When you’re making cookies for the Queen of England, you know you’re doing something right. We’re putting the spotlight today on High Tea Bakery, one of the best bakeries in Winnipeg without a doubt. They do things the right way, and that’s why we’re only to happy to recommend you visit!
When we had the chance to visit High Tea Bakery in Winnipeg, Manitoba, it was love at first taste. From the moment you walked in the door, you got the sense that everything was set up ever so intentionally.
The interior was clean, crisp and chic, yet also very warm, bright and approachable. What they made was ambitious and nuanced, yet the flavours were familiar and delicious.
The staff were also as friendly as you could be, and ready and willing to answer questions if you had any. While there, I tried more baked goods in one day than I’d care to admit, but now I look back on that day and wish I’d had even more.
Belinda Bigold and I go back many years, and so it was a genuine pleasure to invite her to We Explore Canada to talk about her journey running High Tea Bakery for a couple of decades now. What she’s accomplished, she deserves to be tremendously proud of, and we’re only too pleased to celebrate that.
It’s not easy being a small business owner in Canada (especially not recently), but it seems from the onset that High Tea Bakery has focused on doing things the right way, and the community has taken notice of that.
Belinda showed me a picture or two of some of the lines that they’ve had running out that front door in the past, and it’s really something to behold. Let me tell you, though – if you do arrive and there’s a line, I promise it’s still worth the wait.
Key Details About High Tea Bakery
High Tea Bakery isn’t located in downtown Winnipeg, but rather right across from Assiniboine Park. It’s worth using as an excuse to explore and appreciate Assiniboine Park, as well as the Leo Mol Sculpture Garden.
To be specific, they’re located at 2103 Portage Avenue. On their website, they respectfully acknowledge that their “operations are on Treaty 1 territory, the ancestral lands and traditional territory of the Anishinaabeg, Cree, Ojibway-Cree, Dakota, and Dene Peoples, and on the homeland of the Métis Nation.”
Typically, they’re open Thursdays-Fridays from 10 am-5 pm, Saturdays from 10 am-4 pm, and are closed on Sunday and Monday.
We’ll get into the story of the bakery below, and how they’ve ensured that you can’t have a conversation anymore about the best bakery in Winnipeg without mentioning High Tea Bakery.
I should also mention, just to paint a picture of the stature of High Tea Bakery, they have even served their famous imperial cookies to the Queen of England!
An Interview with Belinda Bigold of High Tea Bakery
We thank Belinda again for her time and for the depth of her answers!
Firstly, I know you opened your doors all the way back in 2003, and since then have become an institution in Winnipeg. Can you talk about why you decided to open the bakery? And, if we’re not mistaken, you opened it alongside your mother, correct?
I actually opened it FOR my mother and WITH my mother. I thought I was going to build her a job, give her 3 years and leave. So naive!
Instead, I ended up staying, building the business, and she is now retired. I’m still running it 19 years later. Who knew?!
Did you ever imagine you’d be doing this when you were growing up? I’m curious if this was a dream of yours that’s come to fruition or just something that felt right and you went for it.
Oddly, a little of both.
I found a journal recently that I’d written in my teens, and in it I made the declaration that I would have to become an entrepreneur, because it was clear I was “too stubborn and pig headed to work for anyone else”.
I didn’t specify bakery, of course, but I’ve always been entrepreneurial.
Everything from lemonade stands, to fairground penny candy stores, to paper routes and on.
So even though I’d never set foot in a commercial kitchen when I started my bakery, creating a business from scratch just felt natural to me. In retrospect, of course, it probably wouldn’t have killed me to look in a kitchen or two before building one!
Where does the name High Tea Bakery come from? I’d love to hear more about it!
When we were brainstorming names, I very consciously did not want anything with the words sugar, sweet, etc. At the time, cupcake stores were all the rage and everything was “sweet” this or “sugar” that.
I wanted something a little more timeless, something that evoked quality and something that referenced my mom’s obsession with English-inspired baking.
When we came upon High Tea, it just fit.
When I had the chance to visit, I was struck by the design and decor of High Tea Bakery. What are you going for from a design perspective, and what do you hope visitors pick up on?
Similar to the name, it’s always been our goal to make something timeless.
We love the old storefronts of Europe so we definitely took inspiration from there, and we wanted it to be classic, but not precious.
With my mom being a former hippie, my dad a biker, and my sister a professional ballerina, we wanted a space where everyone could feel comfortable.
I had this idea that the “ladies who lunch” would find it classic, and the rough & tumble bikers would find it not too “frou frou”, and I hoped everyone would be happy.
If someone was new to High Tea Bakery, what would you recommend they try? And, to extend that question a little, what would you say that you’re best known for?
So my favourite and our most popular are not the same thing.
We are best known for our imperial cookies, a delicate buttery shortbread sandwiched with raspberry preserves, and then covered in almond icing. They’re a Winnipeg tradition (in the way the black & white cookie is a tradition for New York) and after being chosen to serve them to the Queen of England, our imperials became the benchmark in a city obsessed with them.
That being said, if asked what I would recommend, I always go for the cardamom caramel cookie. It’s the same size as the mini imperial but it’s made with cardamom, light gingerbread spices, ground almonds, and sandwiched with a homemade caramel filling. It’s not super sweet (despite the caramel), and it’s positively delicious with tea. I could eat a dozen of them in one sitting!
I’ve always admired your strength in terms of overcoming challenges. Whether it’s a machine breaking, or flooding or anything in between, you always persevere. Can we ask where you feel you get that inner strength from, and why it’s so important to you that you continue to be able to maintain such a high level of quality and experience for Winnipeg?
Thank you – that actually means a lot.
I honestly don’t know where it comes from. When you last visited, I thought I’d overcome difficulties, but it was nothing compared to the last 2 years. I’ve had to shut down and lay off all my employees – twice. I was closed for 2 ½ months due to equipment supplier negligence, I shut again due to a sewer main collapse and flood, we’ve had 2 years of covid restriction, etc etc. It’s been the two hardest years of my life … and yet we survive.
I think a lot of it comes from knowing that HTB is more than just a bakery – it’s a part of the community. When we were down, our loyal customers rallied behind us. They pre-ordered online even when I knew they didn’t need anything. They sent us notes of support. And my staff pulled together and helped each other out, making sure the people who needed money most got the hours.
So I guess my perseverance comes from a combination of pure hell-driven stubbornness, balanced with a sense of responsibility and loyalty to the people who have made this all possible in the first place.
Family is a big part of what makes High Tea Bakery, High Tea Bakery. Can you talk about the influence of family from the beginning and right up until today?
Wellllll … they’re an eclectic lot!
But you’re right, family is everything at HTB. Not just because I started this with my mom.
In many senses, as you mentioned above, I know you see yourself as not just a bakery, but rather as a community hub. On that note, can you talk a bit about the classes that you offer? Are you hoping to bring them back when the time is right?
In terms of classes, we would love to bring them back. Unfortunately, that all hinges right now on how much my mom wants to work.
As I mentioned before, she is now retired, but she is the one who taught all the classes. (And I suppose I could train someone else to do them, but Carol just does such an awesome job and people come just for her, so I’m hesitant to change them.)
Carol now has severe arthritis in her hands and has trouble holding an icing bag, so she can only take on a few classes each season. We’re hoping to bring them back soon though, if only in a small way.
You’re proud to be such a staple in Winnipeg. How does High Tea Bakery relate to the city and vice versa?
Again it comes down to supporting the community that supports you. When I first moved to MB, I’ll be honest – I came kicking and screaming. I accused my parents of ruining my life!
And yet almost 4 decades later, I’m one of the last of my family still here, and I’m grateful for all Winnipeg has done for me. I don’t think as a young entrepreneur in Toronto or Vancouver, I would have survived.
I started with $300 – can you imagine trying that in Vancouver? So I feel very connected to this place and to how our customers have stood by us like a big extended family. It’s extremely heart-warming.
We do focus on travel as well, of course, so I’ve got to ask this question. If someone was heading to Winnipeg, what are a few things they need to do (besides visiting High Tea Bakery, of course) before departing?
If you’d asked me this before COVID, I would have quickly replied “Well don’t come in winter!”
But during the restrictions, Carol and I actually made a pact to enjoy winter. We bought heavy parkas, new boots, and we played tourist in our own town. And you know what? Winter is really beautiful!
So I’d say, get your winter on.
Head down to the Assiniboine River with skates and check out the ice paths. You can skate all the way from Assiniboine Park footbridge (near our bakery) to the Forks, visiting warming huts complete with fire pits as you go. Bring hot chocolate (or something a little stronger) and watch the kids on their sleds, old couples out for walks, and pick up games of hockey at dusk between all age groups.
End at the Forks, where you can have a great meal, locally roasted coffee, or a local beer in the Common. And before you leave, make sure to head to Thermea Spa for an outdoor spa experience you won’t forget.
There’s nothing like wearing a bikini at -20C to get the blood flowing!
What’s one thing you can share with our We Explore Canada readership that people may not know about your bakery? It can be a fun fact, a cool story, or anything in between.
Well, I don’t know how cool or fun this is, but it’s a very Belinda kind of story.
Just before the pandemic hit, I was headhunted to appear on a Food Network Christmas cookie challenge. My audition was scheduled for March 18th, 2020, the same day I’d been forced to close my bakery and lay off all my staff. They asked for holiday cheer, and they got me, close to tears, trying to pretend my world wasn’t falling apart. For some reason, they still liked me on camera and chose me as a contestant.
Skip forward to the actual competition (filmed in Aug of 2020 in New Orleans) and I’d made it to the final round. I was attempting a ridiculously difficult construction of a 3D cookie lantern, and in my haste, I chopped off the tip of my finger. I was SO embarrassed. It took almost 20-30 min to get a medic to stop the bleeding, bandage me up, and get me back to my station, where I then had to complete my 3D construction with a finger twice the size of my hand thanks to bandages. I looked ridiculous.
Needless to say, I did not win – having barely enough time to assemble the structure, let alone decorate it. But the funny part was the edited show. I had become friends with the other contestants and we were all watching the premiere together from our respective cities. When the time came to show my finger being chopped, it simply never happened. I thought reality TV loved the drama, but they just edited the whole thing out.
One minute I’m chopping, the next I’ve got a glove on and an oversized finger.
A flurry of texts came my way from my competitors, shocked that the drama had been left out. I’d gone in being afraid of looking silly for cutting myself, and after watching I was kind of sad it wasn’t shown. Instead, it looked like I was just slow and didn’t finish my piece.
In the end, it was a pretty cool experience and I got to showcase our little bakery on international television, but it’s very Belinda to chop off a finger and then not even have it shown!
What’s on the horizon for your amazing little slice of heaven over in Winnipeg, Manitoba? What can we look forward to, and what are you looking forward to?
Well, I’m kind of afraid to aim for anything, given the chaos of the last 2 years, but one thing I’m really focused on for the future is diversity.
I’ve been making a conscious effort over the last couple of years to #CelebrateEverything – so that means we make cookies for everything from Ramadan and Diwali to Transgender Day of Visibility and National Indigenous Day. We celebrate sports we don’t play, religions we don’t belong to, and cultures we weren’t raised in – all in an effort to normalize diversity.
After we put Ramadan cookies out last year, I received an email of thanks because it was the first time this customer had gone into a regular store and saw their holiday represented. She said she felt so accepted and almost brought her to tears.
So I’m hoping that one transgender heart flag or Diwali lantern at a time, the more we represent all of the people of Canada, the stronger we will be as a community.
And HTB is always at the heart of its community.
If you’re looking for more exciting things to do in Winnipeg, look here.
Christopher Mitchell is a Co-founder of We Explore Canada. He’s visited over 80 countries and has lived on 4 continents, but now has his eyes set squarely on exploring this incredible country and helping others do the same.