How to run a successful baking business with Des Ngema

By Jess Spiro, 18 February 2021

Her incredible cakes could be considered works of art, but Des Ngema is also a business force to be reckoned with. She talks to us about how she left the corporate world for food, and how she applied that business knowledge to running a successful bakery.

1. Let's start off with a little introduction. Tell us who you are, where you grew up and where you love of cooking and baking came from.

I am Des Ngema, born and bred in KZN. I think my love for cooking is a family thing. My mom is an amazing cook. She was a domestic worker who worked for a Jewish family so she ended up learning so much about Jewish cuisine. She’s just naturally a great cook. I've always enjoyed the food that she made and it fell on me in a way. I used to entertain friends and I’ve always cooked a lot. But, baking was one something that I was always petrified of because of the science and the measurements and the precision. If you roast a chicken and it’s bland, you can just add black pepper, a little bit of salt here and there and the chicken is good. It’s not the same with baking – if you pull that cake out of the oven and there’s something wrong, it’s not such an easy fix.

2. How did you get into baking? Did you study? What led you to start your own bakery?

I went in the direction of marketing. I was very good with academics and I'm good with people. So I've worked with different brands in a corporate space. But something was just eating at me with this whole baking and cooking thing. I was working at Unilever at the time and I decided to try the food thing out. So I started getting recipes online and I started practising. These cakes were delicious, but they just didn't look good. I remember one of my friends saying: “Des, you make delicious cake, but it’s just a delicious mess!” I figured if I can teach myself how to bake delicious cakes, imagine if I was trained professionally? So I enrolled at Prue Leith’s Chef's Academy in 2016. Bearing in mind I was in a management position at a nice job, which meant I worked on weekends that year. Every Saturday I had classes at Prue Leith, so I’d take a flight from Durban to attend school in Pretoria and then rush back to the airport to fly back Durban at the end of the day. I spent a lot of money that year, but I like to see it as money invested, not lost. By the time I graduated I was pregnant with my twin boys, so took six months’ maternity leave, started baking for friends and it just took off. Six months later I resigned from my corporate job. I took all my savings and started working from home for about a year. As the business grew, I needed more space so I got a commercial space in Pinetown, which is really where I started building my business.
 
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3. Tell us about your business. Can people only order whole cakes for events or do you offer a sit-down service too? What are some other treats on offer?

My initial idea of starting a bakery was because regulars began requesting slices of cake or cupcakes, and at the time I had started doing wedding cakes. So when I was doing a wedding cake tasting people had to come to my house and it was getting to be a little much so I started doing a light menu. We do everything ourselves, we make our own bread for the sandwiches, we make our own pizzas from scratch. We offer great coffee and delicious macarons, we have cupcakes and, of course, our famous cakes. We also offer celebration cakes for birthdays, weddings and other special occasions.
 
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4. Where do you find inspiration for your cakes and bakes? Which are some of your favourites? Is there one cake you’re especially proud of?

The one that I’m very proud of is our chocolate cake, it's an amazing recipe. But I think there’s more to the cakes than that. I’ve always said I’m not in the business of making cakes, I’m in the business of making memories. I'm proud of the beautiful cakes I make but I love that I’m part of an important milestone for other people. My inspiration comes from everywhere. I’ll look at the decor of a room or ceramics. I look for fabrics that I'd love to repeat into a cake. From a taste profile point of view, I love playing with flavours and seasonal ingredients. Of course we do the classics like red velvet, chocolate, vanilla, but we’ve also made blueberry lemon with our own home-made lemon curd or a raspberry lemon where the curd is folded into the sponge and used as a filling and iced with a meringue buttercream. Everything is made from scratch and we want it to taste like something your grandma would have made.
 
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5. After such a hard year how did you remain inspired and encouraged to keep going? How are you finding the industry now in the current climate?

The industry is hard. The ripple effect of not being able to socialise has hit us hard. In December we started picking up a lot of orders for weddings and then the new restrictions were announced and we basically had to shut down. So, right now anxiety levels are very high because we feel like we're constantly backpedalling, then we move forward one step and then it's five steps backwards. But there’s definitely a sense of a fighting spirit here. My team and the people that rely on the business surviving have inspired me. This business cannot go down because of the number of people that will affect. So for me, it's waking up every day and just fighting that bit harder to sell one more cupcake, because I'm not just letting myself down, I'm letting down a lot of people. I have a team of four and most of those people are breadwinners at home. So my failure is their failure. I’m doing everything to make sure we don’t go down, which has also been an interesting process.

6. What were some ways you adapted to keep some business coming in?

In December, we launched a festive dessert collection, which included a cake, 12 cupcakes and a delicious home-made ice cream, which helped keep us going. We were able to cover ourselves partially though January because of the sales that we generated in December. And we’ll keep approaching things like this. There’s never a moment you can take your eye off the ball. We’ve also started doing a cake sale every month where things are sold at half price, which is also strategic because we're trying to get people to taste our products in the hope they’ll return to us and order a full cake.
 
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7. What else are you working on right now? Anything else we can look forward to seeing you do next?

We’re constantly innovating and coming up with new ideas so we’re working on some very cool projects. I can’t really go into much more detail than that, so I’ll  just say “watch this space” for now.To keep up with Des, follow her on Instagram. or visit her cafe in Pinetown, Durban at 125 Josiah Gumede Road.
Jess Spiro

Article by Jess Spiro

Jess Spiro is a freelance food writer, chef and restaurant critic based in Cape Town, who can often be found in search of the next great plate of food. Follow her on Instagram @jess_spiro to see what she's eating.
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