Quokka Cakes: passionate, professional vegan party-pieces
A bespoke cake speaks the language of thoughtfulness, affection and fun and there is no reason at all that Vegans should miss out. Hundreds of them, from Brisbane to Bunbury, choose Irina Bradley’s hand-crafted creations, top off a special celebration.
The demand for Quokka cakes (and macarons) has mushroomed since Irina began her business in 2014. I caught up with her during a rare break from fulfilling Christmas orders to ask how she started on the journey and where she wants to go next.
Who is Irina Bradley?
Irina trained as structural engineer in her native Latvia, worked in the UK and followed her Welsh husband to Perth and settled in the suburbs. Knocked back for jobs in due to her lack of WA experience, Irina started baking to fill the vacuum of suburban life as a trailing spouse.
Her strengths are planning, organising and project managing. Just a quick glimpse at her creations – the Floral Emblems of Australia has probably been approved by The Shire – and it is evident those are the key skills in making her passion for food and her talent in the kitchen in to a business rather than a hobby.
“It started off with other school-mums asking me to bring themed cupcakes to the kids’ events and gatherings and then I got my first commission, a Japanese anime character called Rillakuma.”
That was a relatively simple design but hit the spot.
Take a look at the Quokka Cakes Facebook Page to see how Irina’s dedication to technique, form and the customer’s requests has evolved.
Why Quokka Cakes?
“What is cuter and more West Australian than a quokka? When I think about them I just want to …” Irina switches to the universal sign language for cute and cuddly and waggles her fingers in front of her cheeks and puckers up. “Plus, the alliteration doesn’t do any harm. “
Irina’s love of all animals is part is very much a part of who she is. The whole family went vegan in 2014 as a commitment to a cruelty free-way of life.
“Being a Vegan is more and more a secondary part of a person’s identity these days, especially for mums looking for birthday cakes that cater for kids with food allergies.” says Irina. In the olden days, deliciousness, fun and luxury, were words that conjoured up images of vegan cakes in many people’s minds. “I guess I ‘ve been vegan for too long, because my creations are cakes, first and foremost, the vegan bit is simply a bonus. I can create just about anything a non-cruelty free baker can do.”
Irina also made a deliberate decision to stay away from a personally named brand – such as Kathie’s Kakes – as this restricts the possibility of on-selling the business. Very smart move, there comes a time in every cook’s life when they need to get off the tools (age 47 in my case).
How do you structure your business?
A lot of food and beverage entrepreneurs who, compelled by their passion and skill, quit the day job and follow their dreams. This can mean they tread a fine line between pursuing a hobby and breaking even as a business. They may not value their own labour sufficiently or get stuck in a rut of mates-rates and never quite make the trade up to a sustainable business model. A few of them create businesses with balance sheets, PNLs and five-year plans. Irina is one of those. How did she do it?
Passion tempered with practicality
Irina made the decision that once she crossed the line from hobby to business, she would pay herself the Industry Award rate for a casual baker.
“I had to develop a system of that is equitable, consistent and defensible. That way I can apply myself to my real passion – creating cakes – knowing that those rates are fixed and fair.” You can find out the Industry Award rates for most jobs in your state or territory online.
All of us whose culinary skills have been admired by friends and family have been side-tracked by their flattery and our willingness to please and found ourselves on the horns of the dilemma called “how much should I charge?”. You know what I mean. Irina uses a formula: She can work to a customer’s design or budget but not both.
“Yes, I can make you a unicorn cake for a hundred bucks but it will not come sliding down a seven-colour rainbow or be studded with edible Swarovski Crystals. No matter whose cousin’s mate’s neighbour you are.” explains Irina. “You can have the unicorn cake per your artist’s impression but costs for labour, ingredients and level of skill will be applied.”
At this point in the interview I put down my pen and consider calling for shots so I can make a toast. For the small business (woman), being consistent with cots and prices at the risk of losing customers is an almost ever-present ghost. Why don’t we value what we do above the risk of causing disappointment or seeming greedy?
Irina’s customers rarely quibble over the cost of her creations, even though she always adds the disclaimer to all quotes that other Vegan Cake Makers are available. “I’m not in this business not squeeze anyone else out, the vegan baker community is very supportive and active and has room for all-comers. I calculate my costs for my cakes and customers understand the value I give. Bar-tender, another round, please.
While customers are always delighted to place orders for cakes in anticipation of happy events and the joy they will bring, it is vital that the terms and conditions of ordering are clear and practical: “We spell out delivery charges, servings per person, storage conditions, collection windows and we fit those into our costs. There are no surprises for the customer.”
Bar tender, leave the bottle.
It is VERY hard to retro fit your business costs and pass them on to your clients. Calculate from the outset, be clear and consistent and do NOT be afraid to cover your costs at the very least, otherwise you have a hobby.
Where to next?
The journey to commercial scale really started in 2017 when Irina began buying key ingredients at wholesale rates and quantities. Her home kitchen and processes passed Local Government Authority Environmental Health Officer inspection back in 2014, but demand out-stripped capacity and the search for a commercial kitchen that could accommodate growth and meet with Irina’s exacting standards began.
In December 2018 Irina moved in to the fabulously named Love Street Kitchen. As Irina explains on her Facebook Page , the move has followed demand and this does not mean a new corporate identity has trampled over the easily-accessible and endlessly-responsive business interface that characterises Quokka Cakes.
“I am not big. I still do everything myself: bake, decorate, deliver, talk to clients, was dishes and floors, do paperwork, reorder stock… I have some help a couple of days a week, but that’s it.”
As a food quality and process systems consultant I can see why a careful and growing business would need to move in to commercial premises. Upscaling often means more control over quality and processes and makes the business more efficient and able to broaden their offerings.
Irina’s disclaimer is a natural part of her open character, but from my professional point of view I can’t help wishing customers were happier for small business (women) to scale up and get a step further on the journey to successful sustainable business models.
Just because the Thermomix may be traded for a Hobart planetary mixer and the splash-backs are stainless steel and not ceramic, it doesn’t mean the business’s value propositions are changing for the worse.
“I am still the one who scrutinises every aspect of the ingredients to make sure they really are vegan and can do what I need them to, all the quality control is still in my hands.”
Another huge plus for the Vegan business community and customers alike is that Love Street Kitchen is something of a vegan hub: Irina’s co-tenant is vegan cheese-maker Michelle from Noshing Naturally.
What challenges does Vegan Baking bring?
“Two things, mainly, the availability and the quality of vegan products. These have improved tremendously in recent year,” Irina says. “Fats are designed to cream just like butter and aqua faba is arguably better than egg whites in macarons.”
However, Irina doesn’t just take the products on face value. “I am a stickler for detail and ask all ingredient suppliers for PIFs (Product Information Forms which are up to 14 pages long). “I check for any suspicion of animal ingredients, especially in the colours and flavours”. So far, the red colour Carmine or E120, has been the only real problem as it is made from crushed up beetles.
“Technically, the only thing that is tricky to Veganise is choux pastry, the combination of protein and fat supplied by the eggs have a special kind of plasticity and which means it is that is hard to replicate the puffy, hollow crisp-on-the outside choux bun.” However, there is plenty of choice for your Vegan patisserie centerpiece on the Quokka Cakes website.
What is the most unusual cake design ever commissioned?
Although nothing surprises Irina these days, she was tickled by the quintessential Aussie Christmas cake request a couple of years ago – Santa in boardies and thongs making sand angels on the beach.
Contact Quokka Cakes for the WOW factor at your next function.