Montreal

Quarantine diaries: The meaning of cake

For close to 15 years, Reema Singh has been baking and selling cakes from her tiny shop on Parc Avenue in Montreal's Mile End. Cocoa Locale has been open throughout the pandemic because — well, it turns out that cake is essential.

'It's like war cake — I could roll back the time, it would be the same as World War II'

Reema Singh serves one customer at a time in her shop, filled with warm, baking smells of vanilla, lemon and chocolate. 'There's no such thing as a bad customer,' she says. (Loreen Pindera/CBC)

CBC Montreal wants to know how you are living these days. What are you doing differently? Have you learned, realized or observed anything?

For close to 15 years, Reema Singh has been baking and selling cakes from her tiny shop, Cocoa Locale, on Parc Avenue in Montreal's Mile End. The shop's hours are Wednesdays to Sundays, from noon until the last cake is sold.

Cocoa Locale has been open throughout the pandemic because — well, it turns out that cake is essential.

Here are Reema Singh's musings, as told to CBC's Loreen Pindera.


I have an old-fashioned shop. It's built for High Street, where you have a butcher, a baker, a candlestick maker. It's meant to provide, when you trim everything back, something that is essential. It really has maintained its place in people's hearts, in their kitchens, in their celebrations and their dinners. It's like war cake — I could roll back the time, and it would be the same as World War Two. That's how it feels.

The shop is pandemic proof. I work all by myself, so I don't have to put anyone else at risk. And people know where the cake is coming from, so if I'm here and I'm healthy, they know the cake is, too, or I wouldn't be here.

My cakes have always been small sizes, but their size right now is very important. I mostly only make the small size — the social-distancing size — because no one is having big parties.

I check the weather now because it does make a difference in how much stock I make. If it's a nice day, people will be walking around. It will be busier. And no one is on a schedule: A Saturday is not a Saturday. A Wednesday could be just as busy. So there are all these wild cards, but luckily for me, I don't have to change much. It's been, honestly, a blessing.

Comfort eating is huge — it just depends what people like. When [the pandemic] first hit, chocolate was the number one thing that people wanted. Now, as the weather gets nicer, people want lemony things, lighter things. I'm seeing this trend back to really simple old-fashioned recipes, like carrot, banana: "Let's just have carrot cake with tea!" Any reason to have a cake around.

It's been the most magical time to work.... I found that the interactions are completely different. There is so much focus. There's eye contact. If someone asks you how you are, they really listen to what your answer is. There's empathy, because everyone is dealing with the same thing. 

There's no such thing as a bad customer. If they come in, there is just this gratefulness. Everyone's being really responsible, and I have a moment — with everybody.

People are on these little missions. If you come back with toilet paper, you are a hero. If you come back with a cake, too, your name is in lights! The littlest things are, like, this edited happiness. Cake can mean a lot of things. It can mean nothing — just, it's Wednesday. But if it's a birthday and there's no party — well, there's cake.

Reema Singh's story has been edited and condensed.

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