What it takes to run a pastry business
By Vivianne Wandera
| August 18th 2021
The global pastry industry has been largely dominated by western countries, with their various franchises known for distinct offerings such as brioche and croissants.
However, locally, the pastry business has been slow to pick up and a reserve of big brands.
Passionate entrepreneurs are now stepping into this space and incorporating more delicious treats aside from bread, which is the most popular product within the category.
Swiss-trained Valerie Ndegwa, the owner and founder of Pastry Palace, one of Nairobi’s few exclusive pastry shops, takes us through her journey of what it took her to start her own business.
How did the idea for Pastry Palace come about?
I got the idea to start when I was working in Abu Dhabi. After I studied hotel management in Switzerland and worked in Abu Dhabi for about a year I noticed that there was a gap in the Kenyan market where pastries were not readily available for everyone at an affordable price. I already had a business plan from my school project so it was not that hard for me to start.
Is this what you always wanted to do?
Honestly no, there are so many things I wanted to do. I always thought I’d be a psychologist or a fashion designer, but one thing I knew is that I wanted to run my own show out there. My passion for food and my keen eye for detail gave me an edge and these two passions put together made me realise that I wanted to be in the food industry.
What did it cost to start your business?
It cost me Sh500,000 because of all the equipment. The oven itself is the heart of a bakery and is the one piece of equipment we had to invest in heavily. The other thing was finding equipment that merges with the local sockets. These were my most expensive investments.
How did you turn a simple idea into reality?
My first step was getting my workforce. The heart of Pastry Palace is my head chef and once I hired him I was able to move forward and create all these savoury and sweet pastries. We wanted these to be accessible to the average Kenyan, so we offered speciality samosas, which are mushroom mozzarella, butter coriander and spicy beef, and from there is where we started.
What key challenges do you face in your line of work?
The key challenge I faced when I first opened and still face now is getting suppliers. We don’t really have that huge market of suppliers when it comes to raw materials like almond flakes that we use a lot in our cakes. There are no companies that supply that, which makes it very expensive and it does not help with the increase in prices of raw materials like flour and oil. The second challenge is what to do with the pastries that remain because we only sell fresh products every day.
As an employer, what do you look at when hiring? Do you look at experience or qualifications?
I focus on experience because I feel like not everybody has been given the same opportunity and within my industry is all about experience and the work ethic because we work long hours and early hours. What you can do for me speaks for itself. Papers are just an additional thing on the side. For me, it is all about the experience.
Business can be very competitive. How do you ensure you stay on your creative edge?
What gives us a competitive edge is the fact that we value the customer so much so that everything is customisable, even though we have a set menu. We give that one-on-one experience that makes everything about the customer.
How did you know it was time to quit employment and start your own business?
Honestly, when you know, you know. I just knew that I had worked enough out there to be confident enough to come back and start my business. Also, as part of my final year submission in school in Switzerland, I had to come up with a business plan, which also made it easy for me. I’ve always thought about the culinary industry and the hotel industry as very male-dominated industries, and I wanted to prove something to myself. There are very few female-owned and female-run kitchens in Nairobi, and the first chef I ever hired was a woman, and this was something that was very dear to my heart and something that I wanted to prove to myself.
What advice would you give other women looking to start their own businesses?
Just start. If you don’t start, how will you ever know? But be prepared for many obstacles you’ll face because it always looks so easy from the outside. Looking in there are many challenges and obstacles, but if you have a vision and you are patient, don’t veer off it. Just keep going.
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