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There is something therapeutic about the aroma of freshly baked cake. It could be because many of us remember the scents from our childhood, either in our kitchens or that favourite bakery that we walked past on the way to school.
For Grace Githinji, cake has been her life. The 36-year-old founder of Cooks, Bakes and Cakes left her job as a corporate legal attorney to concentrate on her passion for baking.
But despite the satisfaction of building her business, she admits the journey has sometimes been tumultuous.
“Everyone carries a dream, but not everyone is willing to carry the responsibility and hard work that comes with it,” Grace tells Hustle. “Imagine baking your first cake at the age of nine and then waiting for over 20 years to see your dream come to fruition.”
Her cake business started when she was a law student at the University of Nairobi.
“I had been baking all my life, mostly for family and friends. I’d bake Christmas, birthday, graduation cakes… you name it. I didn’t charge for it, which was fine, because I learned the value of simply creating for love and with love,” says Grace. “But when I got to campus, it occurred to me I could do this for a living, same way I was studying to become a lawyer.”
In her first year in campus, Grace enrolled in a cake baking and decoration school, which she juggled between her law classes. She also supplied the University canteen with cakes at Sh20 apiece, drawing a profit of Sh12.
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Over the weekends, she baked black forest cakes which she would sell at Sh90 and make Sh40 profit per slice. Her total profit per month came to about Sh7,000 in her first year.
She named her venture ‘Grace’ with the tag-line, ‘For cakes that grace your occasion.’
Her reputation grew and by the time she was a third year student, Grace was baking wedding cakes that sold for up to Sh25,000 and training other aspiring bakers. The training courses cost Sh27,000 per student and lasted anywhere between a month and three months depending on the schedule of her students.
“The fact that I could study law and still sustain my passion exhilarated me. I knew it would be foolish at the time to quit school to pursue my baking because my parents had always taught me to have a Plan B. Law was my practical path. Baking was my heart. So I balanced both.”
Grace finished campus in 2004. Unknown to her, this would also be one of the toughest years of her life. She got an opportunity for pupilage at a law firm, and did a full day job while maintaining her cake business.
“I would wake up at 4am in order to decorate cakes baked the previous night and make it to town by 7am to deliver them. I would then get to work by eight, meet wedding clients at lunch hour, leave at five, go buy supplies, get home and bake until 11pm,” she says.
“I thought I could have sustained this for that year of pupilage, but later that year I hit a serious snag when I discovered that my pupilage would not be honoured because I hadn’t graduated from campus in time for admission at the Kenya School of Law.”
A lecturer had refused to give her a pass on a unit because she declined his advances. The university eventually intervened, and remarked her papers giving her a pass, but it happened too late for the Kenya School of Law to grant her admission for her Post Graduate Diploma in Law and consequently for the law firm to honour her pupillage.
While the rest of her class graduated, she lost an entire year.
“I went into clinical depression,” Grace says. “I felt such a huge sense of injustice because between my pupilage and my baking, I had given that year everything I had. To think it was all for nothing crushed me. It felt wrong. I felt wronged. Coupled with the exhaustion that eventually caught up with me, I just couldn’t continue that way.”
Grace moved back in with her parents and shut down her baking business. She recovered by undergoing therapy and redid her pupilage and also completed her studies, gaining admission to the Bar as an Advocate of the High Court of Kenya.
However, she couldn’t get herself to rebuild her baking business at that time. Outside of her own personal use, it took five years for her to start baking again.
“Ironically enough, the first cake I baked after that breakdown was my own wedding cake in 2010. It was a 25-tier cake with multiple flavours,” she says. “After that experience, I remembered how much I loved to share edible happiness by baking for people. I started taking on small orders again, just to get back into the swing of things.”
In 2012, she registered her company, Cooks, Cakes & Bakes and then resigned from her job in 2014 to focus completely on the business.
“People thought I was insane to leave a well-paying job but it felt, with everything within me, that it was the right thing to do. I invested Sh800,000 to get the premises up and running and stock up on equipment. Within the first three months we were turning over. I knew we were on the right track.”
Yet again, Grace’s baking journey took another unexpected turn when her family had to move to Machakos. Unlike Nairobi, the business in Machakos didn’t pick up.
“Our monthly expenses were coming to Sh50,000 but we were only bringing in roughly Sh30,000 a month. After a year and a half, this wasn’t sustainable. It coincided with my husband being sent back to work in Nairobi, so we shut the Machakos branch.”
Despite the start and stop, Grace was gaining valuable lessons. One of the lessons she took back with her to Nairobi was the idea to grow slowly. She didn’t spend too much on renovations in her new location, and she opted not to hire any full-time staff.
Cooks, Bakes and Cakes currently has revenues of between Sh80,000 and Sh100,000 a month.
“After Machakos, we decided to restructure. We deliberately chose not to advertise or market ourselves. The clients keeping us afloat are mostly by word of mouth and those who have been with us for years,” says Grace.
Their projected turnover for 2018 is Sh250,000 a month and a 30 per cent revenue increase by 2019.
“We have built different income streams for the business. Our core is baking, both for home consumption and for occasions. We train aspiring bakers, teaching them international baking standards and wholesome cooking, which is a pillar in our value system.”
“We also started training house-keepers to make simple but delicious meals because, let’s face it, in the current world we live in, many women (or men), find it difficult to cook after a long day’s work.”
Grace asserts that in spite of the twists and turns it’s taken to get her to where she is today, she wouldn’t rewrite her journey.
“The problems and trials I went through have helped develop patience, strength of character and hope in me,” she adds. “I want to build something which will outlive me.”