The Dessert Lady Duo

Laura Aiken
February 25, 2013
Written by
Mandy Kan faced 21 rejections from retail space owners in 2005, when she set out to open her bakery as a 27-year-old former Ritz-Carlton pastry chef. She was told she was too young, didn’t have enough experience in retailing; an all-around-risk was the general assessment made by her potential landlords.

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Lori Monteiro (left) and Mandy Kan regularly set growth goals at monthly management meetings

 
Well, as they say: “Take a look at me now.”

Kan is now eight years deep into Dessert Lady, the Toronto bakery that bears a customer-granted nickname from her Ritz-Carlton days. The bakery is this year’s winner of the Bakers Journal Growing for Success award lead sponsored by Fuller Landau Chartered Accountants and Business Advisors, and co-sponsored by Puratos and Hallmark Insurance.

Kan has outgrown one space, and brought in a talent pool that has given her a deeply committed managerial partner in Lori Monteiro, director of sales and marketing. Together, they are out to make Dessert Lady a household name. The bakery has grown 15 to 35 per cent a year since its inception, with the biggest gains happening since Kan was able to move the business from 20 Cumberland St. to 12 Cumberland St. in 2010, a minor change of address, but a big change in storefront visibility and production space. Cumberland St. is one two tony arteries in Yorkville, one of Canada’s priciest per square foot neighbourhoods. Yet, she has not set well-heeled prices amongst the pitter-patter of Jimmy Choos. Instead, Kan stuck to her intentions of opening a bakery with great tasting products at accessible prices.

Just three staff plus Kan bake more than 350 products in 14 categories, from scratch, and all natural (except for the use of food colouring as required). Sales-wise, the bakery will sell about 1,000 pies for a holiday such as Thanksgiving. Kan is a flavour innovator, incorporating classics and contemporary trends such as tea, chile, flowers and pepper to the lineup.
The bakery uses distinct marketing pieces to target corporate, wedding and general clientele; offering a high level of customization over a wide range of goods, including gluten- and sugar-free options. Classes and corporate team building are part of its repertoire too. 

A look ahead
By analyzing her sales numbers, Kan determined another salary can be supported, and that’s put Dessert Lady on the hunt for a new team member.  To maximize growth, the management team will analyze the strengths and weaknesses of the current staff to figure out just what assets they need to find in a new employee. However, skill set is just one aspect of Dessert Lady’s approach to hiring and retaining staff. Kan and Monteiro, like all bakery owners and managers, want passionate people working for them. There are a few questions Kan always asks potential hires: Do you have a sweet tooth? Do you bake at home? What is your favourite dessert? If you were to make me a dessert, what you make me?

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Monteiro found her passion for baking in being the creative hand behind the bakery’s line of 3D WOW cakes 

 
“You can tell by their answers if they have passion,” says Monteiro. “Not just if it’s a yes or a no, but how they respond; if they add to it, use colourful language, and you can see the passion in their eyes . .  .I think the seed has to be there. That part of your personality can be adapted to any field. I never thought I would be passionate about this, but if you have that seed and then you get into something, it’s going to flourish.”

For Monteiro, it was her own eyes that became the catalyst to her foray into the baker industry. A science lover and corporate troop in the trenches of project and account management, it took a diagnosis of a degenerative and potentially blinding eye disease called Keratoconus to prompt a search for a fun and creative endavour. At Dessert Lady, she has found both, along with the opportunity for much self-growth. Monteiro used her graphics background to help Kan improve Dessert Lady branding, and now designs all elements of the company’s print and web look in-house. She transferred those artistic inclinations to her role as chief decorator of their 3D WOW cakes, and that’s when she really found her passion for the world of baking.

“I’m so rewarded when they come to pick up that cake. They’re so ecstatic. I’ve had people hug me, cry, send thank you letters, return to thank me if I haven’t been here, send e-mails and photos . . . that’s what drives me: just seeing how excited people can get. It feels so good to put your energy into something that makes people so happy.”

 Kan invested in further training for Monteiro through a cake design course taught by a much-admired instructor, just one example of the commitment to continuing education that exists at Dessert Lady. Staff are sent on courses to improve on their weakest area, or to improve on an area they are fond of. When the person returns from the training, he or she is given the opportunity to share with the team what was learnt at weekly team meetings. Fully developing existing staff has been an important strategy in allowing the bakery to stretch and grow into new product development, while remaining financially stable.  

“Everyone wants to grow fast, but you have to look at the resources that you have,” says Kan. “Everything has to go in baby steps. I love the growth we have, but of course I want more.”

Kan and Monteiro brought in a consultant to check in on their progress and growth plan. Both agreed the consultant was worth the investment. The team learned they were on the right track and had a great product, and were advised to focus on marketing.

Dessert Lady bakery has since appeared on Global television to showcase a 60-pound apple shaped cake representing New York, which needed to be wheeled on stage. Global has followed up via e-mail with the bakery to indicate they would be interested in having them on air again, says Monteiro.

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Dessert Lady produces more than 350 products in 14 different categories.

 
Running more promotions and giveaways are further long-term goals to increase visibility. The bakery runs deals on Twitter to win a dessert, gift card or basket. It is amazing how fast people join their feed, says Monteiro, and mention that they saw “this or that” on the social media site. The bakery currently works with charities in Toronto, with plans to also increase community involvement.

The team is working on making the website as user-friendly as possible. Kan has customers from as far away as Russia, Japan and Italy, who purchase her cakes online for delivery to a family member or friend in Toronto. The bakery offers delivery to its Toronto customers, and currently executes this using existing staff based on who is available to make the trip. There has been a caveat to online ordering communications: some customers have been confused as to whether their order will still be made fresh when it is placed in advance. Dessert Lady employees are still educating people that they will receive the same quality online as offline. 

Marketing isn’t the only way management is driving growth. Staff are rewarded through a sales incentive program. Daily client acquisition goals are posted on the fridge, and the idea is to meet that number through e-mail or walk-in customers.

Once an employee has made a sale, their initial goes on the fridge. Numbers are reviewed at the end of the year, and the winner is rewarded with a Dessert Lady prize. It could be a trip or a bonus, but it is important to make it something that is customized to the winner’s personal sense of reward, says Kan.

“We try and push the team,” says Monteiro. “We don’t want anybody to leave without buying something.”

The road travelled
Kan discovered her love of food around age eight through an intense curiosity for discovering what was in her food. However, the baking profession conflicted with her very traditional Chinese heritage, and parental pressure led her to complete a degree in commerce at the University of Toronto. But, she found the financial life did not suit her at all.

“I said, I did what you want, now can I do what I want?”

Kan left Canada for the French Culinary Institute in New York City, and took chocolate and sugar work training at the International School of Confectionary Arts in Maryland. Now, she says, her family’s mind has changed; they are very supportive of her career choice.

“The reason I opened the shop is to let people know that there are good products here at reasonable prices. It [Yorkville] is not just high-end places. For me, I am so proud to see it grow to a new store, have customers for eight years that still appreciate what we do, and see it just get better and better. It makes me so proud, and it so rewarding that what I believe in is working.”




















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