A batch of new bakeries and cake shops owned by young, gutsy baker-entrepreneurs is heating up Singapore's increasingly crowded bakery and patisserie scene.
What they have in common: All are in their 20s. They range in age from 22 to 27 and set up their own shops for between $10,000 and $125,000. Some did so with their own savings, while others borrowed money from their parents. Neither youth nor inexperience in doing business deterred or intimidated them from setting up shop.
(L-R): Cakequembouche pastry chefs Charlene Chua and Wu Qiuying, both 24
They say they are not daunted by big, dominant players on the scene, which include local patisserie chains Canele Patisserie Chocolaterie and Antoinette, and bakeries such as Paul and Maison Kayser from France, Paris Baguette from South Korea and Tiong Bahru Bakery.
Even popular Parisian patisserie Laduree is setting up shop in Singapore, with its first two outlets opening next month at Ngee Ann City.
Singaporean patissier Kristy Choo of the famed Jin Patisserie in Los Angeles also has plans to open an offshoot here and is scouting for a location.
Still, despite the competition, these young bakers, many of whom hold diplomas in pastry and baking, are determined to get a piece of the pie.
Fuelled by their passion, they take a positive approach to business and competition, saying that it is better to have tried and failed, than never to have tried at all.
Most of the bakers have also chosen to open in areas that have few or no cake shops, with some opting for the heartland as they want to make their fine offerings, such as lemon meringue tarts and caramel madeleines, more accessible to the masses.
Who: Lewis Lee, 23, and Melvin Koh, 27
Where: A stall in a coffee shop at Block 71 Seng Poh Road, opposite the entrance to Tiong Bahru Market's multi-story carpark, tel:9645-5604
Open: 8am to 3pm, or until sold out, (Tuesdays to Sundays). Closed on Mondays.
Price: Muffins at $1.50 each. A 500g pound cake ranges from $12 to $16, while half loaves start at $6.
For baker Melvin Koh, the freedom to offer his own recipes and creations was one of the biggest reasons he opened his own cake shop.
That is exactly what he does at six-month-old Nicher, which is located in a corner coffee shop in Tiong Bahru. The stall features banana walnut muffins and pound cakes such as Earl Grey Berry and Matcha Azuki, a green tea pound cake with Japanese red beans. He runs the shop with his future brother-in-law Lewis Lee. Mr Lee, who attends university classes at night, helps with the sales while Mr Koh bakes.
Cakes are made on-site and, if pre-ordered, are timed to be cooled and ready just before the arranged pick-up time.
Mr Koh, who graduated with a diploma in pastry and baking arts from At-Sunrice GlobalChef Academy in 2009, was part of the opening pastry team at Marina Bay Sands. He spent a year there before moving on to a rock candy shop and then a pie shop.
He says: "I like to eat and have always been interested in F&B." He has worked in the service line in restaurants and at hotel banquets, but never in the kitchen. Keen to learn how the dishes and pastries he served were made, the business informatics diploma holder then decided to enrol in a culinary school after national service. His interest in the culinary side of F&B increased as he progressed in his diploma.
Last year, he decided to set up a small shop with $10,000, as a cafe would have been a much bigger investment and higher risk. He says: "At the start, I feared that things might not work out, so that is why I decided to start small, with something safe."
The stall recouped its initial investment within two months and the business has proved profitable, says Mr Koh, whose father is retired. His mother is a nurse.
He had planned to run the stall for a year before opening a cafe, but is now thinking twice, given the competition out there and is toying with the idea of a central kitchen instead.
He adds: "We want to make sure our cakes are as fresh as possible. The concept may not work as well if we move to a mall."
51 fiveone degrees
Who: Ms Karylan Lee, 22
Where: Block 203 Toa Payoh North, 01-1113, tel: 6526-9328
Open: 11.55am to 8.55pm (Mondays to Fridays). Closed on weekends.
Price: Cupcakes at $3.50 each, tarts at $2.80 each, and whole chiffon cakes at $10 each. Customised cakes start from $90 for a 15cm cake.
One cake that often sells out at 51 fiveone degrees in Toa Payoh North is the light and fluffy orange chiffon cake, made with orange juice, plenty of orange zest and chunks of candied orange peel.
The shop, which also sells cupcakes in 15 flavours, lemon meringue tarts and customised fondant cakes, opened in September last year.
All the cakes and tarts are made by its baker-owner, Karylan Lee,who has a diploma in pastry and baking from hospitality school Shatec. The accounts are handled by her older sister, Cherylan, 26, who is an accountant.
As a child, the younger Ms Lee had watched her mother, a housewife, bake cakes at home and was familiar with steps such as creaming and folding. She started baking on her own in her late teens.
In fact, it was her father, who runs a trading company, who encouraged her to open a shop and become an entrepreneur. He funded the setting up of the shop, which cost a five-figure sum. Ms Lee intends to pay him back. Her mother, an avid baker, also helps her in the shop kitchen.
The family found a vacant shop in Toa Payoh North and jumped at the opportunity. They were familiar with the area because Ms Lee's paternal grandparents live there.
The ITE graduate in multimedia technology decided to go to culinary school because she did not think she could do a job in the multimedia sector, which she says would have included animation, video editing and the use of programmes such as Adobe Photoshop. She had gone into multimedia at the time because it seemed like a good career path with prospects.
But she realised she had more of an interest in baking and thought she would give it a try instead. It turned out she is pretty good at it.
She says: "We were afraid that no one would know about us when we first opened, but we liked the area and it was convenient. I wanted to make items such as lemon meringue tarts available in the heartland."
But those initial fears are gone. Business has been picking up, with residents as well as those who do not live in the area frequenting her shop.
Who: Ms Chloe Lim, 23
Where: Bestway Building, 12 Prince Edward Road, Annex C, 01-02, tel: 9436-1690
Open: 11am to 6.30pm (Mondays to Fridays). Closed on weekends. Pick-up for pre-orders is available on Saturdays from 11am to 2pm.
Price: From $2 for a plain cupcake without frosting, $2.70 with frosting. Two cupcakes for $2.50, or six for $16. $40 for a 1.8kg cake (pre-orders only).
Ms Chloe Lim has been saving up to open a cake shop since she was 14.
In the last 10 years, the graduate from hospitality school Shatec, who has a diploma in pastry and baking, has saved about $40,000.
This includes part of the allowance from her parents over the years, income from a blogshop and from working part-time jobs in retail sales and customer service, and a full-time administrative job.
As a teenager, she did not watch as many movies with her friends as she had wanted to, and did not join them for more expensive meals such as buffets.
Being frugal has paid off: she is now a proud business owner.
She spent about half her savings to open Nouveau Patisserie in Prince Edward Road two months ago. The shop, a stall in the canteen of Bestway Building, is now fitted with two ovens and a fridge.
The patisserie offers cupcakes in 10 flavours, ranging from red velvet to Horlicks, and chocolate and fruit tarts. Other treats, such as chocolate fudge and blackforest cakes, and macarons, are made to order.
She says: "I have faith in my cupcakes. I use only natural ingredients and I bake them fresh, every morning."
She makes the sesame paste for her sesame cupcakes from scratch and also fries the peanuts herself. The nuts are then blended into peanut butter for her frosting.
She had considered opening in a mall, but did not have the capital to do so. She found a space for rent at Bestway Building on a commercial property website. The rental suited her budget and its location in the Central Business District would draw office workers.
The thought of becoming a professional baker first entered her mind when she was 13 years old. It was Chinese New Year, and it was the first time she had done any baking, helping her mother and aunt make pineapple tarts. It gave her so much joy and pleasure that she knew she would one day want to open her own cake shop.
Her parents thought she was "day dreaming", she says, but she was determined to prove herself and started saving for her dream soon after.
She had wanted to attend Shatec after finishing her O levels, but her civil servant mother and construction clerk father encouraged her to further her studies. Their older son, 26, is an engineer, while their younger son, who is 18, is still in school. Ms Lim lives with her family in a flat in Bukit Batok.
She went on to obtain a diploma in business studies, majoring in service management, from Ngee Ann Polytechnic, before starting her two-year diploma at Shatec in 2010. While on attachment, she worked in a five-star hotel, in a chocolate factory and a patisserie.
Business at her shop has been picking up, she says, and she has already built up a pool of regular customers.
She says: "It was tough to save up and make those sacrifices, but it was worth it."
Who: Ms Chara Lum, 22
Where: Block 124 Hougang Avenue 1, 01-1444, tel:6383-0803
Open: 11am to 8pm (Tuesdays to Thursdays), 11am to 9pm (Fridays and Saturdays), 3 to 9pm (Sundays), closed on Mondays.
Price: Individual cake servings are priced between $3 and $5.80 each, tarts start from $4.20 and a slice of quiche starts from $3.20. Whole large tarts and cakes range from $22 to $47 each.
A shop under an Hougang HDB block seems an unlikely location for a French-style patisserie, but six-month-old Ciel Patisserie has plenty of regulars, many of whom are nearby residents.
The idea, says baker and owner Chara Lum, is to make French cakes more accessible to Singaporeans in the heartland, both in terms of price and location. Unlike the cake shops in town where items can retail for $8 or $9, hers sell on average for about $4 each.
Ms Lum is a majority shareholder of the business, whose other partners include her cousin and god-brother. She borrowed $50,000 from her parents to open the shop. Her father is a pastor and her mother works in financial services.
The Anglo-Chinese Junior College alumnus attended culinary school Le Cordon Bleu in Bangkok and Paris in 2010, after a gap year spent in Perth in a theological college.
She had expressed interest in attending pastry school straight after junior college, but her parents thought it was "just a hobby". Instead, they encouraged her to apply for university. Their older daughter, 26, is a doctor, while their younger daughter, 17, is still in school.
But it was in Perth that her parents realised how deeply passionate she was about baking. She would bake cakes, breads and make pizza dough.
An avid fan of cooking shows hosted by Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson, she started baking at the age of 14, mostly because she wanted to eat dessert. She would try her hand at everything from shortbread cookies to pound cakes.
After obtaining her diploma in pastry, she worked at fine foods company Fauchon in Paris for two months before returning to Singapore.
She set up a small cake stall in a coffee shop in Middle Road in 2011 with $15,000 from her parents. She has already paid them back. The coffee shop had to close in February last year to make way for redevelopment.
Ms Lum says her parents stress the importance of a degree to fall back on should the pastry career path not work out. She also knows that marketing and accounting skills would come in handy when running her business and is now in her second year of a bachelor of business degree at the University of London offered at SIM University.
When she first started university, she ran the stall in the day and attended classes at night, which is still the case today. She plans to graduate in two years.
Well aware of the competition from other cake shops and patisseries, she says: "If it doesn't work out, at least I would have tried, knowing that I have done my best. You can always try."
Charlotte Grace Cakeshop
Who: Ms Ling Jia En, 23
Where: Block 85C Toa Payoh Lorong 4, 01-376, tel:9768-9827
Open: 10am to 9pm (Mondays to Saturdays). Closed on Sundays.
Price: From $2.50 for a cupcake. Customised cakes start from $50 for 500g.
Info: Go to www.charlotte- grace.com. Order two weeks in advance for customised cakes. Simple cakes can be ordered two to three days in advance.
Ms Ling Jia En has a soft spot for cakes, breads and biscuits. The baker and owner of Charlotte Grace Cakeshop, which opened in Toa Payoh last July, says she always preferred these items over savoury ones when she was growing up.
She says: "I have always had a sweet tooth."
The self-taught baker started dabbling in baking during her school days at Ngee Ann Polytechnic, where she was studying for a diploma in business studies.
She recalls how she would often tell her friends then that she was "going to be a baker".
The youngest of four children - her older siblings are civil servants and are aged between 28 and 38 - Ms Ling had wanted to attend culinary school after finishing her diploma, but her parents, who sell health products, could not afford it, she says. She lives with them in a Sengkang HDB flat.
Instead, she enrolled in a four-session baking course at cooking school Creative Culinaire in Tiong Bahru four years ago to learn more about the science and basics of baking. Her father paid for the course, which cost $360 at the time. She has since paid him back.
She says it took a lot of trial and error after that to perfect her own recipes. These days, her cupcakes include red velvet, chocolate with a gooey centre, and vanilla, as well as customised tiered cakes decorated with fondant.
Before setting up her bakery, she worked in jobs such as retail sales and relief teaching for four years and saved up $10,000 to open her shop.
Her older siblings chipped in another $2,000 to pay for the air-conditioning, but she plans to pay them back.
She saved where she could, roping in friends to paint walls, while her father did most of the renovation works that included laying the floor panels and putting in light fixtures.
Ms Ling says: "My parents saw how determined I was to make a career out of this and they encouraged me to look for a shop space."
Indeed, it was her parents who chanced upon a vacant unit in Toa Payoh Lorong 4 while out for a meal and thought it would be suitable
She adds: "Baking is the only thing I am good at - it is God's gift to me."
Who: Charlene Chua and Wu Qiuying, both 24
Where: Grandlink Square, 511 Guillemard Road, 01-05, tel: 8598-1072 Open: 11am to 7pm (Tuesdays to Sundays). Closed on Mondays. All cakes must be pre-ordered.
Price: Customised cakes start at $90 for a kg. Cakes such as tiramisu, Sacher torte and mango cheesecake start at $39 a kg.
Info: Go to www.cakequembouche.com or e-mail email@example.com. Orders for customised fondant cakes and cupcakes must be made one week in advance. Orders for classic cakes and cupcakes can be made three to four days in advance.
When friends and business partners Charlene Chua and Wu Qiuying met in culinary school, they clicked instantly.
They have similar personalities, work well together on projects and both have a strong interest in fondant cakes, says Ms Wu.
After graduating with diplomas in pastry and baking arts from At-Sunrice GlobalChef Academy in February last year, they went their separate ways, but the thought of running their own businesses remained etched on their minds. In March last year, they decided to team up to open a cake shop, specialising in what they love most - customised 3-D fondant cakes.
They opened their shop, Cakequembouche (say cake-com-boosh), in May last year, at the cost of about $15,000. This comprised their savings and money borrowed from parents.
They made back their initial outlay after four months and plan to pay their parents the money they owe this May.
Ms Chua, who has a bachelor's degree in business marketing from Nanyang Technological University, was put off by the stories she had heard about the corporate world. So she decided to follow her passion for baking instead.
For Ms Wu, an IT service management diploma holder, baking was something she had gained a steady interest in since her secondary school days. She studied home economics as one of her O-level subjects.
She worked in the IT department of a bank for about two years after graduating from Republic Polytechnic, but realised that a routine desk-bound job was not for her. She went to culinary school because owning a cake shop had always been a dream, but she knew she lacked the skills and knowledge.
The duo admit that competition from other customised cake shops is "stiff", but are focused on delivering top quality. They say they are encouraged by their increasing sales.
This article was first run The Straits Times newspaper on March 17, 2013. For similar stories, go to sph.straitstimes.com/premium/singapore. You will not be able to access the Premium section of The Straits Times website unless you are already a subscriber.