Chartreuse Sisters: A Taste of France

Alyson and Mallory Caillaud-Jones, born to a Muskegon father and a French mother, spent their childhood summers in the south of France. The village of Roquebrun was not large, its population never straying much from the mid-hundreds. 

The girls quickly learned to get along with each other. They had to. They were the only young people around.

Their grandmother was a warm presence. “She loved baking,” Mallory said. The girls would take her pie dough and twist it into their own strange shapes, an act that Mallory credits with having kindled her love of baking. 

“There was a specific smell to her house,” she said. “She had a huge, open wood hearth. Just a very comforting, nostalgic smell.”

Film was also a passion. Several members of the French side of the family had worked in film and video. The girls spent hours watching, and falling for, old movies. They went on to study film. After graduating, Alyson found herself behind the camera, and Mallory acting in front of it. 

To make ends meet, they took side jobs: selling coffee, scooping ice cream. One sister would get her foot in the door, then act as a reference for the other, who would join her. Things could get stressful, but when they did, Mallory turned to baking, which helped. Still, they had the sense that they could be doing more than they were.

Sitting at a café in Detroit, they decided to open their own place. It made sense. Or maybe it didn’t; to do it successfully would take a tremendous amount of work, and even then the odds weren’t great. But they had learned a lot from their grandmother, and from their parents, both of whom loved food and entertainining guests. They decided to give it a try.

“Somehow being an actor in Grand Rapids seemed more realistic than being a baker,” said Mallory, laughing. Still, she enrolled in Grand Rapids Community College’s culinary program. One semester in, the pandemic hit, forcing a pause: a potential dealbreaker.

Undaunted, Mallory created her own curriculum, further sharpening already sharp skills. The pair began making small, custom orders. They weren’t always French pastries; Michigan cottage law only allows you to cook in a residence if you’re making shelf-stable products—which doesn’t include most French desserts. Still, they were making progress.

Stress hadn’t disappeared. But sisterhood helped. Spending so much time in France without other children around, they had learned to be each other’s best friend. They had done the work of learning conflict resolution. More, as sisters, they could be vulnerable with each other, and lean on each other for strength.

They started a subscription service, which provided reliable income and the chance to get to know customers over time. They hand-delivered orders to customers’ doors in rain, shine, and, in one case, a blizzard. E-mails came in, telling them what products customers loved and providing them some of that connection they craved.

But a café was always the dream. In early 2021, they began looking for space. They figured they could find something small and practical: a starter home, to be left later when they were ready for something bigger and better. They settled on a list of must-haves. One day, their realtor called and said he had a property to consider. It included exactly zero of their must-haves, but he said they should look at it anyway.

The building at 800 Wealthy, a former pharmacy, needed a lot: pipes, electricity, gas line, water, more. The tin ceiling was gorgeous but clearly needed work; the tiled floor, too. Still, it was clear, this was the place. 

In France, pastry shops are often located in centuries-old buildings, settings that provide a sense of continuity and even romance. Squinting past the former pharmacy’s flaws, the sisters could see the beauty. “We said, ‘This is perfect.’ It’s a piece of history.”

Loans secured, they began the process of renovation. A construction crew handled the specialized work, but the sister did everything else: scraping, painting, polishing, and more, learning new skills, and the use of new tools, in the process.

On Thursday, January 5th, their café began its two-day soft launch; Chartreuse Sisters had opened its doors.  As French music played, visitors chose from among galettes, eclairs, madeleines, and more. The pastries, like their creators, were part-French, part-American; the “financier,” a traditional French treat, was given an American twist: it was now a cupcake.

Mallory, as head baker, was mostly responsible for the pastries. Alyson’s realm was drinks: in addition to MadCap coffee and coffee-adjacent drinks, the café offered non-alcoholic cocktails. One was the Candy Apple Tonic, featuring malt, cinnamon bark syrup, malic acid, bitters, dandelion tonic, and dried apple. Another, made of orange sec, cranberry juice, maple syrup, ginger beer, and dried orange, was named “The Owls Are Not What They Seem,” a reference to Twin Peaks and a nod to their love of film and video.

Each month, the menu will vary, both in food and drink. “We wanted to do what they do in France: change flavor profiles based on the season.” In creating a small, seasonal menu, the sisters are staking their claim: Chartreuse Sisters will offer carefully cultivated pastries and drinks, and it will offer them at the right time. 

A couple of months before the soft opening, I visited France for the first time, taking full advantage of the food scene. Walking through Chartreuse Sisters during the soft launch, it was as if I had dragged a chunk of Paris back to Grand Rapids—or rather, that the Caillaud-Jones sisters, in offering something like the warmth from their grandmother’s hearth, had created a door that could take you across the sea. 

Having taken my purchases home (Chartreuse Sisters has no seating; at least, none yet), I employed a great degree of willpower, setting aside an éclair for my wife and madeleines for our children. Then I got down to business. 

The ginger cookie was big, rich, and buttery, and tasted strongly of real ginger; it could have been a meal in itself. The Candy Apple Tonic was just what I’d hoped for: tart, refreshing, and complex; a drink to savor. The galette, rich, savory, acidic, and peppery, was as nuanced as it was delicious, leaving me both satisfied and excited to start telling people about it. I’d just finished eating and already nostalgia was setting in. 

Chartreuse Sisters
800 Wealthy St. SE, Grand Rapids