Olivia Lim: I never baked until 2000, when I was 24. That was when I moved to Melbourne to study and craved home-made cookies.
I had never baked any on my own before because my mother is a good baker. I did help her out sometimes when I was home, but there just wasn't a need to do it myself.
Sant, my boyfriend at the time, was also studying in Melbourne. He got to taste the very first biscuits that I baked - double chocolate ones. He has been my guinea pig ever since, and every flavour I introduce at My Lovebites needs to please his taste-buds first.
I started to bake more - although back then, I focused on muffins. Occasionally though, I experimented with cookie flavours such as white chocolate almond.
In 2003, I moved to Bali with Sant, who wanted to help out with his family's business there. In Bali, I started baking cakes and cookies at home. People who tried them started asking me to bake for them. Through word of mouth, my clientele grew. I also supplied cakes to some restaurants - including the well-known Trattoria Oberoi Bali - but it still didn't occur to me then to open a shop.
Instead, we moved back to Singapore and worked for others for a while before we set up a marketing consultancy business called Maneuver Marketing in 2006. I still continued to bake during my free time. For Christmas 2008, we gave out cookies I had baked to clients, partners and business associates to thank them for their support.
An ad agency client of ours, Kinetic Singapore, liked them and ordered 120 jars for their own clients. From there, we started receiving cookie orders from those who had received Kinetic's gift. And as we continued giving out cookies to thank clients, more and more people started asking us if we took orders.
That was when I decided to set up shop. Sant and I talked about it and he was fully supportive of the idea. We decided that he would continue running the marketing business because that is his passion, and that I would run the cookie shop because baking is what I love to do, and that he would pitch in whenever he could. We rented a place in Joo Chiat, and began renovations in September 2011, opening officially three months later. In total, our original investment - including the kitchen equipment and renovations - came to about $80,000, which came from our savings.
We started out with nine cookie flavours, including Salted Caramel Butter, Earl Grey Tea & Almond, White Chocolate Almond, Tangy Lime and Double D (D for dark) chocolate chip. We now have 23 flavours.
During festive occasions, we usually roll out new flavours. During Chinese New Year this year, we came up with Firecracker and Spicy MarMe. Firecracker has spicy pork floss mixed into a citrusy cookie dough topped with more floss; Spicy MarMe has cayenne pepper and Marmite, a yeast extract, worked into the dough and is topped with toasted sesame seeds.
We introduced a Milo-flavoured cookie and a Horlicks one during Singapore's National Day last year. Many Singaporeans grew up with these two beverages, so we thought using them as cookie flavours to mark Singapore's birthday was perfect.
Many of our offerings are inspired by what Sant and I have tried and liked. We love desserts, so a lot of our inspiration comes from trying to encapsulate the flavours and desserts we like in a cookie. For instance, we have a macadamia brittle cookie inspired by Haagen Dazs' macadamia nut brittle ice cream.
We experiment all the time with new flavours. Sometimes I get it right on the first try, although tweaks are often still needed; sometimes it takes a few attempts before a new flavour passes the taste test.
We ended our first full financial year in March 2013, recording sales in the six-digit range. We have a strong following from Japan and Hong Kong, and have had a number of people knocking on our doors, asking if we are keen to franchise the brand. Some are Singapore firms, while others are from Hong Kong and the Philippines.
We are open to the idea of franchising, but our current focus is to stabilise the business. In particular, we want to ensure we have the manpower needed to cope with expansion. Right now, only my mum helps me out in the kitchen full-time; two culinary school students and my mum's friend help out part-time. The three full-time staff we used to have have left, some because they didn't quite cut it.
Manpower has been been an issue because of the foreign-worker restrictions. We need to have six local staff before we can hire a foreigner under the new Ministry of Manpower rules, but right now, we do not meet the criteria because we do not have six local workers.
We would like to hire locals but very few apply. When they do, they have very high salary expectations despite having little or no experience. They do not want to work weekends either.
That said, we definitely have plans to expand, but we want to take it slowly to ensure that we are able to cope with the demand and to keep the quality high.
Our focus is on the product. Customers are always asking what is new, and we want to have something new and delicious for them regularly.
For instance, we recently rolled out what we call the cookie bar - a cross between a cupcake and cookie. Flavours we have introduced include chocolate fruitcake, a twist on the traditional fruitcake; this comes with a light, crunchy texture, filled with liqueur-soaked dried fruit and topped with a dark chocolate and rum ganache.
There is also the Citrus Surprise, an almond-and-sesame bar with a tart lemon buttercream topping made from freshly squeezed lemon juice. This flavour has made many who tried it want to order the cookie bars because it is a wonderful mix of sweet, tart and savoury all in one bite. It is a must for anyone who loves lemon curd tarts or key lime pies.
The bars have been well received so far, and we hope to continue introducing more novel goodies. That is our mission - to introduce cookies to foodies.
This story first ran in the November/December issue of The SME Magazine. Catch the next issue of the magazine, which comes free with a copy of The Business Times on Jan 2.
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