By Brandi Cowen
Sisters Justina Wong and Sylvia Kathol, co-owners of Bliss & Co.
Cupcakes and Desserts, are in entrepreneurial heaven, thanks to the
success of their nut-free bakery concept.
Sisters Justina Wong and Sylvia Kathol, co-owners of Bliss & Co. Cupcakes and Desserts, are in entrepreneurial heaven, thanks to the success of their nut-free bakery concept.
|Sisters Justina Wong (left) and Sylvia Kathol opened their nut-free bakery after realizing how drastically nut allergies affect something as simple as a birthday party.|
Their first store opened in downtown Calgary’s Chinatown in February 2009, at the height of the recession. Tucked away on the lower level of a tall brown brick building, the bakery can be a bit difficult to find, but, as Kathol explains, “We were hoping people would be able to smell us.”
With a kitchen that can turn out as many as 1,500 cupcakes each day, there are plenty of mouthwatering aromas to lead hungry passersby to the door.
Once inside, the 300-square-foot retail space is clean and white. A single bright red wall serves as a backdrop for the 14 to 16 cupcake varieties on offer from one day to the next.
“It’s not your really posh looking kind of bakery and really, our retail was a last-minute thought,” says Wong. “We were actually going to be situated here as a kitchen and market ourselves out, but of course, all these people started coming, so we did this little makeshift front retail.”
NUT-FREE AND ECO-CONSCIOUS
Two years on, the retail aspect of the business is booming. Bliss & Co.’s red velvet cupcake is its bestseller, followed by its coconut cream cheese and flourless chocolate offerings. Other popular items include a variety of fruit and cream pies that fit in the palm of your hand, and decadent brownies. The treats have played a key role in the bakery’s success, but what really makes Bliss & Co. stand out from the competition is the fact that the entire operation is nut-free.
“My sister and I were going to open a regular bakery. We actually had a French macaron idea that we’d worked on,” explains Kathol. “When we found out how nut allergies impact something as simple as a birthday celebration, we decided to make the conscious decision to go nut-free for the sake of people with nut allergies and just cross our fingers.”
She adds, “If we went under, then at least for a year, we could provide cupcakes to kids and adults alike without any fear.”
Opening a nut-free bakery provided Wong and Kathol with a daunting challenge in addition to all the others associated with starting a small business.
The pair learned that some supply companies operate multiple facilities, all making the same products. While some of these facilities may be nut-free, others process ingredients with nuts. To guarantee their customers’ safety, the sisters “verify and double verify” everything they buy, confirming that their ingredients are processed in nut-free facilities and seeking out alternative options.
“In the beginning, we had our mainstay suppliers,” Wong explains. “We have our chocolate that we’re using, and things like that, but we’d be naïve to think that these suppliers are going to provide us with the same product forever. They’re always changing their product, and so the biggest challenge here is to find backup.”
But it’s not just being prepared that drives the sisters to continue exploring.
“We’re still evolving,” Kathol adds. “To this day, we’re still sampling chocolates from all over the world . . . . We’re still looking for the best product that we can buy that’s nut-free.”
In addition to lining up nut-free supplies, the sisters have also invested a lot of time and effort in running an eco-friendly operation.
“We are fully aware of how the cupcake industry is impacting the environment, specifically plastic packaging,” says Kathol. “I don’t like it, I wish I could get away without it.”
The pair spent a year working with three different suppliers, trying to find a more green packaging option.
“The option we were given was to use cake boxes, and people just don’t want that. When they’re paying $3.10 per cupcake, they want it packaged nicely,” says Kathol.
In the end, the sisters had to compromise, settling on plastic packaging and bags with low PET numbers that can be recycled into a wide variety of products. At the moment, they give customers the option of plastic or cardboard packaging. Meanwhile, they continue to explore options such as biodegradable plastics, and are considering a switch to paper packaging, which raises new concerns.
“We don’t think it’s environmentally conscientious to use a paper product when it comes from cutting down more trees,” says Kathol. “We want to make sure the paper products we’re using are at least 30 per cent recycled materials.”
Bliss & Co.’s young staff has taken this eco-consciousness to heart, and the entire operation makes every effort to be as green as possible. Every day, Wong and Kathol load up their delivery van, carting away recyclable waste, and the kitchen and equipment is scrubbed down with green cleaning products.
“That’s the best we can do right now,” says Kathol.
BUILDING THE BUSINESS
Despite opening its doors in tough economic times, and being the third cupcake store in the city, Bliss & Co. wound up being profitable. In fact, the bakery became so popular that last September, the sisters opened a second store in Calgary’s Chinook Centre.
“At the beginning, it was really hectic. We thought we were really well prepared, but at the end of the day, Calgarians are unpredictable. At the same time, our opening caught a lot of publicity,” Wong says.
The day their second location opened, Aerosmith front man Steven Tyler just happened to be visiting the Chinook Centre. With the promise of cream cheese icing and moist, red velvet cake, Wong lured the rock legend to the store. This helped Bliss & Co. build some serious media buzz around their new location, as well as their brand.
“You estimate how busy you’re going to be for the first few weeks, but it was actually way busier,” explains Wong. “It caught us off guard, so staffing was an issue.”
The lessons learned from opening that second store will be put into practice this fall, when a third location opens for business.
When they first hatched the plans for a second location, the pair planned to split up. Kathol, the baker, intended to remain in the kitchen at the Chinatown location, while Wong, the management-minded sister, planned to stay busy at the Chinook location, setting up the store, establishing procedures and overseeing the day-to-day business of the retail outlet.
But, Wong says, “We realized that if you hire a strong manager, and if you’re able to train them properly, you don’t have to be there all the time. We still show our faces there, but we realize that the heart of this whole business is the bakery.”
After the holiday rush was over, the two decided to station themselves at their head office, in the Chinatown location and trust the manager to run the show at Chinook. Wong notes that it’s “very simple, basically just retail – selling the cupcakes – and making sure quality control is there.”
Since the first Bliss & Co. store opened its doors, Kathol and Wong have learned a lot about what it takes to run a successful business, in good financial times, as well as in bad, though they don’t necessarily agree on what those lessons are. When asked to reflect on what they would change, given the benefit of hindsight, they have two very different outlooks.
“In my opinion, spend the money and hire more staff,” Wong says, laughing. “When we opened, it was just my sister and I, and we didn’t anticipate being so busy. I wish we’d hired just two extra staff . . . . That would have helped us a lot. We wouldn’t have been so crazy and so stressed out if we’d actually allocated a certain budget for staff to help us.”
But Kathol has a different take on things. “I totally disagree. I think we did everything right, especially in the environment,” she says, confidently. “We started off with a staff of two and we just progressively grew from there. We were able to learn, we were able to make mistakes, and then resolve the mistakes in a timely manner.”