Stumbling across Koko Cafe on Instagram, I was impressed, yet unsurprised by the level of detail that French pastry chefs are able to whip up in their desserts, especially with years of training.
The details on the Mandarin orange, peach, and strawberry pastries made them look like semi-realistic, plumper versions of the actual fruits. Their petite cakes and pastries also looked too delicate to eat, like something you’d find at most high tea spots in KL.
Digging deeper, I later found out that this little patisserie in Kuantan wasn’t even started by professional pastry chefs, but 2 girls who loved desserts and the art of eating them.
Nurturing the passion
Shen was working in an advertising agency while her partner, Jessin, was an Art Curator before this. The duo first dipped their feet in the world of F&B in 2014 by launching their first café, 90 Degrees Café & Art. Later in 2016, they started Koko Cafe just next door, and envisioned it to be the first quality desserts café in Kuantan.
“We love desserts, we love to eat and at the time, Kuantan did not have a lot of places selling quality desserts, especially French patisseries,” they told Vulcan Post.
With no formal background in pastry making, Shen and Jessin would take classes around KL and Singapore, while experimenting on their own through trial and error. They would single-handedly bake and sell the pastries until they were ready to onboard more chefs to help them, which was a challenge in Kuantan.
Many of them weren’t trained to create French-style patisseries. Nevertheless, the founders would train their employees by hosting internal hands-on or online classes to continuously upskill.
These training sessions are also meant to educate the team on the quality of products and services offered at Koko Cafe.
Shen and Jessin noted that one of their biggest hurdles operating a café in Kuantan was actually logistics, particularly in sourcing good quality ingredients for their recipes. Since Koko Cafe brands itself as a Halal patisserie, ingredients need to be of good quality, in good condition, and must be certified Halal by JAKIM.
Such ingredients are not easily accessible in a small town like Kuantan, compared to the wider range of selections available in Klang Valley, the founders acknowledged. Prices tend to be higher as well, factoring in the extra charges for logistics by their distributor.
“We have to make do with what ingredients we can get our hands on in Kuantan. Equipment-wise, we often travel to Klang Valley to get them,” the team shared.
Despite that, Koko Cafe’s pastries are priced more affordably compared to what can be found around the larger cities of KL and Penang. Its individual petite cakes can range from RM13-RM16, a 5-piece macaron box for RM22, and full-sized cakes between RM45-RM135.
“It’s actually quite hard to get a good margin when we have to make sure our ingredients are of good quality, and also balance the perceived value of our customers in Kuantan,” said the team.
But they’re persistent and invest in good machinery and equipment to improve efficiency in the kitchen. By doing so, less hours are needed to produce more products, hence lessening the labour cost and improving the café’s margin.
Inspiration is everywhere
Koko Cafe’s desserts require plenty of time and care to make. Take those aforementioned fruits for instance, they took the team 2-3 days to complete as these designs incorporated many elements.
The duo explained, “Our petite cakes will normally consist of at least 4-5 elements, e.g. a mousse, cremeux, whipped ganache, fruit compôte, cake base, finishing of the cakes (cocoa butter, mirror glazing, chocolate shell etc.).”
But their desserts aren’t just about the looks—each element made must also be delicious, carrying a balanced texture as originally envisioned. With this in mind, the team is unable to make some pastries in large quantities and each batch is limited to 12-20 pieces, based on pre-orders.
Of course, the café does sell some permanent cakes in their bakery to be bought by walk-in customers and online orders on their website.
Koko Cafe’s chefs draw inspiration from objects they interact with in their everyday lives—fruits they see in the market, flowers gifted for Mother’s Day, and the like. “It’s always something people can easily relate to. Mr. Google is also the easiest place to inspire any idea,” the team mused.
While the chefs described their methods of baking as no different to standard baking procedures, the most important element required to make it all work is the bakery’s freezer.
The team shared their worst-case scenario, “Another one of our most feared situations is probably the health of our chiller and freezer. Imagine turning up in the morning only to find that the freezer has stopped, and all our cakes are melted!”
Hence, temperature checks for the freezer are done twice or thrice daily to ensure they’re working properly.
Going across the country
As KL and Selangor tend to be the hubs for varying F&B experiences, Shen and Jessin intend to scale Koko Cafe outside of Kuantan one day.
“Worth a try right? We are planning to open up a kiosk in Klang Valley and other cities as well,” they said. “Our ultimate dream is to have a Koko Cafe in every city!”
Apart from expanding, Shen and Jessin have modest plans for their short-term goal: to fine-tune and improve the consistency of their products, and upskill staff.
There’s no absolute answer that a business will fail or will work, at its current state and in the future. The pandemic has changed the course of business, from offline to online. As long as we keep evolving through time, and always listen to our customer’s wants and needs, every business is worth running.Shen and Jessin, co-founders of Koko Cafe
Featured Image Credit: Koko Cafe’s team