You do not hear many stories of businesses thriving in the face of Covid-19. In an increasingly unpredictable economic landscape, the success rate of navigating the pandemic unscathed is incredibly low — that is, unless luck is on your side.
For Veronica Lee, it was a generous dose of good fortune, coupled with a niche offering marketed on an online platform, that formed the perfect formula for her small baking business, Cream On, to prosper. The spike in the use of social media as well as in home-baking prompted by the Movement Control Order (MCO) only sped up the visibility of her new venture, which consists of royal icing cookies and buttercream cakes.
Royal icing cookies are hard to come by, especially customisable ones. Even though the cookie itself uses the most basic ingredients, the tedious decorating process can stretch for hours. “One set of cookies can take up to 10 to 12 hours and, sometimes, two days,” explains Lee, 27. “And not many people are willing to pay the price for your work. Bakers make little money off it. That’s why you seldom see royal icing cookies on the market.”
The Kuching native moved to Kuala Lumpur to study fashion design and landed a job as a merchandiser soon after graduation, but was given little opportunity in actual design work. Baking eventually became the creative outlet with which she could give her imagination free rein. Friends and colleagues greatly benefited from her hobby, as she would often bake for their birthdays and special occasions.
When Lee finally called it quits on her job late last year, she decided she wanted to do something different. “A friend suggested I open a page on Instagram or Facebook to share pictures of my creations,” she recalls. “I was thinking, ‘Why not?’ At first, it was just for fun. I did not treat it like a business.” But when the MCO came around, there was a surge of requests for Mother’s Day cookies and cakes, and Lee recognised an opportunity to monetise her hobby.
Lee sees each order as a collaboration and tries to gain as many details as possible of the recipient in order to translate their traits and likes onto the cookies more accurately. The process usually starts with a sketch. She draws up a draft and discusses the creative direction with the customer until an agreement is met. “I like customers who give me the freedom to work,” she says. What follows is the baking, mixing, piping, waiting for the layers to dry, packing and shipping.
While feedback has been extremely positive (“Too nice to eat!” is a common response), Lee strives to do better with each batch. “I feel very happy when my customers are happy. But there are also times when I’m not satisfied with what I’ve created. Maybe it’s because I have a standard for myself. I’m quite the perfectionist. So, when something is imperfect, even slightly, I feel insecure and stress myself out.”
This trait has pushed her to improve quickly and iron out even the most minute of mistakes. She recalls recreating a few of her past designs and being proud of how her work has become more refined and precise. “I’m still improving,” Lee says. “Practice makes perfect. The more I do it, the better I get.”
Orders have not dipped since Mother’s Day and corporate requests are steadily coming in via Cream On’s collaboration with Splatter, a company that arranges party platters and grazing tables as well as customisable gift boxes and door gifts for corporate events.
“I’m very honoured to have worked with Netflix, Milo and, more recently, [local stand-up comedian] Dr Jason Leong,” says Lee. “I think bulk orders are easier because they have only one design. For small, six- or 12-piece orders, a lot of the colours go to waste because you use only a small quantity from the mix.”
Lee’s most memorable designs, however, were always made in small batches, such as her Disney-themed and puzzle-pieced cookies. “Repetitive orders are fun but time-consuming,” she explains. “For example, just the words alone for Dr Jason Leong required two minutes a piece. It took me nine hours just for the words. I did 250 sets.”
The most Lee has ever made for a single order is 700 pieces. Having no prior experience in F&B, she had to learn things the hard way and hit the ground running. “When I first started this business, I didn’t know how to price things,” she says. “So, I worked extra hours for very little money.” Lee altered the pricing more fairly after realising it was too low.
“I thought packing was easy until I had to do the 700-piece cookies,” she laughs. “It took me seven to eight hours just to finish packing. That was a big lesson for me. Now, I can manage my time better when I have big orders.”
Lee intends to be more interactive with her followers by sharing behind-the-scenes videos of her baking process, like satisfying clips of royal icing being piped to the cookie edges and how she paints small details. She is also working on a pre-order cookie set that varies each month, where customers can customise one or two of its pieces at a lower price. A website is also underway to ease the ordering process.
While this one-woman show, backed by passion and persistence, advances with an upward trajectory, Lee is glad that her customers are happy with her work. “Many of the recipients actually contacted me to ask how they should keep the cookies because they want to store them forever,” she shares. “I feel very happy hearing that.”
This article first appeared on Oct 19, 2020 in The Edge Malaysia.