Friday, September 27, is “probably only the third time” in its history that Charly’s Bakery in Cape Town, South Africa, had run out of cupcakes.
Owner Jacqueline Biess shows no sign of exasperation, however. The combination of good weather and school holidays meant more people than usual were looking for a sweet treat. And even though some leave empty-handed, Biess knows another 2,000 freshly made cupcakes will be ready to go the next day.
Baking starts at 10pm every night; someone is on shift at Charly’s for 21 out of 24 hours every single day. And cupcakes are not the only delights that emerge from its warm depths. A selection of cakes and pies has earned the bakery a reputation as one of the premier patisseries in the country.
The family business, started by husband-and-wife team Charly and Jacqueline Biess, is now run by Jacqueline and her daughters, Alex and Dani. And it has received rave reviews from the who’s who of Sout
h Africa’s foodie scene. They even have their own cooking show, Charly’s Cake
Angels, which airs locally and in
Europe, and will soon be breaking into the South American market.
All of this without a single advertisement. The Biesses started out with Charly’s baking skills, gleaned from a German baker in Swakopmund, Namibia, and Jacqueline’s head for business. Add to that a $15,000 loan from her parents, a second-hand car and a vision: “I knew what I wanted to create and I loved good food. I also knew success would only come from hard work,” Biess says.
Charly’s Cake and Coffee was successful because Biess trusted her ins-tincts. The coffee shop quickly became a pop-culture phenomenon and moved to Cape Town’s bustling V&A Waterfront. A much larger premises, with hundreds more customers, the venture boomed. But with young children, the business became overwhelming and Charly and Jacqueline decided to downscale.
It was a move that was almost as risky as the decision to open the bakery in the first place, because they were giving up the security that came with success. But in 2009, in a 110-year-old building in the Cape Town city bowl, Charly’s Bakery was born again.
Six months earlier, in another of South Africa’s coastal cities, entrepreneur David Tedder had taken over Bread Ahead, a much-loved bakery in Durban’s Cowey Road. Previously owned by Retsol, the company behind Juicy Lucy and Milky Lane, the ba-kery was an established name with a loyal customer base. Tedder took the next step and franchised it, opening several smaller offshoots in shopping malls across Durban.
In the interim, he met, fell in love with and married television reporter Vanessa Govender. She fell pregnant soon after and gave up her job as a journalist. “I never wanted to compromise my pregnancy or motherhood,” she explains.
But the new Mrs. Tedder did want a career. After her son was born, she took charge of Bread Ahead’s cake division. Tedder has three designers working with her and they are putting their “personal stamp on Durban’s business scene”.
Bread Ahead is all about personalized service. “Gone are the days of placing an order for a stock standard cake over the telephone. These days we encourage clients to have face-to-face consultations, where ideas are brainstormed to create cakes that are a work of art,” Tedder explains proudly.
Building relationships with clients is one of their policies, but the Tedders realized it was also why their expansion plans were failing. “Customer service and product quality were being compromised,” Tedder says, which prompted their decision to concentrate solely on the Cowey Road store.
While the Tedders decided to downscale to keep their clients close, further north in Johannesburg, where the impersonal is often expected, Linda Lipschitz’s baking hobby was outgrowing her kitchen.
Intricate decoration and delicate flavors made her speciality cakes a must-have on the menus of Joburg’s yuppies. So after three-and-a-half years
of working from home, Lipschitz open-ed Belle’s Patisserie.
“That day was very hard for me. I finally realized that I have a real business,” she recalls.
However, it is not all about store windows piled high with candy-colored delights. Behind the gloss and glamour are long hours and back-breaking work. “It’s not romantic. You have salaries, rent, wastage and lots of other operating costs,” Lipschitz points out. What may seem like a frivolous pastime is actually the result of a well-thought-out, strategic, business model.
For Biess, technology is key to promoting Charly’s Bakery. The store has more than 51,000 Facebook likes and over 16,000 followers on Twitter. She receives hundreds of emails a day and replies to every single one. The website is her only marketing tool.
“If you’re not online, you’re not in business. I advise any parent who wants to see their child open a business to get a high-speed internet connection and let them learn from what is out there,” she says.
Tedder spends most of her time maintaining the contacts she learnt to foster as a journalist.
“High priority is touching base with clients who have taken cakes the day before to find out if their functions and day went well, and most importantly, if the cake went down a treat,” she explains.
“I love interacting with people and so I never hesitate to keep those channels of communication open with customers. Just a simple courtesy call is the difference between them coming back to us or not.”
Lipschitz tries to introduce a new treat every month.
“It takes about that long to do product development and we make a lot of mistakes. But we don’t copy recipes. My head chef is very talented and finds it easy to develop his pro-duct,” she says.
There is nothing stereotypically feminine about these business models, but the perception that baking is a woman’s job remains, partly because of the high numbers of women in the industry.
Biess’s company has grown from 12 to 40 staff members, 70% of whom are women. But she recalls how one of her daughters, who was studying a Master’s degree at the time, would chide her for spending her free time baking cakes.
In fact, the kitchen work is only a small part of managing a bakery. Alex and Dani Biess took on more of a managerial role when their father passed away earlier this year.
Jacqueline spent most of her time at Charly’s side during his last few months, leaving her daughters to run the bakery.
“It was really very difficult for me to come back and the way the girls stepped up was amazing to see,” she says.
Tedder also depends on her girlfriends. Her pregnancy was difficult and her master bakers, who have been with Bread Ahead “almost as long as
it has been in existence”, carried a large part of the load.
“I am an empowered and emancipated woman who chose to put my child and husband first and above all else. The business of cakes is tailor-made to suit where I am,” Tedder says confidently.
Lipschitz also enjoys the flexible hours, which allow her to fetch her children from school. Although it does mean her workday can start at 6am at end at 1.30am the next morning. “But I love being at my store. It’s my safe space,” she says.
All three women acknowledge that being an entrepreneur is demanding, but that it has allowed them the freedom to live their lives on their own terms.
“I swapped the corporate world for this type of work so I have a career while I am incorporating the traditional family values that I grew up with,” Tedder explains.
“Plus, let’s face it, being your own boss is pretty awesome. Being the cake boss is even more awesome.”