Simran Rajpal stepped off the plane in Vietnam with a cake in each hand, a loving Indian wife worried about her husband Jeetan’s welfare in a new country not known for its baking.
As Simran tells it, in her business class Indian family, a wife finds her way to her husband’s heart through his stomach. And Jeetan has been alone in Vietnam for several weeks without Simran’s home cooking, so she arrived prepared.
The quietly-spoken Simran said she had no idea she would end up building a baking empire in a new country. When she arrived in Vietnam 13 years ago, she was a stay-at-home mother-of-one. Now she’s a working mother-of-two, with 10 staff churning out Saigon’s best cakes, cheesecakes and savoury snacks from her workshop in District 7.
Since Simran opened her workshop in 2011, she has become the go-to person in Ho Chi Minh City for any type of celebratory cakes from birthdays, anniversaries to national days.
And it all started by chance.
Like many trailing spouses in Ho Chi Minh City, Simran found herself at home with young children and quite a bit of time on her hands. She spent this time baking for her family, and her new circle of friends.
After a while, her new Saigon friends started demanding she bake more.
“`You have to bake for us,’ they would say. And so I did.”
But Simran’s husband thought she was being a bit extravagant pursuing her hobby, so he asked her to try to be “more judicious” with her passion for baking. She decided to hold some cake-tasting events of offset the costs she was incurring.
One of the first people through the door at Simran’s inaugural cake-tasting was the then-CEO of The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf franchise in Vietnam. On the spot, he asked Simran to supply his cafes.
A few months later Simran received an inquiry from Haagen-Dazs, which was preparing to enter the Vietnamese market. She’s been supplying the ice cream cafe chain ever since.
In fact, as famous as Simrans cakes are among families, consulates and office workers in Ho Chi Minh City, the bulk of her business comes from business-to-business sales, supplying cakes, sandwiches and snacks to cafe chains such as The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, as well as 7-Eleven, CaffeBene, and B’smart.
Part of the reason for her success, Simran says, is her dedication to quality. All Simrans’ products are preservative-free, made with high quality imported ingredients, and overseen personally by Simran.
“The recipes take a long time to perfect,” she said. “Once a recipe is approved by a corporate customer, I teach my staff how to do it. But I’m always there to control the quality.”
Simran said she began baking as a young adult in New Delhi. She honed her culinary skills with a chef from the Taj hotels group. She built her repertoire further with professional baking classes when she moved to Singapore to marry Jeetan.
Simran and Jeetan’s two kids, now 17 and 13, have caught their mum’s cooking bug too.
“My kids love to cook, they love to bake,” Simran said. “ We have mini Master Chef competitions at home. I’m the judge. Papa gives them a budget and they go shop for ingredients.”
On a bigger scale, Simran is also one of the judges at the annual Saigon Enterprise Challenge, held across six international schools in Ho Chi Minh City. In this competition, groups of year 12 students come up with a business idea, create a business plan, build a trade stall and then trade over an eight-week period.
“I enjoy being with kids and love to teach,” she said.
Simran is also famous around town for her home-cooked chicken curry, the main event at any dinner party at her home. But that’s not earmarked for commercial production. Not yet, anyway.
At present Simran is kept busy tackling the intellectual and artistic challenge of meeting customers’ requests for customised items.
“God has been kind to us,” she says regularly as she talks about her business.
The day AsiaLIFE visited her workshop, Simran was overseeing the packing of boxes of adorable Alice in Wonderland-themed cupcakes for a primary school class. The designs were instantly recognisable from the book, and her workshop smelled divinely of baking, of chocolate cookies, icing and all things nice.
Like many in the food and beverage sector in Vietnam, Simran often encounters supply problems, especially when a customer requests a new item.
Simran said her dear husband often returns from business trips from Singapore with suitcases stuffed full of ingredients. Sometimes Simran herself flies to Singapore for a day to shop for supplies, for things that have suddenly become unavailable here, such as the cherry pie filling she uses in her black forest cakes, or the edible bamboo charcoal powder she needs to make waffle mix for Haagen-Dazs.
“They do have charcoal powder that they sell here in Vietnam,” Simran said. “But it’s for cosmetics. They say it’s edible, but … I get mine from Singapore.”
Simran’s business is also keeping up with the latest technology. She’s invested in an edible ink printer to make logo and photo cakes. She’s also moving into the catering field, supplying snacks and meals for corporate events, conferences and workshops, including the Vietnam Tech Conference 2017, which required catering for 450 people over at seven events over three days.
Simran is not one to back away from a challenge. She worked out how to supply a 50 kg cake for 700 people to mark the amalgamation of two big international schools in Ho Chi Minh City.
And she also believes to giving back to the community, an important part of her Sikh faith. Every year, at Christmas time, her family donates to Gia Dinh Special School in Binh Thanh District.
“I enjoy it,” Simran says simply, of the baking that’s the key to her business success. “You need to enjoy it to be good at it.”