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One morning, Stephanie Laichi woke up and decided she was going to have an ice cream company. She’d never made ice cream before, didn’t even know the basics. She just knew she liked it. She’s kinda crazy like that.
Two years later, Kingsley Desserts is beginning to flourish. Today, Montreal’s Jean-Talon market and Little Italy. Tomorrow, the world. It’s no wonder Steph is creating treats that everyone loves – be it vegan, lactose intolerant, or everything tolerant – because everyone seems to love her. An entrepreneur whose treats are almost as sweet as their founder.
You have a reputation around Montreal as a busy gal. Who is Steph Laichi?
I’ve always been somebody who’s had their hands in a lot of different pots. By that I mean if you look at my job history on paper, it kinda looks like I’ve been a little bit all over the map. And it’s mainly because I feel like I can do, and want to do, everything. I like to think that’s because I have a very supportive mother who always told me that I could do anything, and I chose to believe her. Everything that I’ve done up until now has really been guiding me to where I have to be, in terms of starting my own business. I also really like a challenge and I think I’m somebody who’s not afraid to fail. I think that’s the most important part of being an entrepreneur. You obviously give everything you’ve got but you have to also be open to the idea that it might not work, and if it doesn’t work what are you learning from what you’re doing?
What was the process that got you here? How did you end up in the desserts racket?
I have a background in marketing. That’s basically what I was studying in school and I had a bunch of different jobs in that field that felt very dishonest. In terms of PR, depending on the client and depending on the job it kinda feels like the art of manipulation. That was something I didn’t like and that was something that didn’t resonate with who I was. And I started to think of what I could do that felt pure, felt like myself, felt like I wasn’t tricking anyone, where any client I could possibly have would leave happy.
And starting an ice cream company was the answer?
The only answer that came to mind was ice cream! Nobody’s ever mad having ice cream! So that was the first part – to do something that felt honest. The second part was finding something that I’d be happy to spend 12 hours a day doing. I thought I’d be happy making ice cream all day because that meant I could eat it. Felt like a win-win situation.
Ice cream was also an easy one because I’m lactose intolerant and I love ice cream, I could have it every day. I also lived near a really great ice cream parlour and I was envious of their lifestyle. Work really hard for a few months in the summer because Montreal’s weather unfortunately doesn’t really permit an ice cream parlour to be open all year round. But they really focus on creating a really great product and just do that for those four months and the other months they travel and do other projects. I kinda like that idea for myself, I like the idea of really honing in on one thing, working as hard as I can and also having the flexibility of being able to travel and being able to explore my other interests.
Were there challenges considering you’re lactose intolerant?
I always felt limited to certain things that I could have, and certain desserts that people would be offering at home or at a dinner party. I wanted to make ice cream for everyone. I’ve been to so many places, so many times as someone who’s lactose intolerant and felt so bad for not being able to have cheesecake or not being able to have any of the dessert that’s being served, so I really like the idea that no-one would feel guilty and everyone can enjoy, because sweets are supposed to be something that you have when you celebrate with people that you love.
So, yes it’s lactose free and yes it’s vegan, but the point isn’t for it to just be for a vegan market, the point is for it to actually be for anyone. You can buy this ice cream, you can buy this popcorn and serve it and no matter who is over, they can enjoy it, they can ingest it, and they can have fun.
Even if you are for everyone, are there still attempts to pigeonhole you?
One of the challenges that we’ve had is that with vegan being a ‘trendy’ word or buzzword that’s going around, it kinda feels like a lot of people may feel alienated and that the product isn’t necessarily for them because they don’t have this lifestyle. That’s something that I’m trying actively to change because it doesn’t need to be so exclusive. That’s definitely not what we try and do here, at all.
How can something be literally for everyone though?
When I say that I wanted to create a product for everyone, of course there’s going to be a few who just don’t like ice cream or popcorn in general. My grandmother, who I love very much, hates both of those things no matter what’s in them. But in my circle of friends or in my life, ice cream has always been a really important part of moments.
Where is the ice cream made?
The restaurant Salmigondis in Montreal’s Little Italy. They’ve been a huge saving grace letting me use the facilities when they’re closed. Brian, my partner, also happens to be the chef. That’s also really great because not only is he very talented but he’s also very helpful. Every time we’re trying something new he’s always able to tell me what tastes good and what doesn’t. It’s been a really nice collaborative effort.
How did popcorn become part of the Kingsley family?
I love popcorn. Popcorn was also mainly an idea from Brian. He decided to make them one day for his family for Christmas. We were trying to make gifts ourselves rather than spending money. They liked them so much we were like, well, maybe we can make this a division of Kingsley, which is also a reason why the company is called Kingsley Desserts. It’s an umbrella of different desserts so we don’t feel limited and we feel creative.
Where did the name “Kingsley” come from?
I had a lot of trouble figuring out a name for the business. I wanted something catchy but something that was also meaningful, and if it ended up having a long lifespan I wanted to make sure that I liked it. “Kingsley” is a family name. I always really liked the sound of it and I always kinda wanted it to be my last name, so it just made sense to go that way.
I do things really backwards. I decided one day – and I don’t even really remember how I had this idea – but I decided one day to have an ice cream company and I’d never made ice cream before in my life. Everyone thought I was crazy but I went and registered the business under the name Kingsley Desserts. In Québec, anything that deals with ice cream you have to have the word crèmerie with it, but I chose the word desserts because it’s spelt the same in English and French. Seeing as I’d never done anything with ice cream before, I felt like now that I’d registered the business I almost had no choice but to have an ice cream business so I spent the next winter months making ice cream. A lot of them were failed attempts but I eventually made it work.
How has the company grown over the journey?
It’s actually grown quite quickly in a controlled way. I registered the business in 2014, but I only actually sold my first piece of ice cream at an actual fair in 2015. So in my mind we’ve only been really open about a year. In that time, considering the means that we had to start it – which were not much – and the amount of time I had to put into it – which also wasn’t much – I’m actually really, really, really proud of how much we’ve been able to grow. And people really like our product and that’s something that’s really rewarding.
One of the best things about being at the Jean Talon market, again going back to the idea of what I wanted for the project, is to be part of the community. I love the idea of just being in the middle of the hustle bustle of the people. Meeting them first hand and figuring out what they like and what they don’t like, that was something that really was at the inception of the project and something that helped me want to continue. Just meeting all these really great people, being surrounded by so many people who have their own business and really care about their products and care about selling them and care about the people that buy them, I felt that was really inspiring. Even if it was a bad day, it didn’t feel like a bad day.
What’s next? Do you have plans to open stores?
What’s going to happen next? I’m not really quite sure. I think that I’m willing to let it be what it wants to be. Right now it seems like a wholesale business is what’s driving the company, but if there’s the option of having a store somewhere, I’m not afraid of any of the possibilities that can bring. So, I’m kinda thinking bring it on, I guess.
Words – Zac Strevens
Camera, Audio, Editing, Direction – Zac Strevens