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Swirling Up a Cupcake Storm!

20 Nov

27-year old Shitija Nahata started baking as a hobby for family and friends. Little did she know that in just less than two years she would be on her way to building one of the most sought after dessert destinations in Bangalore and Chennai. Her delectable delights have made The Cupcake Company a favourite among most dessert lovers in these two cities. I got chatting with her about her journey so far, future plans and what baking means to her.

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On finding her passion

Soon after her wedding, Shitija bid adieu to her 7 year long career in marketing and started spending a lot of time in the kitchen, doing what she loved doing since childhood – baking for friends and family. “Baking wasn’t new to me. I loved doing it as a little girl and it always caught my fancy. I still remember the first time I made a chocolate mousse, I’ve been fascinated with baking ever since. I probably just didn’t have enough time for it when I was building a career in the corporate world. But soon after my wedding I decided to get back to it” says Shitija. Baking for family and friends and posting pictures of her creations on Facebook attracted a lot of attention and compliments, and even offers from the best bakeries in Chennai for partnerships. But Shitija didn’t want to be a supplier to these bakeries, she wanted to create a brand of her own. After testing her products and baking from home for over a year, Shitija took the plunge and opened her first store in Chennai – The Cupcake Company.

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On building a business and a brand

While passion is key to creating a truly wonderful product, a good business sense helps take the product to places. In my conversation with Shitija, I sensed strong business acumen and great emphasis on ‘brand building’. “When you are confident of your product and know it’s good, the next step is to ensure it’s in the right place at the right time. Your choice of store location, interiors etc can play a big role in creating aspiration with your consumers and building your brand. For example, we chose Indiranagar in Bangalore because it felt right to be there, we wanted to be visible in the company of the best” says the businesswoman in the baker.

To be able to build a brand, one has to be very closely involved with every aspect. Apart from quality control and routine baking, Shitija makes note of every feedback the store receives “I ensure I reply to every email, every Facebook comment and every message myself. It helps me stay in touch with reality and know the good or bad first hand”.

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On creating a niche

There are thousands of bakers across these two cities and cupcakes are no novelty anymore and are available in plenty, so what sets The Cupcake Company apart? “I can confidently say that our quality sets us apart. We have never compromised on our ingredients; we use only the best even if it costs a little extra. And loyal customers are won only with great quality and service “ says a confident Shitija. “Customization is another forte we are proud of. There is no customization request that we have ever turned down and we have always delivered to perfection”.

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On learning and growing

Shitija never went to a culinary school, she’s a self-taught baker but a firm believer in ‘practice makes a man perfect’.  She still remembers an incident when a friend challenged her to make macrons, something she had never done before. She tried and tested different recipes for over four months until she perfected the art and was proud of her creation. “I travel extensively and always bring back some learnings from my travel. I do a lot of research before I visit any place about the bakeries and chefs in the city and ensure I pay a visit to stay updated on what’s happening in the baking world”.

Expanding to other cities is definitely on the radar for The Cupcake Company but Shitija wants to do it herself and not with franchisees “We will expand to other cities but I’d much rather do it myself than get into a franchisee model because I want to have complete control over quality”. As she reveals her ambitions she adds, “One day I want to open a restaurant too, I’m just not sure if it’s the right time yet”.

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On her support system

While the idea and the effort is her own, there are a lot of people who have contributed to Shitija’s success. She doesn’t shy away from talking about her husband and mom, who have helped her build The Cupcake Company from scratch. “My husband is a finance guy and he knows the tricks and traits of business too well. Everytime I think of expanding or opening a new store he makes me present a business plan to him and weighs out all pros and cons with me. He ensures I don’t get carried away and helps me make smart decisions” says Shitija. “My mom has always been around to help me, she spends time in the stores when I’m traveling or manages the show when I’m busy experimenting with recipes. She’s been a big part of my journey” she adds.

Photo Credits : Kunal Chandra & The Cupcake Company

A Coffee with Chef Rajith!

6 Nov

Closer to my travel dates to Colombo I started doing my research on the bakeries I must visit while I’m there.  One common name showed up in almost all reviews – ‘Pebbles’ at Taj Samudra. It is rated as one of the best there, though I had my doubts. I know Taj serves the best quality food but in my mind the best bakeries are usually found in the most cosy and unexplored nooks and corners. But since I was staying there I thought it might be worth dropping in.

So there I was, at Pebbles on a cloudy evening in Colombo with a beautiful view of the ocean and a cup of cappuccino by my side as I waited for Pastry Chef Rajith Kalhara to join me.  Expecting a forty something year old man to join me (I assume it would take that long to reach such a prestigious position in one of the best hotel groups), I was startled when I was greeted by a humble, 29-year old who introduced himself as the pastry chef at Taj Samudra. Soon as he joined me, I knew I wasn’t going to chat with him about the desserts he had to offer there (well, the reviews and the delectable looking desserts spoke for themselves) but I wanted to hear his story and how he’s made it there.

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Chef Rajith with some of his creations for the day

A Computer Science student by qualification, Chef Rajith discovered his love for food and creating it by chance when he decided to find a part time job on the side to support his education. Little did he know that a job at a Chinese restaurant will change his career and life forever.  From an assistant to the chef at the restaurant, in just about four years he was now the head chef himself. While Computer Science was long forgotten, he still felt the need to polish his baking skills, something he discovered his love for over time. That’s when he decided to do a course at PRIMA and in a year he was all set to venture into the baking world.

Looking back at his training years, he fondly remembers his experience at Taj Clubhouse in Chennai “It was one of the best experiences that prepared me to become a tough baker.  Stretched hours at work, almost upto 16 hours a day helped me become a perfectionist. I was literally breathing desserts. It was almost like my life revolved around it and the joy of creating made me more and more passionate about this profession everyday”. Now, for over 16 months he’s been cooking quite a storm at Pebbles.

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Some of the best from the counter – Carrot Cake, Chocolate Cake & Swiss Roll

So what makes Pebbles one of the most loved bakeries in Colombo? In the chef’s words, “Striving for excellence and perfection in whatever we do and create, that’s what the entire team works for”. The Chef is a big fan of traditional recipes and believes, deep down eventhough we all try innovative desserts, most of us feel happiest with a simple chocolate or sponge cake (I must agree, that statement hit a chord with me). No wonder, the daily spread of desserts include Chocolate Cakes, Swiss Rolls, Pineapple Upside Down Cakes, Walnut Brownies, Carrot Cakes and many more such popularly loved desserts. That doesn’t mean there’s no scope for experimentation. The chef also believes in doing the different and offering a variety to his regular visitors. “In any profession, innovation is important and as bakers we will continue to showcase our creativity with new additions and interesting recipes that are rare in Colombo”.

I can’t end this post without mentioning what a brilliant chocolatier the chef is. Though I did try the chocolates and absolutely loved them when I met him, what made me realize the amount of hard work that team of bakers puts in when I found a personalized chocolate box in my room in the night. With such massive volumes everyday, there is no compromise on the taste whatsoever!

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Chocolates made at the Taj Samudra Bakery

Age No Bar!

16 Apr

I’m starting the ‘passionate bakers’ series on my blog by featuring a women worth looking up to, not only because of her successful cupcake venture, but also because of her humility with which she bakes and keeps her customers happy. I hope the features in this series inspire all the budding bakers…

I remember when I first visited Cupcake Noggins in Koramanagala, what caught my eye was the super cute pink sign board and the youthful interiors. The gorgeous cupcakes and innovative flavours added to my belief that this place HAS to be a brain child of an early-20 year old someone.

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Out of curiosity, I went on their website and to my surprise found out that the lady behind this lovely place is Mrs. Leela Thomas who recently turned 66! What made her start this venture over a year ago at the age of 65? How does she compete in this competitive industry and how does she keep up with all that is happening? I visited Mrs. Leela to chat about all this and more…

‘Passion’ makes the world go round..

I stared at Mrs. Leela after hearing her first statement! With a smile on her face she effortlessly  said “I’m not passionate about baking”. In my head, I had a million questions for her already, but the first one – then how do you do it everyday!? With the same smile on her face she added “I’m passionate about making people happy and baking is one of the things I do to make people happy”. She was never a baker in her earlier days but loved to cook for people around her. It was this passion that kept her love for cooking alive and today lead to this successful venture.

Even at the age of 66, Mrs. Leela spends  over 8 hours in the kitchen. She says, all the hard work in the kitchen feels worth the effort after seeing and hearing words of encouragement from her happy customers.

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Mrs. Leela John of Cupcake Noggins

Learning to make cupcakes…

Mrs. Leela recollects that back in the days it was extremely difficult to find a perfect recipe. With no internet and people unwilling to share their ‘secret’ recipes, for the longest time she could bake only two or three different types of cakes. She had never even heard of a cupcake or tasted one until her daughter; Shema showed her a picture and the recipe about 2 years back. She recollects “Once I tried the first cupcake, I just felt that grace fell into my hands and I did not look back”. I believe her when she says that, because her cupcakes are truly divine!

She keeps herself updated on the latest flavours with regular updates from her daughter and grandchildren who surf the internet often and give her constructive feedback on her baking.

An advice to young bakers…

If passion is all you feel for baking, do it as a hobby but not as a business!  Mrs. Leela speaks from all her experience and tells me “Passion alone can create a pass-time but not a successful business. To turn your passion into a successful venture you need to be extremely organized and professional.  You should be ready to serve your customers with all humility and treat them as king. At the same time you need to be practical about scaling up your business. One cannot do everything alone and you should have enough help with you”. She tells me that Cupcake Noggins would have never happened if her daughter and grandchildren hadn’t encouraged her and lent their help to this venture.

Her dreams for Cupcake Noggins…

Though Cupcakes have always been the bestseller at Cupcake Noggins, Mrs. Leela is now experimenting with many other recipes, especially Cheesecakes which have received phenomenal response. She plans to add more products to the menu with her undying quest for innovation and trying out new recipes.

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Some of the delicacies at Cupcake Noggins

Being a baking enthusiast myself, it was a humbling experience to meet this graceful lady. If you live in Bangalore and haven’t tried her cupcakes yet, I strongly recommend that you do:)