Thirty-four year old businessman, Semih Lekesiz, has combined forces with friend and twenty-seven year old baker, Onur Sen, to bring about an ‘oven-fresh’ revolution to East London’s wholesale patisserie supply industry. Barely months old, their young company, So Fresh Cakes, breaks the cake mould of artificially flavoured and additive preserved baked confectionary that usually services local restaurants and cafés - instead proffering individually portioned, exquisitely decorated, scrumptious sophistication in the form of fresh cakes and pastries.
Having migrated from Bursa in Turkey to Hackney over ten years ago, Semih lifts the lid on what life’s like at ContainerVille and along the Regent’s Canal for the reformist start up. When I walk into Unit 1, he has just woken up from an all-nighter as his Onur is away and there are crumb shaped remnants of yesterday’s activities lying around…
What is that?
Ah, I was experimenting with mascarpone inside the cake but it didn't go right!
You cook too?
I have a background in catering though I've always been into the business and marketing side of things, but then Onur got married and is away in Turkey for three weeks so I am an accidental baker! I don’t really have a sweet tooth but I had to learn how to do it to keep the new business going.
So what happened?
Onur mixed all the ingredients for me and put it in the deep freeze so that I wouldn't have any problems while he was away. I went to the freezer to put all the elements together and the freezer wasn't working! All those bakes went to waste so I had to start from scratch and prepare the recipes myself. The whole process was super challenging because [as a new baker] you don't know even the simplest tricks - like how you shouldn't open the door because the rise will collapse, or you do everything right and it's on time but just before delivery you go to take the cakes out of the mould and it turns out you forget to spray the tray and the whole thing is stuck! What do you do? That was a real learning curve, thankfully our customers were patient and believed in our honesty; they understood it was almost a rite of passage when setting up the business.
"We don't have to pump our cakes full of sugar to make them last, so they taste fresher - I want to constantly achieve a really light and tasty bake - I don’t want people to feel really bad afterwards."
Wow! How did you manage to stay positive in such a stressful situation?
I'm happy that I learned how to bake because it means we're not dependent on each other now, even when I had my own pizzeria I learned how to make pizzas because you should know every element of your business. It’s a good thing because I've got my own taste and he has got his experience - we always share feedback and improve the recipes together regardless of qualifications. And, I am a bit of a control freak!
Does that characteristic impact your business in any other ways?
Yes - I deliberately am not expanding at the moment because I want to make sure we're doing everything perfect for the customers we have now and our stall at Brick Lane market. We’re refining guilt free pleasure with eleven classic recipes - we don't have to pump our cakes full of sugar to make them last, so they taste fresher - I want to constantly achieve a really light and tasty bake - I don’t want people to feel really bad afterwards.
How does So Fresh Cakes ensure quality?
We source our ingredients from a cake supply specialist and currently some of our bakes are organic, some are not - eventually we want to work up to being able to offer that as a staple as well as gluten free and dairy free products, but as we're just starting out we're focusing really hard on being premium. That means nothing artificial: we make everything from scratch like our tart shells, people usually buy those readymade but we take the time to make our own. If I make a banana cake I don't use banana extract, I use banana – it’s lovely because when you eat it you feel like it's home-baked. We don't use any additives or preservatives to make our cakes and pastries last longer, they're 100% natural so that they're truly fresh.
Why is that so rare? How did you bring about this change?
It's just really hard to find fresh cakes in restaurants and cafés; minimum order quantities are often higher than demand so they need more time to sell. Which means they source cakes that have been made a good few days before delivery, with lots of added sugar to help the cakes last really, really long – like five or six days. It's not really their fault; they need to make a profit. A regular minimum order of fresh cakes would go to waste, so what's special about us is that we don't have a minimum order. Venues can order according to their customer base without worrying about coming in at a loss.
Who are your customers, how did you get them and how do you keep them?
Arancini Brothers, Fig & Olive, Pitfield, Bread & Butter… I literally went there and said ‘Hi, we're baking these! Taste one!’ And then we made it easy for them; they don't even have to call to order, I made an app using an online template that I could get personalised and they can just log on, pick and enter what cakes they need, and then send it through to our system for delivery the next day. We deliver by bike every single day - it was a very good solution for us because it’s how we commute to work, so we bought a trailer and stuck it on – it’s easy, it’s a green way of transporting and it’s great because our delivery range isn’t very far. The first time I did it I had no idea if the cakes were alright at the back, but I just ride slow now and all is well so far!
Does that mean you have to stay local? How do you scale up?
I think it will be fine if I just do it right in this area. When I hit that level, I'm sure we'll find a solution. Once we’re ready, I have to employ more staff or I'll go insane! Hopefully academy staff, because I believe it's good to have as much perspective as possible - even though we founded this, it doesn't mean we know everything. I appreciate other people's opinions regardless of experience and I’m happy to take them on board if they’re right for our brand.
"It is all open source and in your hands - there are so many recipes available to us and if we are curious enough we can learn so much and create new concepts."
What advice would you give to people looking to set up their own catering business?
Good financial background. If you invest £20,000 make sure you've got another £20,000 in your other hand. We are self-funded and we had some funding from the EU because they really liked the concept, and that was vital.
Is there a next step in the culinary scheme of things?
Once we're ready to expand, the plan is to bring something exotic to the table. Our customer base isn't Turkish so we're not sure about introducing these yet, but specialities include yoghurt cake, lemon cake, tahini cake and sesame cake. Check out a book called World's Best Cakes.
Where else do you find recipes?
YouTube and Google! No, really! Before it was all about a master chef who told you what to do, but now it is all open source and in your hands - there are so many recipes available to us and if we are curious enough we can learn so much and create new concepts.
Have you got a favourite recipe?
Banana. Our secret is ripe bananas. It has to be old because when it's black is when you get the colour and moisture in the cake. Just mash them, add butter, flour, baking powder and then bake for an hour and fifteen minutes.
Where do you like to eat locally?
I love Café Route in Dalston, and I usually get my bread from L'eau à La Bouche Delicatessen in Broadway Market, pizzas from Franco Marco at the same spot and coffee from Nude Espresso at E5 Bakery.
Is there anything you would change in the food scene here?
People say inspiration, I say copy! Let's stop reproducing and start imagining. And I would get the prices down - I appreciate what you do but I don't want to pay £7 for toast.
Finally, why this neighbourhood?
I really like it here because everyone talks very openly about their ideas and their knowledge. What's also cool about Containerville is that we're in Unit 1; it's a prestigious address! The layout is perfect for us, it’s a great space in a nice environment and I know so many people now, it's inspiring to see these start ups rising up around us.