BY LAURA GREGORINI
The entrepreneurial spirit that drives the Lee sisters is steeped in tradition. Before world-famous butter tarts and loose-leaf teas, Helena and Marianne Lee would watch enthusiastically as their mother worked at her tailor shop in Hong Kong, making custom-made garments. Their father, a civil engineer, taught them the importance of an education, hard work and determination.
Little did they know it at the time that they would inherit their parents’ ambition, a trait that would serve them well in Canada.
Helena and Marianne both graduated from the University of Manitoba in the mid-1970s with degrees in business administration.
After university, Helena found a job at a national bank and, then moved through the ranks from teller to senior operation manager. Marianne returned to Hong Kong to work in accounting.
Helena married and moved to Sudbury with her growing family. In 1989 she took over Grandmother’s Pie Shoppe. Marianne moved to Sudbury to help her with a new business venture. (Helena’s husband Steve is the founder of the city’s Dragon Boat Festival.)
“I really liked baking and I wanted to have a business,” said Helena. “I wondered what I could do with this business. It was a 500-square-foot bakery on Barry Downe. I looked at the menu and all the pastries. I felt the butter tarts were a true Canadian desserts and that the recipe I had was very good but there was something I didn’t like about it, so I changed it.”
Helena was confident her product was good and she started making appointments with local businesses to persuade them to carry her buttertarts. She was persistent.
“One day my luck changed,” said Helena. “We outgrew that little space and moved to Paris St.”
A food distributor from Calgary was passing through Sudbury when he happened to taste one of the Lees’ butter tarts. He told the sisters he wanted to distribute the product into convenience stores in Calgary.
“We were laughing. We thought he was joking. Really? Distribute our butter tarts to Calgary? But he kept calling. He was serious, so we started sending him samples and then he began ordering them.”
Marianne and Helena have since sold the bakery, but Grandmother’s Pie Shoppe butter tarts are still available in convenience and grocery stores such as Walmart and Costco across Canada.
“It was a business we really built up from nothing,” said Helena.
After selling Grandmother’s Pie Shoppe in 2010, the sisters were left with a void in their lives. They had often talked about opening a tea shop as a retirement project. Drinking tea was part of their daily ritual when living back in Hong Kong and continues to be so.
“We wanted to share our love for tea with our customers,” said Helena.
In 2011, they opened Tea & Bloom on Durham St. near Elm. The tea house sells more than 60 types of loose-leaf teas and blooming teas, gifts and desserts including those famous tarts. The shop is open for breakfast, lunch and afternoon tea.
“Having a business is very challenging,” said Helena. “I feel that to do an excellent job is easy for me. But to run a prosperous business, it’s difficult and very challenging.”