When it comes to baked goods, there is one name on the hot list of every South African food blogger and influencer, and that is Tonka Bean Bakery.
Tonka Bean Bakery is a French-style patisserie that has become renowned for its artisanal filled doughnuts, those flaky, buttery croissants and a constantly innovative pipeline of products that gain quick prominence. While we could easily fill pages with mouth-watering descriptions of just how delectable Tonka Bean Baker’s products are, we will leave that to the foodies and you can find some reviews at the links below.
Being the Muslim Youth Council of Entrepreneurs, we will focus more on the inspiring story behind Tonka Bean Bakery. The realisation of a dream from humble beginnings to becoming a runaway success poised for extraordinary growth.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, we visited the home of Tonka Bean Bakery, situated in the Riversands Incubation Hub in Fourways, and sat down with founder Shakil Khan for a chat amidst those amazing French bakery scents.
Muslim Youth Council of Entrepreneurs (MYCOE): Shakil, firstly, thanks for taking the time to sit with us – we know how busy things can get. All great stories have a beggining, so just how did the Tonka Bean Bakery journey start?
Shakil Khan (SK): I am originally from Durban and grew up with a love for cooking, mainly influenced by my mum. In fact, I used to enjoy cooking more than schoolwork! To pursue it fully though, I had to make a compromise with my parents where I had to get a degree first, so I successfully completed a BCom degree.
I then enrolled at Christina Martin’s Culinary School – an internationally accredited culinary school renowned for its one year intensive chef’s course, whose graduates are now in top restaurants all over the world. I had enrolled specifically with the intention of learning pastry with the resident pastry chef there – someone I greatly admired.
Unfortunately, on the day I got there, I learned that he had left the school. Although disappointed, I decided to persevere and complete the course which was hugely beneficial and drove me to the maximum. The school instilled a strong sense of discipline in me. An example of this is the amount of cleaning I had to do. About 60% of the practical part was actually cleaning! This taught me that you can teach someone to cook and bake, but to instill the discipline required to be great chef is very difficult without those hours of hard labour away from the stove.
MYCOE: Sounds quite similar to the karate kid! So what happened next?
SK: After completing the diploma, I knew I needed some world class experience, so I then approached the chef at a restaurant in Cape Town called The Test Kitchen (The Test Kitchen is South Africa and Africa’s best restaurant placing 22nd in the 2016 World’s 50 Best Restaurants). I so desperately wanted to get in to The Test Kitchen that I offered to work for free and even wash dishes – I knew how hard it was to get that type of experience anywhere.
The head chef eventually called me to Cape Town for a weekend of putting me through my paces. On the Saturday night, after an intense time, he finally told me I could join.
I spent three valuable months there and learnt a lot. What I saw at The Test Kitchen though, you wouldn’t see anywhere else in the country nor in many other places in the world. They use only the products and ingredients locally available and, through innovation and creativity, transform it into something that just works.
They weren’t many rules and they welcomed non-conformity. I also got a chance to work for a master in the industry. At the end of my three month apprenticeship, I knew with conviction that I really wanted to bake and have my own bakery.
“I so desperately wanted to get in to The Test
Kitchen that I offered to work for free and even wash dishes
– I knew how hard it was to get that type of experience anywhere.”
MYCOE: Incredible, so what made you realise that you wanted to open a bakery?
SK: I always knew that I wanted to open a French-style bakery. I loved working with pastry from the days of hand rolling hundreds of puff pastry for Ramadan sales with my mother!
MYCOE: What happened after The Test Kitchen?
SK: I left South Africa to spend some time in San Francisco in the US at the San Francisco Baking Institute under the guidance of world renowned French master baker Michel Suas – this is where I truly refined my baking skills. I came back to Durban, got married, and realised that I had to start my own thing. Since there weren’t many opportunities locally for me to work in a restaurant, I started a catering business at home. I used to do functions sometimes for 900 people from a small flat. It was crazy.
MYCOE: I love how, when faced with a lack of opportunity, it spurred you on to do your own thing rather than settle for something less
SK: Eventually, I decided I had to find a place so I drove around Durban looking for a good place for the bakery. I later heard about the Riversands Incubation Hub here in Fourways and decided it’s time to move to Johannesburg. I took a small loan from family to start up and purchased only the essential equipment. This is how Tonka Bean Bakery was born, just 18 months ago.
MYCOE: That is phenomenal. And now you are here with a fully fledged bakery churning out amazing products. How many staff do you currently have?
SK: I currently have a staff complement of 8 people including my wife Nazeema and I. None of the staff employed here had ever trained in a kitchen. In fact, the one employee was a painter that was out of work and I recognised that he was really good with his hands so I employed and upskilled him. I believe in seeing the potential and helping people grow. Although none of my staff are qualified bakers, they are incredibly talented and have now learnt amazing techniques.
“I believe you see the potential and then you help them grow”
MYCOE: So your wife is also a part of the business, how is it working together with Nazeema? She obviously plays a crucial part in the bakery?
SK: Yes, working with Nazeema allows me to concentrate on the baking and things like pricing while she does everything else – the administration, stock purchasing, ensuring orders are done and overall managing the business. Fifty percent of Tonka Bean Bakery is her and I am very lucky. It gives me a huge boost. When the pressure is on, just knowing that Nazeema is there makes me just know that everything is going to be fine.
MYCOE: That’s wonderful, a partner in business and life! You mentioned the pressure and it must be intense, could you describe your average work week?
SK: We are closed on Mondays, but I come in on Monday anyway to get ready for Tuesday. My workdays start at 4am however the length varies. Some days it could be as late as 9pm depending on orders and how the day progresses. For example, today, there was warning of a powercut to happen this at 11am, so I came in at 2am to start preparing.
Although it seems crazy, it used to be worse, but we now have a rotational night shift which eases the pressure. When starting a business, you have to put in the hard work for the first three years while the business grows and is sustainable enough that you can afford someone to shadow you. We are working towards that and hopefully one of these guys (my staff) can get there. I would be happy to let them learn and grow.
MYCOE: That is an inspiring business philosophy. Having a quality product is obviously very important to you and something you don’t compromise, even if that means not growing as aggressively.
SK: In the 18 months since we have started, we have achieved a little bit. We don’t want to over extend ourselves. We are holding back to keep the quality consistent. However, as order numbers have grown, we have learned valuable lessons on how to scale and produce over a thousand doughnuts that are all as perfect individually as if you had only made one. Now we are ready for orders like that.
“We don’t want to over extend ourselves. We are holding back to keep the quality consistent. However, as order numbers have
grown, we have learned valuable lessons on
how to scale and produce over a thousand doughnuts that are all as perfect individually as if you had only made one.”
MYCOE: What advice do you have for other entrepreneurs out there?
SK: When you start a business, always go out of your way for your customers. You never know what could come from every single customer interaction. Never have a bad attitude to your customers.
“We are also experimenting and adding new products. Our customers have been driving us in this regard. Pushing us. We cater to the demands of the customers.”
MYCOE: What’s next for Tonka Bean Bakery?
SK: For now, we are focussed on getting everything right during this period which we call our incubation period. We are building a solid operating business during this phase. We are also experimenting and adding new products. Our customers have been driving us in this regard. Pushing us further. We cater to the demands of the customers. We will continue supplying people and would like to open more stores. We wouldn’t look to open hundreds of generic stores, but rather keeping the exclusivity and attention to around three locations that we would supply every day. I am sure we will get there inshaAllah and would consider partnerships with strategic investors to help us get there.
To taste some of Tonka Bean Bakery’s blissful creations, email email@example.com, or visit their stall at the Fourways Farmer’s Market every Sunday. For more information visit www.tonkabeanbakery.co.za and follow them on Instagram. Look out for their food truck which may be coming to a venue or office park near you soon.
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