Since launching its first pop-up in 2016, The Cakery has quickly established itself as a leader in providing organic and health-conscious treats to Hong Kongers.
We talk to her about her journey as an eco-conscious entrepreneur, her commitment to serve the community and her dreams to expand her business.
Before founding The Cakery, you had a completely different career. How was it to follow your passion for baking and change your path?
Having switched my career from an investment banker to a baker, or should I say entrepreneur, changed my life drastically. My income also drastically decreased and I have much longer working hours. I still remember that, in my first year, there were many occasions where I had to work at the kitchen for 17-18 hours – mostly standing – and my feet and back would get so sore to the point where I couldn’t stand anymore. There were many occasions when I thought of giving up. I still remember there was this one day when almost every department had someone who called in sick – baker, driver and shop staff – and I had to play all three roles in one day. That was probably one of the few days I will never forget.
Having said that, I still think being able to do what I like is a blessing. I find meaning in what I do. Meaning leads you to purpose and living with it makes you unstoppable. My head is constantly thinking about my business and how I can improve it. I never regret switching path.
Why did you choose to focus on health-conscious treats?
I had my first daughter when I was working at a bank, I have always loved making things and doing something creative. I would make different styles of cupcakes and cakes to take pictures with my daughter every month to celebrate milestones. Some of my friends started asking me to make cakes for them, so I decided to have my own online cake shop for fun. I started getting enquiries and I also received different types of requests to replace certain ingredients. I noticed there was a need for gluten free, low sugar, egg free or dairy free products, so I started looking into these recipes and thought it was quite fun to try and figure out how to replace certain ingredients.
As a young mom, I was doing lots of research trying to figure out what to feed my daughter. The more research I did the more I understand the importance of eating healthy food. I was trying to make sure my daughter ate organic products as much as possible and I was so sure I was not the only one doing it, so I figured there was a need in the market for healthy desserts.
I never had any formal training in cooking or baking and I knew I had to do something different in order to succeed in this business. Five years ago, when I first started The Cakery, people were not as health conscious. Suppliers thought I was crazy to use organic ingredients to make desserts. Over the years, consumers became more sophisticated and more health conscious. I saw there was a growing need and therefore decided to continue to focus on healthy treats.
For each creation, how do you achieve the right balance between indulgence and health-conscious?
I don’t think the two have a direct relationship, as there are many ways to make certain foods healthier but still delectable. It is about how we mix and match the ingredients and be creative with them. For example, for gluten free, we use a different blend of flour to create each recipe. We also do a lot of testings and refining.
What’s your biggest achievement since launching The Cakery in 2016?
It has to be my personal growth. The learning curve was so steep. I got to experience and learn different things at every level. I also met many different people. I felt so shallow at the beginning. I knew so little. The things I have learned throughout my five years of entrepreneurship are way more than what I have learned throughout my ten years of banking life.
Aside from that, I also had many customers coming to us telling us how thankful they are we exist. I still remember one mom told us her child never had a birthday cake because of her allergies until she had one of ours.
Could you predict such a positive response?
Actually, no, because it was quite tough at the beginning. it was difficult to source the ingredients. Vendors thought I was insane. I got a lot of people asking questions like: “if you don’t use flour to bake cakes then what do you use?” or “if you don’t use eggs to bake a cake then what do you use?”
A lot of people had doubts. Some knew what gluten free meant but they were reluctant to try because they had bad experiences with gluten free products in the past.
Tell us about your ongoing projects to promote sustainability and form a sense of community around your business.
As The Cakery is only a cake shop, I feel it somehow limits what I can do to promote sustainability because I feel like there is so much more I can do other than the food part. Hence, I decided to launch a sister brand KIRR (Keep It Real & Raw), which is a sustainable concept store aiming to make sustainability more accessible to everyone. We have products in almost every category, making it a one stop shop for all!
Through the platform we are also trying to create our own Kommunity to engage and educate each other about sustainability by sharing recipes and tips on how to live a sustainable lifestyle. At the beginning, there weren’t a lot of local sustainable products, but a lot has changed in the past year. I have met so many amazing entrepreneurs creating all these incredible products, not only from Hong Kong but also the rest of Asia. I hope this Kommunity of people can continue to grow and support each other.
What’s the next for The Cakery?
I would like to continue to expand and offer more people healthy products. We will continue to innovate and create different types of healthy products. At the moment, we only have shops on Hong Kong Island, but I plan on expanding to Kowloon and the New Territories. I want to create the next healthy Starbucks. I know we are still very far off but I am trying to put my heart to it and create an Asian healthy Starbucks.
Have you been baking even more throughout the pandemic?
Yes, not just baking, I also have been cooking a lot more since we were basically eating at home all the time. As a mom, I tried to keep my kids happy while being stuck at home. They love to eat, so they always ask me whats for lunch and dinner and I would usually make them surprise bento lunches or panda rice balls.
What is the most important lesson you learned during your journey as an eco-conscious entrepreneur?
When you run a business, there are so many things you need to take into account. While I want everything to be 100% sustainable, unfortunately it is just not possible. If I wanted everything to be 100% sustainable, my business probably would not be able to survive, which means one less channel offering sustainable products or promoting sustainability. It is ok to do things one step at a time. Big changes always start with little steps.
What is the most precious advice you can give to young women who dream of owning a business?
Being your own boss doesn’t look as cool or as easy as a lot of people think. You might think you can have flexible hours, but really you have to work around the clock because everything matters to you. Especially for start ups, the size of the team is fairly small and there may not be budget to hire someone for every department. You have to be prepared to wear multiple hats or hire someone who is more well-rounded and can wear multiple hats. Be mentally prepared for a steep learning curve. Keep an open mind and be creative.