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Have you ever talked about starting a business with your best friend as a kid? Maybe it was for a drive-in movie theatre or a toy store with the latest playthings. Eventually, it may have become something that you just reminisce about in adulthood.

For childhood besties Dr Ezani and Nurul Shai, though, that dream turned into a reality. 

After years of talking about running a bakery together, the pair finally opened a homey cafe bakery located in Cyberjaya, called Pastribella Bakeshop, in 2019.

Sometimes the stars do align in our favour

As an avid viewer of MasterChef Australia, Dr Ezani didn’t expect to join the Malaysian version of the cooking competition. Much less MasterChef Malaysia’s first calls for auditions.

“I just went for fun. Nurul practically filled up the application form for me,” Dr Ezani recalled fondly. 

As luck would have it, Dr Ezani was not only selected to join the cooking programme but was offered a dentistry posting in Sabah at the same time.

Pushing that luck, she asked for a deferral from the dentistry programme to participate in MasterChef Malaysia and got approved.

This turned into a life-changing decision when she became the first season’s champion.

Dr Ezani at MasterChef Malaysia season one / Image Credit: Dr Ezani Monoto

A childhood dream and a lifelong passion

Since she was young, Dr Ezani knew she wanted to be a dentist. But cooking and baking have always been a part of her life as well.

“Because of my late mother, I started helping out by making kuih raya, [and] making a mess in the kitchen very early on,” she shared.

This life skill and hobby carried on into her young adulthood as a student in Australia too. She would experiment with new recipes and explore fresh produce at local markets.

In order to fulfil her childhood ambition of being a dentist, though, Dr Ezani had to undergo her compulsory dentistry service. It’s similar to the housemanship that doctors are required to complete. 

Mini pavlovas (left) and a brownie tower (right) / Image Credit: Pastribella Bakeshop

She worked as a dental officer in UPM’s university health clinic for almost six years. During that period, she was also actively freelancing as a celebrity chef, aside from doing bake sales at booths and food festivals.

On the other hand, Nurul Shai was working to make it as a geophysicist, and later worked in the oil and gas industry.

As best friends, it’s understandable that Nurul was influenced by Dr Ezani and her love for baking. 

“On school holidays, we [would] lepak at my house and try baking and cooking with friends,” Dr Ezani explained. They went to the same boarding school which helped to build their friendship.

“It went on every year until I was in Australia. Every summer holiday, I would be back in Malaysia, and we would organise makan-makan with friends where I would cook. She’s naturally a good cook too, so it was easy for her to dip into baking.”

Teamwork makes the dream work

Image Credit: Pastribella Bakeshop

In the beginning, the duo started small by making merchandise like recipe calendars and aprons to sell on social media. Then they went offline and tried their hand at selling baked goods at food festivals.

Their first experience was hosting a bake sale at Foodgasmfest in 2014, followed by KL Big Kitchen in Dataran Merdeka.

In true scientific fashion, Dr Ezani and Nurul decided the best way to find out if a venture together would work was to experiment. Neither of them had run a business before but chose to try their best and adapt to changes.

All the while, the dentist was working full-time at the clinic and the ex-geophysicist was hard at work being a full-time mum.

Image Credit: Pastribella Bakeshop

It was only when Dr Ezani resigned from her position at UPM that she felt ready to fully commit to the idea.

“We literally said, ‘Let’s do this’. So we went looking for a location,” she recounted.

That’s how they ended up at Tamarind Square in Cyberjaya, not too far off from where the founders lived in Bangi. 

Sticking with what they know best, the two went with a straightforward menu and slowly expanded the cafe bakery’s menu as time went on.

“We really just learnt along the way, and we’re still learning every day,” the ex-MasterChef Malaysia champion shared.

Image Credit: Pastribella Bakeshop

Some of Pastribella Bakeshop’s bestsellers include their chocolate salted caramel cake, burnt cheesecake, and double baked chocolate cake.

Other more common offerings include their pavlova cake and lemon poppyseed cake. The bakeshop serves up hot meals like spicy buttermilk chicken spaghetti and oyster omelette too.

Baking and cooking through the storm

For the first six months of Pastribella, Dr Ezani and Nurul remained hands-on, handling everything from baking to manning the counter.

Commissioned wedding cakes made by Pastribella Bakeshop / Image Credit: Pastribella Bakeshop

Not long after opening, the pandemic struck and caused them to close their doors for almost a month. Being a newly opened cafe helped at the time as the overheads and costs were still quite low.

“We managed to have quite a stable cash reserve, thankfully,” she said. “Then [during] puasa and raya season, we opened again and hustled through online orders and deliveries. We had to pivot really quickly to get on the online ordering platform.”

However, they did have to cut everyone’s wages, including the founders’ to keep the business alive.

The cafe bakery also took advantage of all applicable government wage subsidies and incentives at the time to alleviate financial burdens. And their landlord supported them by occasionally waiving the monthly rent.

Once the business stabilised though, they began recruiting more staff, and Dr Ezani and Nurul focused more on the management aspect.

“I’m still around doing quality control, like eating and tasting, training the staff, occasionally baking new recipes, and developing the menu,” Dr Ezani explained. 

Good things come to those who wait

Pastribella Bakeshop undergoing minor renovations before the store opened (left) and the founders celebrating the store’s first birthday in 2020 (right) / Image Credit: Pastribella Bakeshop

Their resilience and patience paid off in the end. Not long after the pandemic restrictions were lifted, things began improving for Pastribella Bakeshop. 

So much so that they could afford to finally renovate and redecorate their first venture.

As with most other businesses, Dr Ezani shared that the pair of best friends started off on a limited budget. Hence, the interior design was “very basic”. 

But as the business grew, more space was needed for storage and production. And so they rented the adjoining unit and moved the cafe bakery’s kitchen there.

The interior of Pastribella Bakeshop / Image Credit: Pastribella Bakeshop

The dentist now runs Pastribella Bakeshop on a full-time basis with Nurul and Nurul’s husband. In fact, the latter who used to work offshore is now also the brand’s barista among other roles. 

But that’s not to say that Dr Ezani has given up on her other career entirely. The dentist occasionally still part-times in private clinics.

“I still love treating my patients and helping them get the best of their oral health. So I do want to keep practising casually,” she expressed. 

Choux pastry (left) and scones and madeleines (right) sold at Pastribella Bakeshop / Image Credit: Pastribella Bakeshop

In the coming years, they’re hoping to branch out to more central areas, the dentist saying, “Hopefully a little outlet in KL or Damansara.” But in the meantime, they’re looking to collaborate with more local cafes to serve their “honest baked goods”. 

Dr Ezani shared that a few cafes around Bangi, Puchong, and Cyberjaya are already carrying their treats. And they’re planning to diversify into catering and events, as well as hosting cooking classes. 

Safe to say, this power couple of BFFs have got things figured out.

  • Learn more about Pastribella Bakeshop here.
  • Read other articles we’ve written about Malaysian startups here.

Featured Image Credit: Pastribella Bakeshop

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© 2021 GRVTY Media Pte. Ltd.
(UEN 201431998C.)

Vulcan Post aims to be the knowledge hub of Singapore and Malaysia.

© 2021 GRVTY Media Pte. Ltd.
(UEN 201431998C.)