First, you must know that it’s pronounced Son-JA, hard “j,” and not Son-YUH. As Sonja herself explains it, “My mom’s name is Sonia with an ‘i’ and she made me her ‘junior’.” Now that we’ve got that cleared up, let’s go about clearing up the other issues as well.
Sonja (remember, hard ‘j’ now,) Ocampo, is the owner of Cupcakes by Sonja, the contemporary bakeshop that ushered cupcakes into the mainstream consciousness of Filipinos. Considered the – dare I say – vanguard of a trend that was and continues to be huge in North America and Australia, she’s unwittingly become the catalyst of a local cupcake craze, igniting a furor for them that shows no signs of letting up. Strange as it might seem to Filipinos whose favorite dessert-of-the-moment was once rum cake, the humble cupcake is humble no more.
I have never written about Cupcakes by Sonja on this blog, never even mentioned it in fact. Sonja tells me that I’m the only blogger she contacted several months before her store opened – she was asking for help to “spread the word” about her little cakes. I recall her email: “Cupcakes aren’t as known to Filipinos as doughnuts or ice cream.” What a difference a year makes.
In the year that’s passed, Sonja and I never did get to meet up to discuss her cupcake concept but she’s very much been at the center of my radar. I’ve clipped every article on her that I’ve come across, made notes on the comments made about her on several local blogs, baked a lot of cupcakes myself, and naturally, tried every flavor that she offers in her picture-pretty space in Serendra. As time went by, I wondered what she had to say about what people were saying about her and her cupcakes.
Any single-specialty store such as Gonuts Donuts and new local player Krispy Kreme have inevitably received receptions that ranged from rapture to a ruckus. In Cupcakes by Sonja, the buzz that was generated was directly proportional to expectations, and throughout the initial hubbub, people passed their judgments – everything from good, bad, and in-between.
Sonja and I finally did get to meet not too long ago and she was very forthcoming in addressing the things people have said about her cupcakes in the past year. She struck me as painfully shy and soft-spoken but she had no trouble expressing herself. Like any astute businesswoman, she’s aware of the things people have gripes about (the price! the icing! the sweetness!) and she took them on head-on.
Some snippets from our conversation:
Her thoughts after a year awash in cupcakes: “I didn’t have any expectations when I opened, didn’t even have any money to do any marketing. You [Lori] were the only person I wrote to. I’ve been lucky enough that it [cupcakes] found its way to people and they’ve been good enough to feature the store. People have to understand that when the store opened, I was adjusting also.
Why do you think you generated so much buzz? “One is because of the blogs. When people come in they tell me, ‘I read it in a blog, I read it in a blog,” so I’m really grateful to blogs, [for getting the word out about my store] and also someone told me that any publicity, good or bad is better than no publicity. I’m still getting used to [the buzz]. I just like to bake. I just wanted to come out with a small store. I’m so grateful, but the buzz is so separate from who I am, like, I didn’t create it. It’s totally understandable but once there’s a buzz there’s a certain high expectation and sometimes it can be too hard to even reach it.
You were the catalyst to the cupcake craze happening in Manila. It was big in the States and it was only a matter of time before it came here. And because of you others have followed suit. “Sorry, can’t take credit. I don’t think I started anything. I don’t think about those things but perceptions like that keep me on my toes, keep me sharp and coming up with new things.”
On the issues raised about her ‘high’ prices: “As for pricing, I wish there was something I could do. I use [French brand] Elle & Vire butter and cream. I use all the expensive stuff. I trained with French chefs so I’m over-particular about the ingredients we use and if I have to get it abroad then I’ll get it abroad. My sprinkles, and red and silver cups are from abroad. For the Flourless [Chocolate Cupcake], it’s Valrhona that I use there, but of course I can’t keep on saying that there [at the store]. As purchasing manager for Good Earth [a restaurant she co-owns], I was telling my partners that I’m my own worst nightmare. I don’t cut down. I tell my staff to throw away cupcakes that don’t come up to par or those that are a day old. I’m not overcharging people, they have to realize that I’m in the margin of things. With others selling cake slices for P150 and above, perhaps P55 isn’t so bad for a cupcake. But I don’t know how else to defend the pricing because I don’t want to customize. I also don’t want to use any other chocolate because this is the chocolate that I use.”
On the issue that her icing is ‘too sweet’: “I came up with those other things [Flourless [Chocolate Cupcake, Goin’ Bananas, Sweet Pleasures, etc] to counter those people that find it sweet. So when people come in and ask for recommendations I ask them what kind of person they are — do they like sweets? I find it [the icing] sweet too, but that’s the icing ‘cause it’s sugar and it’s what goes with that cupcake and some people like it that way so I can’t change it.”
Is it true that your kitchen is open 24 hours a day? And did you really work at the Magnolia Bakery? “Yes, the kitchen is open 24 hours a day, but that’s only because we have such a small oven and the cupcakes need to be made in batches. I worked in the Magnolia Bakery in 2005, a year before opening my store. I didn’t want to mimic anybody and I tried to go to as many cupcake bakeries [abroad] as I could. I didn’t want to open a Magnolia, doing just vanilla and chocolate [flavors], I wanted to veer away from that [for my store].”
What have you gleaned about Pinoys and their cupcake habits? “Everyone’s different and it’s hard to pinpoint – some people go for this, some people go for that. When my staff gets asked and they reply, the customers often say, ‘You practically named half the cupcakes!’ There’s no one bestseller. The teenagers like the Vanilla and the Chocolate, it reminds them of their childhood faves, lots of icing. Chocolate lovers like the Flourless, they like it plain but very chocolatey. The adult women like the Red Velvet because it’s so sexy. My personal fave is the Flourless just because of the amount of work that I do just to get the chocolate in. It’s hard when we run out because people come in and say, ‘Why don’t you have it? I came all the way here!’ The chocolate lovers get mad. They’re harder to please when it’s not there.”
Future plans? “I’ve already introduced brownies and cookies … whatever we can make in that small kitchen that’s about as good as we can make, but I want to put out more American desserts because the whole store is kinda American anyway. I want to put in apple pie, lemon meringue pie, lime pie. As for expansion, some customers tell me that they hope I don’t sell out and put up in a mall. I think I owe it to those people, in a way, and I’m happy with just one store. I wouldn’t want to open a commissary since that would deviate from what I’m trying to say that everything’s baked fresh here.”
Her last word: “You know, I’m just a baker, I don’t even call myself a chef. I wasn’t trying to tap any market, I just wanted a place of my own … so I pushed the envelope and tried to make a pie and all these things in cupcake form. I tell my staff to try to give the best service they can give because repeat customers are important. The staff knows the regulars and the customers tell each other what’s good. Customers have been loyal and that’s why I do stuff like balloons for Father’s Day, roses for Mother’s Day, and I taught kids during the summer how to make cupcakes, and even gave them chefs’ hats. I owe a lot to these people. We’re grateful and that’s why it worked.”
One last bite
Whether the restaurant is large or small, desserts are often the weak link in many Manila meals. I often lament over how desserts are a mere afterthought with none of the creativity (or stomach space) afforded to the previous courses. And if dessert is offered, the choices are usually commonplace and dismal: the very tired decadent chocolate cake, an apple pie that’s seen better days, and a yawn-inducing, often gelatinous cheesecake. In cases like these, complexity often takes a back seat to a sweetness that gives new meaning to the term, “sweet tooth.”
Keeping close watch on food trends like I always do, I knew it was only a matter of time before cupcakes would make their way to Manila. I once read in a local women’s magazine that fashion trends from abroad usually take a couple of years to trickle down from the runway to the street. The same is true with food. Like fashion, food fads are often cyclical and take their cue from foreign influences. So, taking a cue from their overseas counterparts, cupcakes made their debut in Manila and it took a woman like Sonja to bring them to life. Her store makes a bold statement because it signals a growing appreciation for thoughtfully crafted but wonderfully nostalgic treats in a city ruled by select sikat (popular) home bakers.
Frankly, I give props to Sonja for being gutsy enough to open a store that’s daringly sugar-centric and boundary-breaking. Sell only dessert and little ones at that?! It’s a concept that would make any of those so-called marketing wizards shudder. But as Sonja said, it works.
Admittedly, these cupcakes are pricey but as they say in real estate, it’s all about the location. Add that to the store’s overhead, employees’ salaries, purchasing, taxes, etc., and suddenly the price of one cupcake is justified. It’s no joke running a store and one in a prime spot at that. These desserts are geared to a particular market and while there are those who moan and groan about Cupcakes by Sonja, I sure don’t see the line getting any shorter inside the store, especially on late weekend nights.
When the last bite has been eaten and the cupcake wrapper thrown away, it’s a testament that these are damn good cupcakes crafted with love and care. Sure, you can make your own for a quarter of the price but would you have the time to? And would they taste just as good? Everyone’s got an opinion on Cupcakes by Sonja so if you’ve got nothing good to say already, step out of the way and let us have our cupcakes.
Note: Posting will be even more sporadic the next several weeks because I’ll be in and out of the country (Manila, Philippines) for all of August and September.