Q&A with James Chambers
Chez Angela Bakery and Café
James Chambers, co-owner and GM of Chez Angela Bakery and Café, goes in-depth on why his wife Angie and him decided to return to Brandon to open what is clearly a successful bakery and cafe, the great work being done on the Chez Angela social media accounts and what a typical day is like for him.
First off, where are you and your wife from originally? And when did you move to Brandon?
My hometown was Kinistino, SK, but Angie was born here, and we were both raised here and both graduated from Neelin High School. Angie also got her business degree at Brandon University and graduated with distinction from the Manitoba Institute of Culinary Arts at Assiniboine Community College. I lived a year in France, and we have travelled across Canada and to parts of the U.S. together. We lived for a short time in Calgary, but have always called Brandon home.
Tell me about ‘your story’. I notice the Chez Angela website describes you and your wife Angie as ‘dreamers’ who, in my opinion, have really created an identity here in this city as a bakery that truly cares about ‘local’. You mention on your website how you’ve been blessed to really travel the world so-to-speak. Did that help in your decision to start a bakery and café here in the city?
We have fond memories as kids of being downtown, so when we made the decision to start a bakeshop, we knew exactly where we wanted to be. We were definitely over-nostalgic and wanted the same kinds of experiences for our kids. The chocolate shops, the bakeries, the cafés, the movie theatres, Italian restaurants and bowling alleys, not to mention the toy stores and parades and pictures with Santa down at the Gallery (now the Town Centre). One of our first dates was down at the Strand Theatre, so when they tore the old building down, we actually reclaimed some of that brick and it’s proudly in our café today.
It’s clear you have a passion for this city, especially the downtown core…
There are mural walks, spray parks, the music stage, dining options for casual, fine dining, breakfast and pubs, farmer’s markets and so much more. We see up to 2,100 unique customers each month (specifically at Chez Angela) – many visit several times a week – so we know that people are willing to come downtown and we wish more businesses knew that this was possible. So, yeah, we’re passionate about downtown, passionate about this community and especially the people who lift it up. We’re thankful to be among so many great-hearted people who work to improve the lives of others, from the Samaritan House, to the shelters, youth drop-in centres, family programming, the soup kitchen, first responders, health care professionals and educators…these people are our village and we’re humbled to be able to serve them. We know full well that nearly every job in our bakeshop can be replaced by machines and mechanical workers in a factory in Toronto, but we choose to do this work here because we think that baking is a noble profession, and this is a passion that is shared by our staff. We get to honour the local growers and producers with the privilege of using their ingredients to make great things for people in our community to eat. Everything from scratch, nothing from a factory or freezer. Local, in season, as available. It’s hard work but we totally think it’s worth it.
Your social media content is so great – especially your Instagram account. Really enjoy the creativity. Was this always your idea to really push the creativity button on social media or did this just come naturally over time? Also, what do you enjoy doing the most on social media?
The stuff we do on social media is mostly just us being us! It’s a lot of work…it was something we did intentionally from the start to let people know who we are. One of the greatest compliments about our social media isn’t actually someone mentioning it, it’s the strangers who introduce us to their friends at grocery stores and the people who say “hi!” while running past us on the bike path or stop us to take a selfie with us at the drug store. Knowing that we’re making a connection and that people find us approachable enough to consider us part of their community – to be comfortable enough to greet us even though we’ve never met. That is the awesome stuff. While I have led the charge in the social media side of things we have an absolutely incredible and witty team that are increasingly taking the reigns in that area and it is so incredible to see them embracing the spirit of storytelling through that platform. And we’re really trying to grow in this area, informing others on exactly who we are on our sleeve. If we’re honest, out there about who we are and who we want to be, then our staff and our community can hold us accountable. It gives us a platform to share our passions and the communal responsibility of having to live up to those standards.
We have fond memories as kids of being downtown, so when we made the decision to start a bakeshop, we knew exactly where we wanted to be.
What’s a typical day like for James Chambers?
What most people need to know is that Angie actually deserves most of the credit here! Angie is a quiet, reluctant leader who has the support of her team. She enables everyone in the bakeshop and pushes everyone to improve and grow. If I’m to be given credit for anything, it’s that I see in her and the team what they are capable of and I love telling stories about that to others. I actually get a lot of face time through our business profile, but truth be told I only work about 15-20 hours a week at Chez Angela as I have another career – a day job in software development – which keeps me busy. When working at the bakeshop, I try to focus my time on capturing the current situation and planning for the future. This is done through an immense amount of statistics. We log and track as much as we can about sales, weather, events, customer visits and more. We use all that information to plan our upcoming days, figure out where we need to improve and how to best serve our community. I work a lot on the technology side of things, building the website and trying to find solutions to problems. I actually once followed our bakers for the better part of three weeks to count footsteps for different tasks, working over the course of that time to rearrange things in the bakeshop with Angie to optimize our workflows and make things run more smoothly. I guess you could say I work more “on” the business than “in” the business.
I know Chez Angela had a great music scene prior to COVID-19 which saw local bands play there, etc. How important is atmosphere when trying to create that downtown experience and do you look forward to getting back to that sense of normalcy where you can do things like this again?
We hosted over 100 events in just over two years in our little café. Incredible evenings with world class musicians and top local talent, along with rising stars and music students from high school and university, made possible by the likes of Caleb Munchinsky and David Naylor. We held three and a half seasons of our After Hours Dinner with the phenomenal Graydon Cramer, a local treasure in Brandon’s music scene. Folks would tell us this was the kind of thing we needed downtown and seeing it all come together with exclusive menus and wonderful talent, it was just another example of how our little community in the heart of the prairies can punch way above its weight class. Having those events was critical to our path as we discovered our identity. The very last one we held, with Luke Munchinsky, was right before the pandemic struck. It was as though part of the heart of who we are was ripped from our fabric. We can’t wait to get back to having people here in our café, singing, dancing and grooving along while enjoying from-scratch local eats.
In 20 years from now where is James Chambers and what’s he up to?
Who’s to say?! Serving tables and tending bar was the best job I ever had. I can’t see me not having some part in hospitality down the road. We are in the process of opening our second location and laying the footwork for more things to come. We believe there are great things that we have to offer this community, different contexts, flavours and atmospheres that are not being served. We’ve been so fortunate to have been on a few self-directed culinary tours as we developed our passion for food. Now, knowing that we have great people to share in that with and a community to serve and support, we anticipate many years of adventure ahead. And wherever I land, it’ll be at Angie’s side and our kids nearby.