– Words by Toby Tannas Photography by Lia Crowe
There are few pleasures in life as sweet as satisfying a sugar craving. It’s even more fantastic when your chosen indulgence is beautifully handcrafted, ethically sourced and available just around the corner in a delightful Parisian-inspired café.
Stepping into Karat Chocolate + Pastry Boutique, nestled on a quiet block of Ellis Street in downtown Kelowna, is first and foremost a feast for the eyes, with glass displays boasting their signature chocolates, cakes and pastries both savoury and sweet.
On the day I visit, there is a steady stream of people ordering coffee and treats. Unlike other coffee shops, they don’t rush off with paper cups and bags; instead, they sit at bistro-style tables to savour every sip and nibble. (You can see the satisfaction on their faces—often along with a remnant of flaky chocolate croissant!)
What they don’t notice is the man perched on a chair in the corner observing it all. He’s chef and owner of Karat, Julian Helman: the visionary who brought this bright, vibrant, delicious atmosphere to life.
“I always knew I wanted to own a pastry shop ever since I was a kid. My dad was a chef and I grew up in kitchens. Back then, I just didn’t know making chocolates was going to be my ticket.”
Chocolate is the foundation of Karat. In 2015, Julian was working as a pastry chef at Quails’ Gate Winery and dabbling in chocolate making on the side.
“I put a little sign-up board in the kitchen and told co-workers that if they wanted any I was making little boxes of chocolates for Christmas. I had $400 in my bank account. I bought a couple of bags of chocolate and some little craft boxes off the internet.”
A chef friend at nearby Mission Hill Estate Winery let Julian use the basement kitchen to churn out his chocolate creations in the offseason, in what was literally an “underground” operation. Eventually, he started getting attention thanks to word of mouth and social media. A downtown boutique was the first to stock Karat chocolate bars.
“When Linda from Olive & Elle Boutique first reached out,” recalls Julian, “I had to explain that I was a one man show. Turns out that was one of the things Olive & Elle loved about Karat.”
When Julian—who is internationally trained in both the cooking and pastry disciplines—landed a short stint as a private chef on northern Vancouver Island, he was able to pad his bank account enough to take his chocolate business to the next level.
“I reached out to my friend Dave, who owns what is now Bright Jenny Coffee. He found a space for me in the north end. It was 500 square feet and $40 a month. I rented it and we put a little retail section in there. We had four chocolate bars and you could buy boxes of 12 chocolates and that was it,” he says with a chuckle.
That was 2016. Since then, Julian has slowly built the business one chocolate order at a time. He is eternally grateful to family members like his uncle, Vince, who packaged chocolates in those early days and continues to offer advice and step up when he’s needed. Every bit of support over the years has allowed Julian to spend more time honing his craft—a vital ingredient in his recipe for success.
“I became obsessed with the ingredients. Sourcing the best chocolate, asking where are the beans grown, who are the people behind the business, how does it get to our table?”
Julian applies those same ethics to the ingredients used in Karat pastries as well. In just a handful of years, the basement chocolate-making operation has grown into a well-rounded and thriving local business.
“I still feel like we are a really young company and we have so far to go,” Julian says. “Investors have shown interest in making Karat a big operation but it’s just not of interest to me. I like moving a bit slow in terms of growth, so we know exactly what we’re doing and ensuring the quality is always high.”
A big part of the quality equation is skilled labour. Karat now has 18 team members (including Uncle Vince), and Julian’s wife, Amanda, oversees the café and manages the books.
“Without the support and hard work of Amanda behind the scenes, Karat would not exist as it does today.”
Julian thinks of his staff as family, and many have stood by him and the business during some really difficult times. Julian is proud of his chefs and offers them plenty of creative freedom.
“I let the staff run a little and do their thing creatively. I’m always involved, though, and I like to keep it simple. I start with a flavour I really like, then profile it with a specific chocolate, and then we’ll work on the look a little. What we like to eat is what we make. My dad always said figure that out, then make it the best you can and you won’t fail.”
As proof that the cream really does rise to the top, Julian and his team are ready to grow—a little! The Ellis Street café will undergo a renovation and expansion early next year, and the new space will feature even more of the freshly baked goods they’ve become known for, including full-sized cakes. Karat’s original location (the tiny one) will remain the chocolate kitchen, which is where you will most often find Julian.
“A perfect day for me is when I get to be in my chocolate kitchen, developing something new. I call them diamond days. They’re few and far between right now as I’m managing everything, but I will definitely make time for more diamond days in the next few years.”
Julian is also making more time for family. His daughter, three-year-old Hazel, keeps her parents on their toes, and her love for being with dad has influenced Julian’s priorities.
“When I was younger it was all about work. As you get older, when you have kids, it softens you. My happiest memories are here in the shop when my daughter was a toddler. I would drop off pastries and I would see her little face in the window every morning. She would grab a croissant off the rack, I would have a coffee and we would just be together. Those are the best memories.”
Karat is a true artisan company with family at its core. The next time you visit Karat Chocolate + Pastry Boutique for a hand-crafted indulgence, keep your eye out for the chef and his daughter sharing some quality time over a pastry. A beautiful reminder that life and business are best served sweet!