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.

Fairlady - - CONTENTS - By Kris­ten Birch and Shireen Fisher

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.

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