Souka, a humble neighbourhood bakeshop situated in SS15, Subang Jaya. Home to many delicious, mouth-watering baked goods such as cakes, cookies and more.
The streets of SS15 of Subang Jaya is usually known for their array of bubble tea joints but don’t be fooled. There’s more to bubble tea here in SS15, and that’s the ever-delightful SOUKA Bakeshop. Home to the delectable pastries and cakes galore. WOKE got an exclusive interview with the owners and they shared their first times and challenges while running the Bakeshop.
Introducing The Proud Owners of SOUKA
The cosy shop is owned by the loving couple, Farah Syazwani Hasran and Mohammed Afiq Abu Zarim, who are also parents to three beautiful girls. Farah is the full-time baker and business owner of Souka while her husband is a full-time employee of Petronas who runs Souka with her.
Farah shared with us that her first job was actually doing accounting for Petronas. In her 5th year at the job however, she felt she wanted to pursue her passion for baking instead. So she left her full-time job in 2010 and joined Mukha Cafe in 2011 as the Head of Kitchen. She adds she wouldn’t call herself as a chef since she did not acquire the needed certificates.
Mukha Cafe or also known as their ‘big brother’ is owned and run by their best friends, Sayid Abdul Rahman and Liyana Ferdaus. Mukha was also one of the first cafes to open in TTDI Kl. After 6 months, Farah decided to focus on baking rather than running an entire kitchen so they established Souka in 2012 to compliment Mukha.
We asked Farah how did the name Souka come about and what inspired her to set up a Bakeshop. Here’s what she has to say.
At first, the name Sucre was the first suggestion since it meant sugar in French and also sugar is the main ingredient in all cakes and desserts. There was also Sukar which also meant sugar and Souk means market in Arabic. Putting those two together would bring ‘sugar market’. However, they were concern that Malaysians would not be able to pronounce Sucre easily and their bakes were nowhere near to the looks of French desserts. Farah also further explained that Sukar also gives the meaning susah or difficult in Bahasa so that surely do not want that. Hence finally, they’ve decided with the name Souka which ties in with Mukha and also can give meaning to suka and sort of put a Malaysian flair in the name.
What inspired Farah to set up a Bakeshop was that there were not many independent cake bakeries at that point in time. Most bakes sell from home and the only bakeries around them were the likes of Angle cake house, Berries and La Boheme. Farah wanted to focus more on cakes, pastries and sweet desserts, that is why they call it a bakeshop instead than a cake house or a boulangerie.
Farah shared that while they were in Melbourne for a year in 2011 for her husband’s Master in Business Administration (MBA), they were extremely inspired but the mouth-watering cafe bakeries there. The cafe scene in Melbourne was amazing with the community being strong and very supportive of independent cafes.
Farah and Afiq wanted to bring that energy back home. Once they were back in Kuala Lumpur, Sayid and Liyana, both have lived in Melbourne for a decade decided to set up Mukha where they were residing in TTDI. Farah and Afiq were more than thrilled on the idea and went to help them in their cafe journey. Not long after that, Souka was born.
How does the couple split roles and tasks between each other while running Souka?
“My husband played the biggest role in Souka”, Farah shared. The business strategies, financial projections, basically the overall management is done by Mohammed Afiq. “He really puts in whatever he had learnt during his MBA days into practice.”
Farah was more in charge of the shop’s accounts, HR, operations and day-to-day production/management.
We asked Farah for her earliest memory of baking and she shared with us this.
“When I was a kid, I used to help my mom a lot in the kitchen.”Farah
Her mother is the one who inspires Farah to cook and bake. “She does it as a hobby and she used to mostly make chocolate cakes and other desserts to give away to our neighbours and even to sell them to friends.”
When it comes to holidays like Raya, Farah’s mother would bake a storm and sell her cakes and cookies to the mass. As Farah grew older, she got to be involved with her mother’s small home business. “I guess that was where I got my love and passion for baking,” Farah shared.
Farah then shared that she uses her mother’s recipes for most of the cakes sold at Souka.
“I owe it to my mom for our current success.”Farah
The Bestsellers At Souka
Speaking about success, Souka’s Instagram feed is absolutely stunning! We asked Farah which recipe of hers is she most proud of and what are Souka’s best sellers.
#1 Bestseller: Red Velvet
The cake that Farah is most proud of is their Red Velvet. It’s a recipe which she has tried and tested from several other recipes and had tweaked them into becoming their own best-kept secret recipe. It was also great timing that in 2012, Red Velvet cake was THE cake of the year and they had many customers coming back for more.
Farah proudly shared that their red velvet cake has and always been the number one bestseller in Souka since they first opened doors.
Another cake recipe Farah is proud of is her mom’s chocolate cake. It was by tradition that her mother would serve the baked chocolate cake warm with melted chocolate. At Souka, Farah shared, they use the chocolate cake recipe as the base of all their chocolate cake options. Their most decadent and sinful one would be their Salted Caramel Chocolate Cake which Farah proudly claims “You can’t really find elsewhere”. They use dark and bitter salted caramel (a shop secret) to replace the normal sweet salted caramel.
“Once you take a bite, you will get that sweet, chocolatey, bitter taste with caramel notes exploding in your mouth.” Farah describes. “It’s definitely my personal favourite of all the 40 flavours we have at Souka.”
Pandan Velvet Cake
The last cake, Farah highlighted is their Pandan Coconut Gula Melaka Cake or in short their Pandan Velvet Cake. This cake has the pandan flavour that Malaysians are very familiar with. Combined with the sweet and salty coconut and gula Melaka candy, the cake is truly a favourite among pandan lovers.
Custom Made Cake Orders
Apart from specialising in a wide variety of baked goods, Souka even does custom orders! We asked Farah which order was the most memorable they have ever done.
“The wedding cakes are by far our most memorable cakes.”
Souka customised cakes for numerous special occasions such as birthdays, baby/bridal showers, engagement weddings and celebrations like Mother’s Day, Chinese New Year and Christmas! Farah shared that they have had some mishaps with some wedding cakes in the past.
They were huge, tall and consists of few tiers. Though Farah said they have learned a lot from baking huge wedding cakes and they’ve opted to classic elegant white looks rather than heavily decorated fondant cakes just simply because they love basic and simple designs.
Farah also mentioned that Souka has made anniversary cakes for Lazada and MISC. They were also involved with Petronas Ramadhan Bazaars and Pasar Seloka.
BeKind Malaysia Project and KOTAKARE
Recently SOUKA joined the BeKind Malaysia project and KOTAKARE with MizzNina. How was it working on these two very inspiring projects and how did it come about?
As a business organisation, Souka tries to serve the community around them as much as possible. They have had a lot of engagements with NGOs (for example Peacemeal, Small Changes, KahwinCare, BeKind Malaysia) in the past to promote their purpose and help the community as part of their CSR programme. They even sometimes provide space for free for all their talks and efforts.
The Orang Asli Iftar project was initiated by BeKind Malaysia and Mukha Café. Souka as the sister company tagged along by providing desserts for the iftar pack.
Farah shared that their hot food kitchen is actually run by Kotakotak, another café that joined forces with them three years back. They tried to run their own hot food kitchen in the past but because they want to solely focus on cakes and desserts, they decided to take that move and collaborate with Kotakotak.
“That’s why sometimes you see us promoting Kotakotak kitchen instead of Souka kitchen.” The idea of Kotakare came about from Kotakotak and MizzNina and they handled and managed the entire project. Again, Souka helped in terms of providing the desserts for their Kotakare efforts to feed the frontliners and the needy.
Behind Closed Doors At Souka
To some, they might be curious about what goes on behind the scenes of a Bakeshop. Thus, we had Farah to share on what is a typical day like for her.
“I play many roles in a day’s work at Souka.”Farah
Her day would normally start from making coffee (for herself *wink*), then she does the baking, decorating to manning the cashier. She sometimes serves the dine-in customers, takes orders, cleans the tables and even washing the dishes and toilets.
Farah also shared that on the days when it’s less hectic, she would sit down with her laptop and work on their marketing efforts, finances, new ideas and solving management related issues. On these days, she also goes out to source for raw materials and ingredients. “You can say I am quite hands-on in every aspect of the business.” There isn’t a day that’s the same and it has been like that since day one.
Some days, Farah would put herself in the working/shift schedule during busy months like Ramadhan, Chinese New Year and Christmas when the demands skyrockets. She concludes, she likes keeping herself busy when she’s at the bakeshop. It eases her in some way.
We asked Farah what’s the best thing about her job and here’s her amusing answer.
“Baking all sorts of cakes and desserts. And eating them!”Farah
Jokes aside, Farah loves the fact that she can manage her own time between business, being a wife and a mother. She doesn’t have a boss to report to. “Well other than my husband, I am the boss of him, no?” Farah adds cheekily. There’s also no strict punch in and out time needed. She can dress casually and meet a lot of people from all walks of life.
At Souka, their motto is ‘Bringin Sweetness to Your Soul’ to which Farah believes what the bakeshop is all about. “Making someone feel special and to be celebrated with our cakes is priceless.”
Farah further shared that their concept of business is more focus on being the community/neighbourhood cafe bakery, hence a lot of their customers has turned into friends. “I treasure these friendships built along the way”. They’ve had so many laughs and tears with their customers, which in return, makes them happy and content with their current business model.
We have all had our own fair share of baking fails and based on the recent Facebook page ‘Masak Apa Tak Jadi Harini’ that had gone viral the other day, many Malaysians could relate. So we asked Farah if she could describe her worst baking disaster. Here’s what she has shared.
“We have had a lot of ‘Masak Apa Tak Jadi Harini’ moments.”
These moments especially happens when they’re trying out new recipes and flavours. There was even one time while they were trying to figure out a recipe for doughnuts and cookies, some turned either rock hard or so soft it felt like eating the unbaked dough. Now, this is not something new in their baking kitchen as they like to experiment from time to time.
“One fond memory was baking red velvet cake and instead of putting sugar, I put salt in it!”Farah
Farah explained that at the time, the container labels were missing. There was a large batch of it and they had finished decorating the cakes when Farah had the sudden urge to taste the cake. The cake texture looked somewhat different than usual but when she tried she immediately spat it out and they had to throw the entire batch out. “Such a waste!” she said.
Apart from the occasionally baking mishaps, Farah shared with us the challenges they’ve faced since Souka was established.
Farah and her husband wanted to keep their costs as low as possible and their capital really small just by their own pocket money and even from family loans. They somehow managed to keep healthy cash flow in order to refrain from borrowing from banks and to sustain this long, “So that was one tough part in having our own business.”
It is a challenge for Farah to look for trusted and dedicated staff. They started with just two staff on the floor, herself and another helper. They then took in another baker and managed to run the small space in TTDI for three years with just three-floor staff, which they change every year. Most bakers would join them for 6 months to a year and then leave to start their own home business.
When they opened up Souka in SS15 during the year 2015, they had a very strong and dedicated team of seven but then two of their bakers got married and left to start their own business too. Manpower has definitely always been a challenge. To make things worse, Farah shared they had troubles with copyright and recipe issues once these staffs leave and open their own.
“At the time, we don’t really have absolute control of our trade secrets.”Farah
Then, a silver lining came about and they were lucky enough to have Afiq’s family friend join them six months into opening their Subang Jaya branch. She has been managing the entire operations for both Subang Jaya and TTDI outlets. “Safiyyah truly is a miracle worker and MVP of our shops.” It was a relief for Farah especially to pass the baton to someone younger, with a strong business mind and who does excellent marketing efforts. “I am forever thankful.”
Another challenge they face is keeping up with the trends and the rise of the number of competitors around them. Farah found that they really need to follow trends and if they don’t then they will definitely be left behind. She also mentioned that there is a surplus of independent bakeries and home bakers now which makes them less transparent. The challenge is to really push their brand out there and try to be among the top independent bakeries.
Struggles Faced During The COVID-19 Pandemic
Due to the COVID crisis, a lot of businesses have been gravely affected. We asked Farah, how has Souka been holding up so far and were there any new ideas created to help make up for it. Here’s what she has to say.
“The pandemic came as a sudden surprise to the entire world. Our strategies changed overnight and we had to adapt quickly to the current situation.”Farah
Being an ‘essential service’ helped them in terms of being able to open and still serve their customers via takeaways and deliveries. Souka relies heavily on their delivery partners such as Grabfood, Foodpanda, Goget and Lalamove. Farah added they were thankful that the government allowed them to open during the MCO period. If they were not able to open during the MCO, they would expect to suffer quite a big loss.
Having knowledge of accounting and able to manage a stable cash flow was one of the reasons that Souka is able to hold the fort this long. They have seen so many businesses alike close down due to financial difficulties and they would see even more after this MCO is lifted for they just can’t sustain. Farah shared they have yet to touch their savings so that is a good sign of them being able to sustain even during a crisis like this.
For the newest addition since the MCO was announced, Souka has introduced a Bake at Home Kit that Farah had personally come up with. They noticed a lot of people who are stuck at home have started baking and the fact that some are unable to go out and buy groceries due to travel limitations and having most essential ingredients being out of stock, they took that golden opportunity and came up with the kit.
They’ve only come up with the Banana Loaf so far and surprisingly the demand was huge. Farah added they will definitely come up with more choices in the future once their suppliers have restocked most of their essential ingredients.
Future Plans For Souka
We then asked the independent baker for their plans for Souka’s future. Farah shared with us:
“We have so many things planned for Souka!”Farah
Farah mentioned how it will definitely take time to execute them all. One is to keep finding strategies to sustain the business. Two, they’d like to expand their business to other communities with the same concept and products. Farah also adds that she would love to have her own baking studio to conduct baking or cooking classes. They even plan to have their own merchandise and book. “The list is endless!” Farah claims. She just hopes that one day they would get to achieve all these future goals and plans before they retire.
Advice For Aspiring Bakers
Last but not least, we asked Farah for any advice for the aspiring bakers who are hoping to follow their footsteps in setting up a business of their own.
“My advice to pen down strategies, financial projection and your goals for the next five years. This should be the basis of your business so that you have a clear concept, direction and identity in this F&B industry. You really have to put your mind, entire body and energy in the business because it’s really not easy especially when you are competing with thousands of other similar businesses.”Farah
Farah advises, to start small yet with a very dedicated and passionate team. Then slowly train them so that they are able to train the juniors when you have bigger teams and more staffs.
“Be very passionate and sincere with whatever that you do and have faith in God that He will guide and help you through this journey. Lastly to enjoy every second of whatever you do in your business.”
Getting to know more about SOUKA behind the doors is really a treat! Despite the COVID situation, as Farah has mentioned before, Souka is still operating as usual. You can order their scrumptious cakes and pastries online through their Website, Instagram, Facebook and even your local food delivery app!
Also, don’t miss out the satisfaction of watching how Souka fills up their bombolinis to the brim. Talking about YUM!