PLYMOUTH — Keegan Thim Yee dropped out of high school and arrived in Boston from Malaysia at age 15 to live with his grandmother and figure out his life.
Almost 30 years later — after waiting tables, weekend culinary school, creating desserts for Taj Boston then the Wheatleigh hotel in Lenox, and 30-hour shifts baking for farmers’ markets — Yee set a date to open Keegan Kreations Bakeshop here on Court Street. Unfortunately, it was the same week last year that Massachusetts restaurants closed due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
Yee and Yilin, his wife, nonetheless opened their French specialty bakery for curbside service on March 21, 2020. They had no option. They had already hired six employees, spent investment funds, and maxed out credit cards. What happened still stuns Yee.
“On our first day, 86 [orders] came in and the whole street was lined up with cars waiting for pick-up. They are all my old customers from farmers’ markets!” Yee recalls. “They drove from Lowell, Winchester, Malden. They showed up for me. During a pandemic. On the scariest day ever!”
Today, Keegan Kreations is thriving. “Every single customer that comes in this door, they mean something to me,” Yee says firmly, in his soft-spoken manner. “The customer is family to me.”
Yee’s “family” is in for a treat. His croissant dough, found in most of his pastries, takes three days preparation to yield 84 layers of buttery lamination. Chocolate is rich, not cloyingly sweet; premium French-brand Valrhona is favored. Morning Buns, Monkey Bread, scones with fruit or pecans, and more are arrayed near the entrance. In the rear, refrigerated temptations — matcha tiramisu, Earl Grey cheesecake, strawberry trifle, pistachio blackberry cake, quiche — are displayed with care.
Customers, mentors, and friends say Yee’s pastries reflect the traits of the baker: faith in people, a keen attention to detail, and commitment to quality. Pastries are priced a bit high at Keegan’s, but they also exemplify the bakery’s slogan: “A Labor of Love.”
“Keegan’s is a throwback focusing on quality of product that has raised the bar for quality in the area,” says Collin Ward of Plymouth, a regular customer. “It’s exciting to go to a place that someone has poured their heart and soul into.”
“You feel the love, respect, and pride,” adds Gloria M. Cabral, who taught Yee at Johnson & Wales University, of his pastries.
“It’s more than just a product, it’s a delightful taste experience in a moment when you need it,” says Nicole Gilmore, Yee’s business mentor and a leadership development director for the MITRE corporation in Bedford.
Yee, 42, never ate desserts growing up in Malaysia. His mother forbade them, instead serving fruit. By age 25, the only dessert Yee knew how to make was crème brulee, which he brought one day to his Bible study class in Boston. Impressed, his friends encouraged him to stop waiting tables and, instead, study pastry.
It was at Johnson & Wales, after taking one year to earn his GED, that Yee first tasted the sublimity of fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies. The two-year baking program yielded more revelations.
“I drove one hour each way, from Allston to Providence, every Saturday and Sunday, and worked three jobs,” Yee recalls. “I would work until 1 a.m. and get up at 5 a.m. for those classes. At night, I would have a big smile on my face after classes. I said to myself, ‘I think this is what I want to do for the rest of my life!’”
Yee went on to make cakes for the Taj hotel, and took an exclusive course in Chicago that revealed the exacting world of chocolatiers. He then joined the Wheatleigh hotel’s Portico restaurant as a pastry chef.
“He came with a good skill and foundation but, through what he learned here and what he was able to do as a pastry chef, he elevated even further,” recalls Jeffery Thompson, Portico’s executive chef.
Yilin Yee was an intern at the Wheatleigh during this time. A recent graduate of a Swiss hotel management school, she planned to return to her native China when her internship finished. Instead, she met and married Keegan Yee. It was at her urging that Yee took steps toward realizing his dream of opening a bakery. She saw a bakery “as a new adventure” and something they could do for themselves.
The couple left Western Massachusetts, found jobs in the Boston area, and hit the farmer’s market circuit. The experience, though grueling and financially risky, was akin to a marketing course. It exposed the Yees to various communities and revealed what goods customers favored: cupcakes were left over while croissants sold out even when priced at $5 a piece. After a year and a half, the couple decided to open their own place and found a former bakery for rent in downtown Plymouth.
Weekends at Keegan’s are especially busy, with lines of customers waiting for takeout orders. In-store dining will resume mid-July. Yee is humbled by the support. “I feel like there are many great bakers out there,” he says. “It’s not because I’m better than them that I have a long line. I’m really fortunate.”
Admirers refute that sentiment. “If he ever were to fail, it would be because of the world around us, not because of his work. He’s too good at what he does,” Thompson says of his protégé. In the meantime, it’s Keegan’s customers who are really fortunate.
20 Court St., Plymouth, 617-299-1340, www.keegankreations.com.