When you walk through the doors of Suka Dessert’s new cafe in Selayang, you will be greeted by the sweet smell of chocolate. Siti Hajar Mohd Razali is a self-proclaimed chocoholic (specifically milk chocolate) and it is this love that drove her business’ growth over the last three years.
Fondly known as ‘Auntie Ja’ to her social media followers, Siti Hajar’s desserts are mostly made up of brownies, cookies, milk chocolate and Nutella. She tells Enterprise she doesn’t have any culinary training and relies on gut feel when creating new desserts for the cafe.
When she first started out, she purchased recipes online and modified them to suit her taste. She figured that if she loved what she came up with, others might too. “I've never attended a baking class. I just focus on creating desserts that I like and if it works, I’ll put it in the store. But if it doesn’t gain any traction, I’ll slowly phase it out and work on developing something else,” she explains.
“I love chocolate a lot. I love it more when the desserts are covered in chocolate and have some sort of chocolate topping,” she enthuses.
Loving chocolate is one thing; working with it is another. Siti Hajar points out that chocolate can be tricky to handle because of its sensitivity to heat. Sometimes, the chocolate may be perfectly fine but when it blooms (when white spots appear on its surface), it doesn’t look presentable and people think it has gone bad. To minimise the likelihood of this happening, she makes sure to only use high-quality ingredients and chocolates for her desserts.
“Until today, I’m still learning about chocolate and how it works, especially milk chocolate. I do understand how to use it to get the results I want but I still need to explore other ways to use it,” she says.
Some of her customers understand and appreciate her efforts while others are less encouraging. Others have asked whether she will be featuring desserts made out of dark or white chocolate but Siti Hajar thinks there is still a lot to be done with milk chocolate. She says that perhaps, at some future date, she may look at other types of chocolate, but not just yet.
Which is ironic, considering that Suka Dessert was born out of beginnings as bittersweet as the darkest chocolate. Three years ago, she lost her father and overcome with sadness, she started questioning everything in her life. She felt she had no direction and thought of quitting her corporate job.
Her husband, Muhammad Syafiq Mohd Zamshari, supported her decision but he also felt that she should not sit at home, brooding.
At that time, she lived close to a baker who sold “very delicious pavlovas” which she used to pack for her colleagues. Over time, people started ordering the pavlova through her and her orders grew so big that soon the baker reached capacity and couldn’t make more. Luckily, however, this baker was selling the recipe so Siti Hajar purchased it and started making the pavlova herself to sell to her colleagues.
“I felt that it still wasn’t as good as what the baker made it but my colleagues loved it and more and more started ordering from me. This journey gave me a bit of confidence and from there, I started making other desserts. My friends, family and colleagues continuously supported me,” she shares.
She spent between RM1,000 to RM2,000 of her savings to purchase an oven and other equipment. Some family members and friends also loaned her money to start her business, which she has since repaid.
Eventually she got on to social media and built an online presence on Facebook and Instagram, though the latter seemed to work better for her business. Not long after, Siti Hajar switched jobs, which she says was life changing because of her understanding and supportive boss.
“I was ready to quit this job but my manager didn’t want to let me go. So I asked him if I could work four days a week and get Wednesdays off to focus on my desserts because I was getting a lot of orders.
“He agreed to it, so every Wednesday, I take the day off to purchase my supplies and work on my orders so that it can be delivered over the weekend. From there, my business started blooming. This was the reason I could focus on this passion of mine and grow it,” she shares.
She did eventually leave her job in March of 2018 to set up SHR Dessert, more commonly known as Suka Desserts. “When my husband and I started SHR Dessert, we only had one employee to help wash and clean up. I would bake during the day and when my husband came home after work, we would both go out and deliver the desserts, sometimes until 1am,” she shares.
At first, Siti Hajar converted the hall of their home into a baking area. Not long after, she needed more space so she rented a house in Kepong to do her baking. About a year later, she opened her first store at Taman Kepong Indah, Kepong.
Muhammad Syafiq, who is a government servant, took a personal loan to buy more ovens and chillers to help the business expand. “I didn't even think about growing the business at that time. I just kept wanting more space because my orders kept increasing and I needed space to keep my equipment.
“When we rented our first store, it looked big so we rented out some of the porch space to other stalls. But a year later, we had a space problem again and so we moved to our cafe here in Selayang on July 21 and have taken up four units.”
Now, Suka Dessert has grown to have over 20 employees and a cafe serving both chocolate and non-chocolate desserts such as mini cakes and macaroons. She still shares her space with other stall owners who sell dishes such as grilled lamb, pasta, chicken rice and noodles.
“It’s not a family business. Suka Dessert is just my husband and I. Some of my siblings work as staff members while the stalls are rented out. I did it this way because I like a cafe setting. Sometimes when you have chocolate, you want something savoury to balance out the flavours,” she says.
The MCO challenge
On March 17, one day before the Covid-19 Movement Control Order (MCO) was enforced, Siti Hajar received the tenancy agreement for the new Suka Dessert cafe and shop in Selayang. But her plans came to a grinding halt because renovation works could not be carried out and the new equipment she ordered could not be delivered. The business had turned a profit when it was operating in Taman Kepong Indah and it was with these funds she expanded, but it was not enough. She tried taking up a business loan but since the company was still young, the banks turned her down.
Siti Hajar views the MCO as a blessing because she was able to stagger payments and control her cash flow. The business faced a 40% loss during this time which she attributes to the inability of the company’s over 20 agents to distribute and sell the desserts in other states in Peninsular Malaysia because borders were closed.
“During that time, we had a lot of delivery orders and it was overwhelming. I made sure I paid my full-time staff but I didn’t force them to work because a lot of them were scared about getting infected. Instead, I asked who wanted to work and we managed with that capacity,” Siti Hajar explains.
Although sales decreased, Siti Hajar was able to stagger payments to contractors and also for the machinery she had ordered. “Initially we wanted to take a loan to pay everything off in one lump sum but since our loan didn’t go through and the MCO happened, we were able to manage our cash flow better.”
The MCO taught Siti Hajar a lot of lessons about herself and the business, but the one that was most compelling was the value of her staff who are not only hardworking, but dedicated to her vision.
This is why, no matter how large she grows, Siti Hajar says she will never reach a point where she ceases to take care of her staff.
“They have worked around the clock to complete our orders. Sometimes, I have to tell them to stop and rest but they refuse if the work is not finished,” she says.
Looking ahead, Siti Hajar wants to expand into dessert goodie bags and wedding favours. This is something she has been planning for a while but was forced to put on hold when the pandemic caused couples to cancel or postpone their weddings.
“We want to make cute or classy personalised desserts for weddings or other occasions, but we won’t venture into that until we have stabilised this new cafe and when the Covid-19 pandemic is more under control.
“Thankfully, things are picking up and we’re seeing a 60% increase in sales, thanks to our walk-in customers. Some have told us that when they walk in, they pick up more items than they intended. I get it though; it's the temptation of chocolate.”