SHATEC graduate Nadya Sidek, 24, was in between retail and F&B jobs in October 2018 when she decided to start her own home-based business selling cookies to friends and family. Working in retail wasn’t her cup of tea, and she needed an alternative source of income while she pondered over her career.
Her first offerings on @Fifteensg were just 3 flavours of cookies: sea salt chocolate chip, double chocolate, and white chocolate macadamia. Although the response was “not too bad”, she noticed that back in 2018, people were more cautious about new home-based bakers. Customers tended to buy from bakers who were more well-known and had more reviews.
That was when she felt the push to expand her menu to include other desserts that were in demand, such as stuffed donuts and cheesecakes. “I wanted to show people that it’s not just cookies that we can do,” she explained.
From worst to best donut
As she began experimenting with her own recipe for donut bombs, she gave them out for free.
Her motive was simply to get feedback on how she could improve the flavours and textures. And receive feedback she did – one customer had the heart to comment that her donut sample was “the worst donut I’ve ever tasted, and I’m throwing it away.”
It took about 6 months of research and development before Nadya started officially selling her donuts. Even then, she felt that they were not up to her standard. She reckons it took her a year to get her popular and highly raved donuts to where they are now. She recently won the “Best Donut” category in the Halal Awards 2020.
One of the reasons why Nadya’s donuts are doing well is the unique selection of fillings on her menu. For instance, customers can choose maple French toast, strawberry cheesecake, and raspberry cheesecake fillings. Fans of savoury fillings will be delighted by her sambal ikan bilis donuts.
The flavour selections are impressive considering that she started off wanting to offer only Nutella, kaya, and vanilla custard stuffed donuts. But it didn’t work because soon her customers clamoured for more. She now rotates her fillings every week. She also uses only premium ingredients, and makes sure to fill her donuts generously.
Nadya doesn’t think that stuffed donuts, also referred to as bombolonis, are a passing trend. When she stopped selling them for a month, the pent-up demand was high. The Italian filled donut is so popular that some brands specialising in them such as Bakes By NY have opened multiple outlets.
Other than donuts, Fifteensg also runs bake sales where customers can buy boxes of assorted treats. These include Tres Leches cakes, meringues, basque burnt cheesecakes, brownies, beignets, etc. The range of pastries that she can create seems limitless.
For 2021, she plans to focus more on events such as weddings and birthdays by offering whole cakes and donut tower gift trays. For custom cakes, she gives a disclaimer that customers must be willing to give her creative control of the decorations. “Because I don’t want them to have too much of an expectation. If it doesn’t turn out like the Google-d pictures, then it’s not fair for them as well.”
Current challenges, and her future outlook
When it comes to baking, Nadya is a one woman show, which limits her ability to scale up her production. At the start of 2020, she resolved to work hard so that she could amass some personal savings. Working for two months straight, she also pushed herself to produce 600 donuts a day, to the point of injuring her hand that she sometimes has to wear braces. Nowadays she produces less than half of that, at maximum of 200 donuts a day.
Another challenge that Nadya faces is improving the presentation of her bakes. She has been on the search for nicer boxes and better packaging. In particular, she’s irked that no matter how much she dries her donuts after frying, oil still soaks through the boxes.
“It’s not that oily, but I still want to improve on that,” she shared. To overcome this, she most recently bought food-grade tissue to line her boxes, which seems to help.
Unsurprisingly, Nadya hopes to eventually open a shopfront where she can also establish a kitchen. Just before COVID-19 hit, she had viewed several commercial properties but decided to put the plans on hold given the economic uncertainty. Right now, she is waiting for the right time and the right opportunity.
The meaning of “FIFTEEN”, and working with influencers to grow her brand
The story behind the name FIFTEEN is a personal one. So personal, that she’s not told her parents or her family, who understandably have been bugging her about it.
“Fifteen is actually the date that my partner and I met 8 years ago, through mutual friends,” Nadya confessed sheepishly. “It’s something very personal, something that people might think they know what it’s about, but they don’t actually know.”
Her partner has a full-time job in the logistics industry. He helps out with her content creation on her Instagram account, which you’ll find updated with new stories and posts virtually every day. He used to also help run her deliveries, which they have now outsourced to a customer’s father.
In the two years that she’s managed her business, she’s cultivated a sizeable following on Instagram. Her first 3,000 followers were grown organically. But after reaching a point where they felt stuck for some time, she decided to try engaging influencers despite being initially sceptical about them.
Nadya acknowledges that many people can be wary buying from home-based businesses who engage influencers. “People think that just because you pay them, they are bound to say nice things.”
But she assured that some influencers do give honest feedback to sellers behind the scenes. For businesses who are thinking of engaging influencers, Nadya advises to be receptive on approaching them and to be “very, very open to criticisms because that’s the only way you can improve”.
Also, she cautioned that the hype will only last for 24 hours, so sellers must be able to sustain their business after that. Otherwise, there’s no point engaging influencers and paying for many reviews.
As FIFTEEN has evolved from a short-term venture to a permanent full-time gig, Nadya too has grown personally. “As a seller, I have learnt to be very patient. The way I have answered people, from back then and now, is really different. Now I’m firm but I try to be polite as possible because you never know if they might be a potential customer again. Or they might be someone that you (will) work with.”
“Back then, I had no knowledge about business, and I was like, ‘maybe I wouldn’t even do this in future, so it doesn’t matter a lot to me.’ But now, there is a lot at stake.”
Follow @Fifteensg for the latest updates on her preorders and bake sales.
Photos by Fifteen SG.