In this first of TOC's series of interviews with local entrepreneurs who follow their passion, we spoke with Ethel Tan and Shaun Ong, who founded Edith Patisserie, a home-style bakery with a small team of dedicated bakers who deliver freshly baked cakes in a variety of unique flavours straight to your doorstep.
Edith Patisserie is a passion project named after Ethel’s late mother, Edith. Ethel was initially studying law abroad but halfway through decided that it just wasn’t for her. So she came back to Singapore and enrolled in a diploma course for pasty and baking at At-Sunrice GlobalChef Academy, which is here she met Shaun who was enrolled in the same course.
After a short stint of working at different places once they got their diplomas, Ethel and Shaun decided to go into business together and open up a last-mile delivery cake store to satisfy the Singaporean sweet-tooth.
Q: Ethel, you initially read law but then decided to switch to culinary arts after completing your law degree. Was it baking and pastries something you’ve always had an interest in?
Ethel: I grew up baking butter cookies at my aunties’ place when I was young, but it wasn’t something I envisioned myself doing as a career. I come from a family of lawyers and law and journalism has always interested me. But I realised halfway through university that being a lawyer wasn’t something I could do for a lifetime because I preferred a more unconventional path. When my mother, Edith, passed away when I was 18, I came to a very abrupt realisation that life was too short to do anything you didn’t really want to do. I started to get into baking and cooking when I was living abroad alone, and after taking up a few part-time jobs in the kitchen, my interest in it grew.
Q: Shaun, what was your favourite thing to make as a child?
Shaun: As I come from a very close-knit family, I spent a lot of time growing up around my grandma. She would take care of me while my parents were busy working, and to pass time, we would bake vanilla cupcakes. She didn’t have a mixer, so we would cream everything by hand with a wooden spoon, and baking with her was one of my fondest memories growing up.
Q: What were some concerns you two had about starting up an oven-to-doorstep baking business?
We knew we could create great cakes and bakes that people would enjoy, but we didn’t know how hard it would be to manage the reality of owning a business. We did have a lot of pushback from our family because they felt that it wasn’t a viable career path. It is definitely easy to start a business overnight, but sustaining growth and maintaining a unique product offering is tough. But we became passionate about overcoming these challenges and we’ve come to enjoy the business aspect of it very much, as stressful as it can be sometimes.
Q: Why did you ultimately decide on this bake-and-delivery system instead of a traditional cafe or even a small kiosk?
We launched at a great time because it was a time when Singaporeans were becoming more accustomed to online shopping and ordering platforms. Ethel spent a lot of time in university ordering things online because she was in a fairly remote and small town with not many facilities and shops, so it was a natural mode of shopping for her. Shaun spent a time managing a local waffle start-up as well but felt that the café market was very saturated at that point in time and that the start-up capital was too costly to even consider it as an option.
Renting a small space as a kitchen was the most accessible way to start in the industry because we could keep our overheads low as we focused on expanding our client reach. We could focus on what we were good at, without having to worry about managing staff and other aspects of running a café that we didn’t know anything about.
Q: When you were studying, was there ever a plan to open your own business, and if you did, is this all you expected it would be?
E: I didn’t plan to start up my own business because I didn’t think it was an option available to me at the time. I didn’t know anything about running a business because I didn’t do a business degree or course. We just did what we felt was right for ourselves, and we take that approach in how we manage our business now as well. We don’t have a traditional business model and I think that’s what makes us successful in our own way, because we’re more open to change and responsive to solving problems we become aware of.
Q: What makes a great working environment to you?
Traditional kitchens can be very restrictive in creativity and the environment can sometimes get toxic and stifling. When we started our kitchen, we made sure to avoid that and to keep it a healthy working environment that encourages growth in skills and creativity. While there are times that discipline is required to keep the team in line, we try to take a more mentoring approach to managing the team. It’s rewarding to watch them work together as a team and to grow in their skills under our guidance.
Q: Is your team all millennials or do you have some older generation staff as well? Do you think there’s a difference in what each generation expects or wants in their work culture, especially in the kitchen?
Because of the physical nature of the job, we do have a young team. They want to learn as much as they can because they lack the experience of more seasoned pastry chefs, so they are driven by new opportunities to learn and improve, which it great because it’s in line with our working culture and philosophy. We allow everyone an opportunity to rotate between departments and to learn different skills, and to take ownership of more complex tasks, which is different from traditional kitchens which tend to give younger team members less responsibility. Managing the team is one of the hardest aspects of the job, but they adapt well and are more open to communication and providing feedback, which is great for us to learn how to improve our management style and also to manage expectations.
Q: What’s the creation process like at Edith Patisserie?
We are known for our monthly specials and expansive menu, so we do have new things on our menu all the time. We’re passionate about creating new flavours and designs so we R&D every week. We get inspired not just by our experiences but also from suggestions by the team. We get feedback on taste tests and tweak things till we’re happy with them and it’s ready to get up on the menu.
Q: Speaking of ideas, what is your all-time favourite flavour of cake you’ve made? And has there been any flavour combinations that you’ve experimented with but just didn’t work out?
Every creation is unique and has a story, because we try to steer clear of recreating designs from other bakeries both out of respect and to allow our own creative style to develop. It’s hard to pick a favourite but we love our honey cake. Its texture is quite different from a traditional Russian honey cake because it’s fluffy and moist, and it’s really light to eat. It took us many months of R&D to create not just the honey sponge but also the honey caramel cream.
Lately we’ve been exploring more local favourites like chendol, pulut hitam and also more unique tea-based flavours like genmaicha and chamomile, and the feedback has been really positive for them. There have been many ‘failed flavours’ which didn’t make it on the menu because we felt that the taste would be too polarising, but they just get shelved and maybe we’ll come back to it again when we think of a new way to tackle the flavour.
Images by Edith Patisserie.