Not every entrepreneur sets out with the intention of launching a full-scale business. Fortunately for our taste buds, these folks turned their sideline ventures into thriving confectionaries.
Two side ventures that became thriving confectionaries
Sweet LionHeart is an online, order-based patisserie studio in Salt River, Cape Town that has become known for its trendy, colourful confectionery masterpieces. Its product line ranges from cakes with Swiss meringue frosting to cake pops and cake toppers.
‘The business is the result of our passion for food and finding patisserie as a platform where my design experience could come through,’ Nikki says. ‘We wanted to do something together. It wasn’t planned – it just came to us.’
The business was started in September 2015 while Nikki was working as a graphic designer, and evolved from being based in a home kitchen to a commercial patisserie studio in February 2016. Karmen joined in August that year.
‘Growing up, I was into cooking, but after school I studied graphic design,’ says Nikki. ‘I did
a short stint in advertising, then worked at an online magazine. To gain exposure, I started a blog and also did photography and styling, which rekindled my love of food.’ Nikki then did a part-time course at the Silwood School of Cookery, and discovered that she loved the pastry side because she could use graphic design in certain elements.
‘Neither of us grew up baking, though we’ve always had a passion for the food and beverage industry,’ Karmen adds. ‘We’ve known each other for 27 years, and we always spoke about joining forces some day but never thought it would involve cake, specifically. It was just a natural progression after Nikki did the cooking course.
‘I worked in search engine optimisation in Cape Town and London, helping online businesses with digital marketing strategies. While I was in London, I called Nikki to say that I wanted to come home. At the time, she was considering taking LionHeart to the next level and thought that it could actually become a full-time gig. I joined soon after that. We’ve become interested in designing cakes that are quite different to what we were used to – ours are taller, fully frosted cakes with various decorative components.’
While Sweet Lionheart does have a website, Nikki and Karmen see Instagram as a great platform for showcasing their creations, and have acquired many clients through it.
‘What’s important is that the business survives and that we remain innovative,’ says Karmen. ‘We need to be aligned with our customers’ needs. We’ve been thinking about whether to open the studio so people can walk in, rather than making things to order. Everything is online at the moment, and this gives us the flexibility to plan our weekly schedule so we can allocate time to looking at what’s new in the food space, to marketing and to developing our product.
‘We’re not going to continue doing this if it becomes boring, as this would affect our product.’ Karmen says they have no intention of becoming a massive cake-making machine that no longer reflects their personality. ‘LionHeart is us and we want each cake to reflect that.’
Nikki adds that a work-life balance is paramount. ‘Karmen and I feel very strongly about self-care, self-love and being able to maintain the balance between profitability and living life. We want a successful business, but we don’t want to work 17-hour shifts, pushing out cakes.’
It’s an outlet for them, says Karmen. ‘As soon as that starts changing, it will become evident in the end product. We make sure to spend enough time with all our creations.’
The duo draws inspiration from various sources: from international bakers and cake designers to design trends, colours and architecture. They’ve also started facilitating workshops which have been well received. ‘We had people asking us about workshops. We’re happy that we’re finally able to pass our skills on,’ says Nikki. ‘We want to inspire people to create their own cakes, and to share our passion for design. It’s also a great opportunity for us to learn from other people. We don’t lose; we gain.’
While the studio is all about decadent treats, the owners also make provision for certain dietary requirements. ‘We’ve adapted a gluten-free cake, a refined sugarfree version and have also listed a vegan cake,’ says Nikki. ‘We try to accommodate our clients where we can.’
Pieter de Villiers has a background in electronic engineering and his wife, Cornell, was a teacher. At 34, Pieter created his own IT consulting company. The business took off, but the move from project design and creation to boardroom consulting left him feeling unfulfilled.
‘I woke up one morning and thought, “Why am I doing this?”’ He decided then and there that if he could no longer apply his creative side at the office, he’d have to do so after hours, in his garage at home.
Pieter began experimenting with an Indian-spice grinder, home coffee roaster and more than 40 varieties of cocoa bean. His knowledge of IT and engineering came in handy to create original chocolate machines recycled from washing machines he’d found in a dump. This saved a lot of money.
After perfecting a few creations, Pieter and Cornell tested their first five flavours on the Hermanus community at the Hermanuspietersfontein Market in the hope that the foodie community would appreciate something a little different.
People became obsessed with the product and soon, the couple opened their first chocolate factory in an old Cape Dutch home at the Spice Route in Paarl. Customers can watch the chocolate-making process and take a taste journey from bitter to sweet.
‘We’ve known each other for 27 years, and we always spoke about joining forces some day but never thought it would involve cake, specifically. It was just a natural progression.’
Today, De Villiers Chocolate has two premises. At the second, De Villiers Chocolate Café in Franschhoek, which opened recently, visitors can sample coffee, ice cream, sorbet and, of course, chocolate. But when Pieter started out, he had no idea his chocolates would make such an impact.
‘My vision was never for this to become a business,’ he says. ‘I have no background in the food industry so it’s been experimental from the get-go. We had three boys going into high school and many other commitments, so this was just about selling chocolates at the market on Saturdays. If it wasn’t for people truly enjoying it, we wouldn’t be here. But the educational aspect of it has been important to me from the beginning.’
De Villiers Chocolate is the first bean-to-bar artisanal chocolate maker in South Africa, and uses only UTZ cocoa. UTZ certification means every cocoa bean used can be traced to farm level. The most important factor in the process is respect for people and the planet.
Pieter visits these African farms regularly, always taking a bag of the final product to the farmers to taste.
‘Africa produces more than 70% of the cocoa beans used in the world but only 1% of chocolate production is done here,’ he explains. ‘Every product we create at De Villiers has a story behind it and is sourced from Africa. My favourite part of this business is visiting the farmers in Uganda. They’re such humble people and a small smile develops on their faces when tasting the chocolates. It’s always an emotional journey for me. We’re involved with community development and education there and are always pushing for sustainable and ethical farming.’
Pieter and his team have branched into handcrafted foods, specifically cakes and brownies at their chocolate cafe, and you can now find their artisanal chocolates at Woolworths.
‘Our aim is to get into international retailers, so we decided to make sure everything is GMO- and gluten-free. And as part of our recycling and social upliftment programmes, we donate our cocoa bean bags to the Drakensberg Association for Persons with Disabilities where the folk turn them into shopping bags and other items that are sold in our shops.
‘But what keeps me going is seeing people’s reactions when they taste the chocolate and sharing the journey with them – that’s so special.’
Nikki Albertyn (left) and Karmen de Reuck at their patisserie studio in Salt River.
This pic: Owners Pieter and Cornell de Villiers at the De Villiers Chocolate Café in Franschhoek. It is the first bean-to-bar artisanal chocolatier in the country.