Making cakes, doing business and happy moments together!

Juliet and Ipyana Mwagomba’s beautiful wedding cakes have made many a bride’s dream come true. The mother and son duo, who run Julie’s Confectionary in Malawi’s commercial city, Blantyre, admit that the wedding business is not as glamorous as it seems. They tell Akossa Mphepo about their beautiful relationship, passing on cake-making skills from one generation to the next and being driven by the desire to manufacture beautiful moments and make people happy.

What exactly do you do?

Ipyana: Basically, I design, bake and decorate wedding cakes and all kinds of cakes. I got into the industry 17 years ago, as my mother’s helper. She was doing this as a part-time business and at some point, her blood pressure started bothering her. Seeing her risk her health for the business pushed me into helping her and from there I developed a passion for cake-making. I started reading a lot of books about cake-making and soon got better than her! I have been in control of the business since August last year, when she retired.

Do you not have sisters that could have taken over from her?

Ipyana: I have one sister, who lives and works in Dwangwa and she can’t even bake a cake! (Laughs) I know my mum would have preferred to pass her talent on to her but I guess it never happened that way. I was the only one in day school (Zingwangwa Secondary School in Blantyre) while the rest were all in boarding schools so I inevitably grew very close to my mum. She taught me a lot of things.

Juliet: I am very proud of my boy. I remember he loved playing with the icing sugar and messing around in my kitchen when he was younger. I would always tell him, “don’t touch this, don’t touch that,” not knowing that cake-making was written in the stars for him. I have one daughter and though I have not passed my skills on to her, I am happy because I know that Ipyana is in control! 

Perhaps I should also add that all of my children know how to cook and look after themselves because growing up, I taught them to fend for themselves. I would tell them to wash their own plates, make their beds and clean up the house because I wanted them to be able to look after themselves in the event that something happened and they ended up on their own.

Their father was annoyed with this style of parenting but I stuck to my guns. I think the fact that I spent the first seven years of my marriage in Zimbabwe contributed to this because the people there often did their own housework.

The two of you must be very close…

Ipyana: We are so close! We see each other every day; we tell each other a lot of stories, she tells me off once in a while—it is more of a mother, daughter relationship than anything else! She is my mother and my business mentor but most of all, she is my friend. What I like about our relationship is the fact that we set boundaries with ease. When we are doing business, it’s strictly business.

Juliet: We have a beautiful  relationship.

Have you had any professional training?

Ipyana: I am a fully qualified chef specialising in pastry and sweets. I studied food production at the Malawi Institute of Tourism. I also studied Cake Making and Designing via correspondence at the Wilton Cake School in the UK. Apart from that, cooking is an art so all you have to do is learn the basics  then combine this with skill and creativity and you’ll inevitably become good at it.

Juliet: I was merely interested in anything to do with cakes and baking. This interest was born in the 1960s when I was doing my primary school at St Mary’s where House Crafts was a compulsory subject. When I got married, I started making and supplying small cakes to People’s Trading Centre (then known as PTC) and eventually got into making wedding cakes.

With so many weddings taking place each month, business must be booming?

Ipyana: Business is good and I am really busy, especially this time of the year when I do about 20-25 weddings each month. The price range for good cakes is K35 000 (about $230) for K60 000 (about $394). I also get orders for cakes from other countries and have sent some to UK, Zambia and Zimbabwe. These orders are usually made by Malawians who believe that wedding cakes should only be made from rich fruit cake. Because a lot of countries in the west use any type of cake, most of them ask me to make them “the real thing.” I send plain undecorated cakes, which are then iced, decorated and mounted by the bakers in the particular country.

Just as with any business, making wedding cakes actually takes a lot of sweat and toil to make things happen; in all honesty, this is a very stressful business because we are constantly working against tight deadlines. We also have to make sure that things don’t do wrong. To ease the stress, I close shop each January so that my (eight) employees and I can get some rest.

The wedding business looks glamorous from the outside but I am sure there must be challenges; what are these?

Ipyana: Wedding cakes are quite expensive to complete as most of the raw materials we use are not found locally. Putting the finishing touches is also very tricky because anything can go wrong; it requires a lot of patience and time.

What is going through your mind when you’re working on a cake?

Ipyana: A lot! But it usually starts with me thinking of the couple I am doing the cake for. I imagine the looks on their faces when they see the finished product; I imagine the beautiful wedding they will have. I love it when my clients see their cake professionally done and are excited. There are times when I can’t take my eyes off a cake I have made because it looks so glamorous!

How do you keep yourself updated on what is happening on the international scene?

Ipyana: I study a lot of cake-making books and magazines sent to me by colleagues outside Malawi. I also get a lot of useful information off the internet.

Growing up, did you ever think that you would end up in this business?

Ipyana: No! I always wanted to be a journalist. But when I completed my Secondary School education, everyone in the family, except my dad, wanted me to enrol with Hotel Training School. They saw a passion within me that I did not see. I was against this but agreed to take it on as a kind of hobby, but it soon grew on me and I knew I didn’t want to do anything else apart from cook and bake.

How did your father take it?

Ipyana: He was not amused. He wished I had studied something different, perhaps something more corporate, more manly. He wanted me to immediately go back to school and study “other” courses. However, when he stopped working, and he actually took in how much the business was bringing in; it hit home and he realised how it was important that I take charge of the cake business so that I can support both of them, which I do.

Who are you inspired by?

Ipyana: My mother and a Chinese chef called Lu Chong whose story was just like, if not worse than mine. He is not well known by a lot of people in Malawi but he now owns a chain of restaurants and is doing quite well.

What is the most memorable wedding you did?

Ipyana: My younger brother’s wedding at Capital Hotel in Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe. I worked on his cake for two whole weeks and didn’t take any orders from clients. The cake cost me K240 000 (about $1 578) and it was magnificent, if I should say so myself. All the hotel kitchen staff came down to the marquee to admire it and I felt so good because I wanted to do the best for my brother.

Do you remember the worst one? How did you salvage the situation, if at all?

Ipyana: Yes I do! It was the worst day of my life too. The DJ set up his speakers close to where I had mounted my cake. When he turned on the music, the cake started vibrating and the cake at the very top slipped off the stand! Someone called me to say that the cake had fallen off and I was so angry, I didn’t speak to anyone, not even my girlfriend.

I simply dashed to the shop and quickly made a  dummy, which took me about 30 minutes. When I got to the wedding, one of the women told me that they had managed to pick the cake up (in one piece) and put it back on. I was so embarrassed!  I tried to get a hold of the couple for an apology but they were based in the UK and went right back after their honeymoon so I never met them. I still feel bad about that incident to this very day.

What are some of your favourite things?

Ipyana: I love having fun and going out to make up for my stressful business. I love music. I’m a chef so I am very picky about food; I love trying out new things and experimenting. I love to entertain. Most of my friends are married so I invite their families to my house on Sunday and I cook good food for them. I love reading but haven’t had time to do that lately.

Where do you see yourself in the next 10 years?

Ipyana: I have so many plans. I want to invest in restaurants. I would like to expand my cake-making business internationally. I find that here in Malawi, we don’t have proper restaurants that give people the chance to really enjoy food; most of them are hotels. I would like to bring good food to Malawi via a chain of restaurants. I intend to do further studies in Cakes and Sweets in either the UK or USA but right now, I am focusing on growing the business.

Juliet: I would like to see Ipyana grow this business so that it has branches all over Malawi. I have two grandchildren that I am slowly teaching, so I hope they will join Ipyana someday. Apart from that, all my children have made me very proud; they all help out at the confectionary when they are in town! My only prayer is that they keep this up so that I die happy!

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