As consumers become more aware and curious about the food they consume, this awareness translates into a rethinking of diet and an opting for a holistically healthier, meat free lifestyle. Many believe this lifestyle necessitates a rejection of decadence but this does not always have to be the case.
Heart And Halo is a new up and coming vegan bakery which specifically caters to this demographic, offering premium, decadent treats to predominantly vegans and vegetarians but with an eye on expansion to the wider public as well. BusinessToday spoke to Heart and Halo founder, Arati to learn more about the vegan baking business in Malaysia and its viability in the current Covid-19 climate.
Although only having opened the baking business in Malaysia two years ago, Heart and Halo is a household name in Singapore, having opened its first branch 15 years ago. Arati who was brought up vegetarian from birth expands on how the bakery began vegetarian but evolved to become vegan later on.
“I was born vegetarian. I had never had eggs in my life. We started the bakery off vegetarian because veganism was not a thing back then. We had regular customers who would come and support us almost every day. And they could not eat because our products still had milk and cream.
“Seeing how loyal our customers were, we decided we needed to start something for them so they don’t miss out. This is how we started going into veganism,” Arati shares.
Upon realising the potential market for vegan baked goods in Singapore and later, Malaysia, Arati and her team of five members went to work. Heart and Halo offers an assortment of 20 different types of cakes and cupcakes, the most popular amongst them being the Heart and Halo special tiramisu and vegan pandan pie.
The success Heart and Halo enjoyed may seem to be similar to a foregone conclusion now but it was not always like that. Arati tells BusinessToday about her humble beginnings growing up in Singapore and how her passion for opening the bakery was ignited by her family’s love for the culinary arts.
“From a young age, everyone in my family were chefs so I had always known I wanted to go in that direction but I just did not know whether it was cooking or baking.
“I baked my first cookie at 13 years old. It was horrible but I still brought it to school and ate it. That is when I realised baking was something I was keen on. I studied Law but in between I took night classes for cake decorating,” Arati shares.
Arati was so passionate about baking that she could not even see herself doing anything else, deciding instead to turn to baking full time for a living. Arati’s mother supported her endeavour throughout, even finding her a place to bake and helping her hire a baker in 2012.
With all that said however, despite veganism trending amongst Millennials, the vegan community as a whole is small, relative to the rest of the population. Despite saving costs with its operation within the Cloud Kitchen, “Central Kitchen” located in Kuala Lumpur, the premium cost of the cake ingredients means Arati and partners must play a careful balancing act in running the business. With this in mind, Arati shares how Heart and Halo serves the niche vegan market in Malaysia.
“In Malaysia, the vegetarian market is already small and then within that you have the vegan market. But now, the thing about a niche market is that people keep coming back to you. There is a small market but customers will find the store and pay the price,” Arati expounds
The line delineating vegetarianism from veganism can be a difficult one to draw for the uninitiated. This is made even more complicated, given the subsets of types of vegetarians within vegetarianism. Firstly, there are the ovo vegetarians who consume eggs.
Other than that, there are the lacto vegetarians that consume milk but not eggs. In a Malaysian context, Hindus and Buddhists typically follow the vegetarian diet, with Buddhists generally opting for an egg based diet while Hindus do not.
In catering to this somewhat fragmented market, Heart and Halo buy most of the basic ingredients for their cakes locally, importing others. Despite not using products such as butter, cheese, egg and milk, vegan bakeries still grapple with higher costs of food production as substitutes for said products are often unavailable locally. The dearth and smaller scale nature of vegan bakeries in Malaysia also play into the higher cost of production as Arati tells Business Today.
“There are no economics of scale for our ingredient prices to be low. It is the complex ingredients themselves which mimic eggs and milk”
Needless to say, this high cost of production, which accompanies the high retail price of the products has not dissuaded avid vegan based consumers. Heart and Halo serves vegan cafes all across Kuala Lumpur at prices which marginally exceed the price range in the cake and dessert market by 15 to 20 percent. Sala KL, lovingly coined the father of veganism in Malaysia is one of the stores carrying Heart and Halo goods. More recently, the Hungry Tapir and Link Cafe have begun to serve Heart and Halo cakes in their cafes.
Apart from serving in physical stores, Heart and Halo have also begun making moves in the online space, opening the first online store two months ago. Popular as they are, Heart and Halo utilises a system to ensure the store does not get overwhelmed by the demand for the premium goods. Under the system, the number of cakes per hour and the cakes per day is set. Beyond that, the website closes for the day. On average, Heart and Halo produces 20 cakes per day.
However, all this was prior to the Covid-19 outbreak. Surprisingly, the outbreak left the vegan dessert market unscathed, even bringing more prosperity in this case, as Arati shares.
“Very oddly, it was during the unprecedented time, our sales shot up. It was the busiest time we had.
“Everyone was home and so they had time. They were experimenting baking and they wanted to try something new so that is where we came in.” Arati went on to say.
This rise in sales is highly unusual, given the record-high unemployment rate of 5.3 percent registered in May 2020, albeit having fallen to 4.9 percent since. Peaking during the MCO, sales has now dropped a bit and stabilised.
Clearly, expectations on Heart and Halo are riding high. Based on this, Arati tells Business Today about some of the short and long term plans for the vegan company, including room for business expansion
“For now, because our website just started, what we are focusing on is making sure the service is on point. I have already seen this for myself, when somebody purchases it on time and they like it, they will give us a review.
“I have customers who have already bought 6 times in the past 2 months,” Arati shares.
As it goes, the Heart and Halo brand is easy to market amongst vegans and vegetarians. Therefore, expansion into the general public is a challenge. The main strategy Heart and Halo utilises to overcome this however, is by making the product quick, easy and convenient to order. Already, the goods themselves are the farthest thing from a tough sell as they taste comparatively similar if not better than the rest, as Arati shares.
“You will not be able to tell the difference. We have had the fans try the different cakes, they cannot tell the difference,” Arati concludes.