Note: This website champions the home bakers, because it’s from them that Manila’s best desserts come from. I hope that this article will be of help to those who aspire to be as successful as the home bakers mentioned here.
A recent jaunt through a bakers’ bazaar leaves me feeling unsettled. All the booths are selling the same thing: what I call the “holy trinity” of desserts – chocolate cake, cheesecake, and carrot cake. There are variations to the holy trinity of course but those three are constant. A few bakers at the bazaar have their own version of cupcakes that prove to be miserable little things cloaked in fake buttercream made from margarine. Ick. Sonja has nothing to worry about.
In my eight years as a food writer, I have interacted with and interviewed numerous home bakers, those that bake and sell from the home; and in my three years with this website, I have dedicated countless posts to those who I feel have something delicious to offer dessert lovers. Having been a home baker myself, I know firsthand about the trials and tired hands, the hassles and headaches that come with this special group. It’s a home business but it’s still a business. The bottom line matters more than you wish it does and the competition is fierce.
Give a stand mixer and spatula to anyone with a slight interest in baking and he/she believes he/she can be a home baker, in the same way that a guy with the latest digital camera believes he’s automatically a (professional) photographer. It’s not that simple. The good news is that with a few principles in mind and a lot of practice, perseverance, and patience you can become one of Manila’s best home bakers.
1. Know your market and yourself.
A home baker can’t be all things to all people. You must choose which market to target so that you can work efficiently and determine where to position yourself and your business. Decide whether you want to cater to the middle class or the upper class — the two are very different and so are their tastes. Will you use real mascarpone in your carrot cake frosting and only Philadelphia cream cheese in your cheesecake so that you can justify your prices? People in the upper tier won’t bat an eye as long as that carrot cake and cheesecake are so good it makes them forget their names. I once paid P1,500 for a single 9-inch cheesecake (above) and never looked back because it was that good.
Know yourself and remain true to your core. Before you go to town with your sweets, know what you want to sell and to whom. Before Sonja Ocampo (of Sonja’s Cupcakes fame) opened her store in Serendra, she was a home baker fulfilling cupcake orders. When the opportunity came for her to open a store, she chose to use French butter and Valrhona chocolate and she charged accordingly. She got dissed mightily by some people who found it outrageous to pay P60 (and more) for a cupcake. But Sonja stood her ground and now she’s reaping the success of her perseverance.
No home baker can (or should) be all things to all people. Strive to be exceptional with what you turn out and keep a reasonably tight product focus. This will help you to improve yourself and help your customers know how and when to buy your product.
2. Specialize in one or a few things.
I’ve come across home bakers’ product lists that read like a guide to desserts. Aside from confounding me with the sheer selection, this kind of list tells me that the baker is one of those dabblers, a peculiar “jack of all desserts, a master of none.” Yes, you can bake several things, but just how good are they? Not to mention, maintaining such an expansive product line is a Herculean and expensive task.
Be aware of your capabilities and specialties as a baker. When I still had my baking business, I offered only cheesecake and to some clients, crÃ¨me brulee. I was and still am especially proud of the former because it was the product of many recipes and years of trying and tweaking. I worked to make a New York cheesecake that was thick and unapologetically creamy with a slight tang; dressed in a special wraparound nut crust, it stood a regal five inches. Almost ten years later, I still haven’t seen a cheesecake like it anywhere in Manila (or the country, for that matter).
Do what you do best, and again, refrain from trying to be all things to all people. Even the established home bakers are known for particular products: Roshan Samtani for her Lemon Torte, Karen Young for her Chocolate Ganache Cake, Gina Lopez for her “Cruffles,” Judah Liu for her Caramel Cake, Jill Sandique for her Pistachio Sansrival, Cristina Santiago-Rivera for her Chocolata, etc. Do away with frivolities such as lemon bars that aren’t made with real lemon and revel bars (they all taste the same and any six year old can whip them up).
3. Continually experiment and innovate.
Food is like fashion: trends come and go, and then there are the classics that endure forever. But even the most loyal clients will tire of a product line that resists change, or at the very least, an occasional makeover. Nothing soothes like a chocolate cake but sometimes I want to scream if I see another chocolate cake from Polly Garilao. Something new please, even just for now!
Home bakers who are at the top of their game know the importance of constantly experimenting and innovating. They’re up on the latest dessert trends, but more importantly, they listen to what their clients want. Sharlene Tan of Qitchen who runs a thriving baking business while holding down a full-time job as Associate Food Editor for Yummy magazine tells me, “Having a really good product line, maintaining good relationships with clients, and going the extra mile for them are important to me. I also try to come out with new stuff often to keep their interest.” Karen Young of Karen’s Kitchen avers, “There’s always continuous improvement in my products.”
Don’t just give customers what they expect. Offer them something they’re not accustomed to, something they don’t know they’ll like. It’ll be a pleasant surprise. Who would have thought Filipinos would fall head over heels for cupcakes and red velvet cake, a traditions-old Southern dessert? Consider home baker Dimpy Camara, a genius for creating frozen brazo. She drew on the best elements of the classic brazo de mercedes, made it authentic for its present context, and then executed it with excellence. It’s now a product (along with cupcakes) that’s being imitated by home bakers everywhere.
Create desserts so unequaled that it makes dessert lovers sit up and take notice. So you make a kick-ass chocolate cake, you say? Do something to make it stand out from the myriad chocolate cakes in Manila. Better yet, make something that isn’t being offered yet by other bakers. How about sticky toffee pudding cake? Nutella tart? shortbread cookies with a caramel layer? banana cream pie with a layer of dulce de leche? or what about something with white chocolate, perhaps? Personally, I’d like to see more pies offered by home bakers. Everyone makes cakes.
Challenge yourself to create that sense of dessert discovery and excitement in your clients and their loyalty will bond them to you for life. Going down this route may take longer, but if you have an unrivaled dessert, you can educate your customers to like it rather than pandering to mass market appeal.
Remember, the best ideas are those that create a new perspective or sense a (dessert) need before others do. I can tell you now that there’s one home baker in Blue Ridge who can’t make enough sticky toffee pudding cake to meet demand. This dessert will be big in the later half of this year and reach its peak popularity in 2009.
4. Use the best quality ingredients your target market can afford and charge for it.
There’s an overwhelming thread in the statements of the ten home bakers I talk to for this article, and that’s be consistent with your quality. Never scrimp on ingredients. The freshest and best ingredients you can get are indispensable to good baking: flour, unsalted butter, large eggs, sugar, real – not imitation – vanilla, and genuine chocolate (not compound chocolate) are the basis for baking bliss. Bad ingredients are just that – bad. Don’t expect lousy ingredients to undergo some kind of hocus-pocus in the oven. It doesn’t happen that way. You get out what you give in.
Gina Lopez of Paisley Pastry believes that, “[you must be] honest with yourself. Is this something [you’d] enjoy baking and eating?” Trina Tiaoqui of Vanilla Bean adds, “When I feel that something is “puede na,”, I put it aside instead of serving a mediocre product.” Echoing that of her fellow home baker, Imelda Go of Magic Kitchen expresses her sentiment this way: “I don’t scrimp on the ingredients. I only make what I [would] want [to feed my family] and I make sure my clients get their desserts freshly made.”
Since you’re the baker, your taste counts the most when determining your offerings. Know what tastes good to you and consistently give that quality to your clientele. That’s the philosophy that Tina Diaz of Taza Platito lives by and she knows it’s what keeps her clients coming back.
Bottom line: never accept diminished standards of excellence.
5. Adopt a positive, accepting attitude.
No one ever says being a home baker is easy. Going from “no one’s baker” to “everyone’s baker” is a slow burn: Karen Young has had her business for 13 years already. Roshan Samtani has been selling her products since she was in college. Fact is, it can take years before your name even registers a blip on the dessert radar. So you’re a new baker with spanking new packaging, flyers, and what you believe to be the “next big thing” to hit dessert lovers. Be patient and believe in your product. A lot of what we perceive to be luck is not luck at all, but hard work and opportunity put together.
Taste is subjective and what tastes good to some will not taste good to all. Know how to hear, respond, and adjust to constructive feedback. If it’s not constructive, ignore it. Some people are just catty. Instead of letting comments get you down, persist, perform beyond expectations, and put out products you’re proud of.
Above all, act from a positive and hopeful place. After investing money, time and hard work into your baking business, divert your energies into thinking positively: a disposition of abundance achieves abundance.