Douce France offers artisan products from her home country. There is tea from Compagnie Coloniale, the oldest tea house in France, pralines from Confiseur de Luxe Mazet, which are made using a recipe that dates back to 1636, coffee and chocolates from Voisin, a company established in 1897 and Angelina’s hot chocolate, a company dating back to 1903.
People in Paris line up, sometimes as long as an hour, for the hot chocolate, she says.
Different regions are on display in her store, each of them with different specialties imported from France.
“I don’t work with the importers but with the artisans themselves and this is how we can ensure quality and authenticity of the products any time of the year,” she says. “We offer plates on which we put the different specialties so that people can discover them before buying a whole bag.”
Saba also offers soups, catering, centrepieces for special occasions and customized gift boxes and baskets, which are also imported from France and can be filled with goods like biscuits, cakes, jam, glazed chestnuts and chocolates.
The Parisian café-boutique, set up six months ago, is not only the culmination of her experience in the food industry but also years spent working as a language teacher.
“It is for me a cultural and commercial project,” says Saba, who moved to Toronto four years ago with her Iranian husband and their three children. “We focus on the quality of the products and the service, the relationship we have with our customers, and that’s why the staff also wear the Parisian uniforms and they are bilingual.
“We’re trying to create a Parisian atmosphere in the café, we have French music and it sounds like customers love that.”
Several school classes have already visited the café to learn about French traditions, the different regions of France and the products that come from the areas while being immersed in a French environment.
“They had a multiple choice questions game and then they had the hot chocolate and I also prepared some follow-up activities to motivate them to learn French in a different way,” she says. Although the experience reminds some customers of a trip to Paris, others find they are brought back to memories of growing up in France.
“We’ve had some customers in tears because even the décor is from France,” she says. “People when they come over here, it reminds them of their childhood.
“They are so happy and it’s a taste of France for them in Toronto.”