Cocoa Locale. 4807 Avenue du Parc, Montreal, Québec.
Cocoa Locale is no cupcake shop. It’s not a bakery that churns things out for other businesses. Nor is it a cafe. It’s a “home kitchen”: a single room with an oven and a display case. There’s just one woman behind the counter who bakes and sells the goods herself, right there in front of you. Cocoa Locale’s friendly, feisty sole proprietor, Reema Singh, knew exactly what she was doing when she opened her shop 5 years ago. She wanted to create something small and local, where the folks who came in would make her and her cake shop part of their daily lives.
Though fresh out of university and only 25 when Cocoa Locale came to be, Reema was already a self-titled “freelance baker.” She’d been busy home-making cookies, pies and cakes for an eclectic group of Montreal restaurants. She was known to deliver her baking on her bicycle — in large, pink hat boxes. And people had become addicted to her wares. Still, no one quite understood her strange and wonderful idea for a shop. “I remember when I came to see this spot. My husband and my dad were like, ‘We don’t know what you want to do here.'” But Reema knew she could do it. And weirdly, she wanted to do it all on her own. “Everyone told me: ‘Yes, but you’re going to hire people.’ I said, ‘No, but I’m not going to.’ And they said ‘But, you’re going to hire people for the front? And I was like, ‘There is no front.'” It’s deliberate. When you enter Cocoa Locale, first you see the cakes: colourful, elegant, adorned with flower petals and perfect, perfect icing. Behind them, there’s Reema, stirring and blending away at her pink Kitchenaid mixer. The simplicity is beautiful. Reema’s hands make the cake, and she hands them over to you.
There’s a whimsy and theatricality to Cocoa Locale that is very ‘Montreal-ish.’ Reema moved to Canada’s most European city to study because she dreamed it would be so. Walking in her neighbourhood one day, she noticed an old tailor’s shop front for the very first time. It had a ‘for rent’ sign in the window and Reema “got a feeling”. She lived around the corner on Avenue de l’Esplanade, one of the city’s most picturesque streets, where brightly painted houses with long iron stairwells overlook Montreal’s evergreen mountain. This is a creative city; affordability makes it a mecca for art, fashion and movie-making. Eccentricity is commonplace. As Reema describes: “There’s something romantic about Montreal, like a little film… you see girls riding bikes in high heels… you get some really nice moments. It’s European mixed with a real relaxedness.” Cocoa Locale is right at home in this environment. Its stage is set with miniature flowery aprons hanging in the window, a wooden swing to sit on, lots of 1950s posters and domestic relics and Reema herself, decked out in an old-fashioned apron, perfect lipstick and a retro headscarf while she whisks around. Reema acknowledges that there’s an element of performance to this one-woman show. She takes her role seriously. “There have been moments where I deserve an academy award. If I don’t feel well I do not share it. People have come in for a cake. There’s nothing worse than when you go to the ice cream store and the girl serving you is surly. It’s like, ‘this is my nice moment, you’re ruining it.’ I’m very conscious of that.”
And what cakes. I am not a big ‘sweets’ eater and certainly not a cake obsessive, but if Cocoa Locale were my local I would be in big, fat trouble. I sample as much as I can on the day of my visit. Chocolate chai is a bestseller that doesn’t disappoint. The Valhrona chocolate Reema uses makes it rich enough for real chocoholics, but with an added, mellowing dimension of cardamon, ginger, and cinnamon. There are two other varieties of chocolate cake: lavender and a spicy one, another ‘people’s favourite’. Then there are fruitier flavours. Vanilla plum cake (with fresh plums, if Reema can get them) is gorgeous and a perfect balance of tastes. There’s also a summery lemon and blueberry number, a lemon coconut cake, a classic peach crumble and Bundt cakes (those round, ridged ring cakes maybe your grandma made) in chocolate zucchini or a subtle lemon and olive oil. Though most of these cakes are available most days, there is no ‘set’ menu; Reema makes her mind up “in the shower” each day or when she’s inspired at the grocery store: “like you’d decide what you make for dinner.” She doesn’t take requests. “I don’t ask for people’s opinion. There is no taste testing. It’s what I think it should taste like. If I don’t like it, I don’t make it. Even if it’s popular.”
Cupcakes are available, but they’re done Reema’s way. Six or seven cupcake places opened in Montreal soon after Cocoa Locale did. She remains unfazed by the phenomenon. “I didn’t want a cupcake shop. I make cupcakes that are like my individual version of a slice, but it’s cake that I do here.” At Cocoa Locale, I come to understand that cake is invested with a whole lot of emotion. Reema is its peddler and a convincing ambassador. “It’s that memory of cake. You had your own. You fought over the last slice or kept making slivers. I like that you can control it. And I like the idea of sharing, cutting from the cake… everyone eats the same amount of the middle. It’s that nostalgic thing, you set it on the table and everyone takes a slice. It’s not a trend, we’ve always had cake. It’s been around the block.” Reema has considered abolishing cupcakes entirely, to make a statement. She decided against it. She explains, deadly serious, that “people would lose it.” Accordingly, Cocoa Locale’s cupcakes are her own unique version; made bigger, “a deux”, for sharing (or not). Reema also bakes cookies, because a few of her customers just couldn’t do without them. And there are brownies, too. I had a spicy one and it was outstanding: a thick layer of fudge gives it depth and richness and a touch of ginger and cayenne pepper add a tasty little kick.
The baking process — part nurturing, part artistry, part chemistry — seems to suit Reema’s personality. She likes that there’s a perfection and an immediacy to it. “It’s not like cooking where you can just throw in a little bit…you know? You make it, it’s creative, then it gets eaten. In 4 or 5 hours. I like that.” Everything Reema makes gets sold; there are never any leftovers. While cakes can always be reserved by phone and put safely aside, demand always exceeds supply and Saturdays in particular often see Reema selling out and closing early.* Which can lead to high drama at the cake shop. “People get so nervous!” says Reema, after an older man comes in to verify that the spicy chocolate cake he called ahead to request has been kept “safe and sound” behind the counter while he goes to get his groceries. It’s all part of Cocoa Locale’s success, of course. “You play a bit hard to get. It’s like you’re dating — the woman who never calls you back,” she explains, with a grin.
In my short time in the shop, I observe many devotees who are happy with this teasing, tantalising and ultimately rewarding courtship. Francophones, Anglophones, in all shapes and sizes, from the very young (my three year old daughter announced after visiting that she wanted to go back to the cake shop and live there forever) to the very old – an elegant lady who appeared with a driver in tow and asked Reema to remind her of her favourite cake – people just love the cake boutique and keep coming back for more. Reema has a knack for remembering all her customers’ names, likes, dislikes and the stories she’s been told. She says it’s a bit like being a bartender. What she enjoys most is “Being in people’s lives. I love that in the past 5 years, first a single woman and a single man came in, separately. Then they became a couple and they still came in. Then they got married and I did their wedding cake. Then they had a kid, and now their kid knows my name and can ask for their cake.” And what of Cocoa Locale’s future? I ask Reema what’s coming next. “It’s always been the same idea, since it opened. It will never change. I will just keep doing it until I don’t like it and then I won’t do it anymore. No, I won’t sell it, I’ll just stop. Because… it’s me.”
*Cocoa Locale’s hours change seasonally and the shop is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. It’s a good idea to call ahead to avoid disappointment.