Designing people’s dreams in form of cake

“When it comes to cake, we are the best in town,” says Mohammed Zahir, CEO of Cake City, one of Kenya’s fast-growing cake companies. Of course, every person always markets their product as the best available in the market, but Zahir says it with so much confidence and conviction, he leaves no doubt in mind that indeed when it comes to cakes, none is better than Cake City’s.

Before Cake City finally launched to market, Kenyans were used to buttercream cakes. That was what was available in the aisles of cake shops, supermarkets, and anywhere else where Cake was sold.  “At that point in time, there were not many flavors in the industry,” Zahir recalls.  “We did not have many options with cakes. It was the normal flavors like Black Forest and chocolate fudge cake.”

Having traveled far and wide and experienced different cake flavors and tastes,  Hasnain Noorani the Founder and Group Managing Director of PrideInn Hotels knew that the normal buttercream cakes weren’t going to be enough if he was going to deliver on his promise of giving every client that visits any of his hotels a “Global Feel With Kenyan Soul”.  “So we got some talented pastry chefs from India who were able to give us some different types of pastries and different varieties of cakes and flavors,” Zahir narrates.  Fresh cream cake emerged from this innovation journey, and PrideInn Hotels finally had something new and exotic to offer its clients.

Noorani was probably satisfied with what had been accomplished as far as Cake was concerned but the opportunity of sharing the newfound cake with the rest of the Kenyans was simply too irresistible and so the idea of establishing a cakeshop at one of the hotels came up leading to the birth of Cake City. To create maximum curiosity, the shop located in Westlands, one of Nairobi’s affluent business districts, is modeled after a cake. “The building is actually in a form of a cake with the dripping chocolates and candies on top and all that,” says Zahir.

Building a brand from scratch

Getting the word out there that a new brand that offered more than just ordinary cake had launched to market however required more than building a fairytale-like cake shop. The pioneer executives understood the assignment very well. They embarked on a coordinated publicity campaign that involved participation in cake festivals and really any other festival where pastry products were on display, even cupcakes, Zahir reveals.

Although it has lost its flair among the millennials and Gen Zs, Zahir reveals to us that Facebook was very popular when Cake City was tipping its toes in the market. E-commerce had not taken root then. Even Jumia, the e-commerce market that accelerated online sales in Kenya, hadn’t opened shop yet, but the people at Cake City appreciated the power of social media and used it to “aggressively advertise and market their brand.” The results paid off as 2 years later when Zahir joined, Cake City had expanded from just one single shop to three.

Now in his 9th year as CEO,  Zahir has captained growth at Cake City, spearheading entry into new markets first in Nairobi City and now in other satellite towns.  Today the company enjoys an impressive cakeshop chain comprising of 10 branches. 2 of those branches opened this year and represent a remarkable shift in the company’s growth strategy. ‘We are now trying to reach new markets by opening stores and branches a bit far from Nairobi,” Zahir explains.  Sales have also been burgeoning. Today, about 72,000 kilograms of cake are dispatched from Cake City to be enjoyed by customers annually. That is a tremendous amount of cake. Considering that half a kilogram of cake is usually enough to be shared among six people, the number of people that have tasted the quality of cake city cakes is astronomical.

Now in his 8th year as ceo, zahir believes that a focus on excellence is the secret behind the successes that the company has enjoyed over the years. “i am very keen on excellence. I believe if we focus on it, everything else will follow,” he says.


Customer-centric approach

From the word go, cake city has always had the customer in mind. The variety of cakes that they brought to market was informed by customer desire for more than just buttercream cake. If you visit one of Cake City’s shops today, Zahir is confident that you wouldn’t leave without a cake that far exceeded your expectations. Out of the 55 different flavors on offer, it would be difficult to imagine that you’d lack one that captures your heart and most importantly, your taste buds.

Zahir reveals that out of the many options available, fresh cream cakes are the most popular among customers. Trizah Okal, the sales manager at Cake City, explains to us what this cake is, and why it is so popular.  “Fresh cream is a totally different product,” she explains. “Its recipe makes the cakes taste more of ice cream than the usual butter which is what we get out of there in the market.” Milky caramel, blueberry, and chocolate chip are among the highly sought-after cakes in this category.

Cake City does not however discriminate. Okal reveals to us that although Fresh Cream is their signature cake, they certainly don’t hesitate to bake buttercream cakes if that is what the customer is craving for. “Obviously our black and white forest is completely different from what is there in the market,” Zahir is quick to point out. “If you compare with other cake shops or bakeries, I will proudly say that we are best.”

When it comes to satisfying customer demands, Cake City stops at nothing to ensure every customer leaves with a smile. This at times involves attending to incredibly difficult-to-fulfill orders such as delivering a wedding cake a fortnight to the event.  They don’t just bake the cake. Zahir reveals that his team will also deliver it to the venue and have it set up for the customer. It’s this capability that has enabled Cake City to prepare instant cakes. “We thrive in instant cakes,” Okal says.  “You just walk into the shop and within minutes you get a freshly baked cake.”

Okal reveals that Cake City also works to bring people’s dreams into reality in form of cake. This alludes to customized cakes which are also becoming increasingly popular according to the sales manager. “What people dream is what we create,” She says. “If you’d like a Cheetah cake, we will make that. If you fancy a snake, we will make it.” The company even recently made a cake in the form of a human face, just to demonstrate its capabilities when it comes to producing custom cakes. The cake went on to win the gold award at the 2022 Cake Festival, highlighting the level of artistry and professionalism that went into the process.

To give the utmost convenience when ordering cakes, Cake City also maintains an active presence online. With time, Zahir observes that online trends have changed, and today Instagram is one of the leading drivers of business when it comes to online sales. The company has capitalized on this opportunity by creating reels and TikTok videos to keep customers engaged. For a smooth online process, customer service agents are always a phone or text away to assist customers. Depending on what type of cake is requested, Zahir reveals that customers can anticipate having their cake delivered between 2 and 24 hours from the time of ordering. Such turnaround times require an efficient logistics team and Cake City has a fleet of cars, trucks, and motorcycles to ensure that whatever size of cake you order, it shall be promptly delivered. It also helps to have many branches as this means that the order will always come from a branch closest to the customer, significantly cutting down on delivery times and other associated costs.

Success follows excellence

Now in his 9th year as CEO of Cake City, Zahir believes that a focus on excellence is the secret behind the successes that the company has enjoyed over the years. “I am very keen on Excellence,” Zahir admits. “I believe if we focus on excellence, success will follow.” This belief has in turn shaped how Cake City operates and is arguably one of the reasons it still survives in a market where many new startups fail to stay long enough to celebrate their third anniversary.

Cake City is however today facing tremendous challenges mainly due to raw material price inflation. From wheat flour to eggs, ingredient prices are increasing at a rate far much faster than Zahir is comfortable with. “We cannot increase our prices every time,” he laments. “So it becomes a challenge where now we have to still stay afloat, but our margins reduce drastically.”

Compromising on quality to save margins is however not something that Cake City is willing to explore, at least not while Zahir is in charge. “I am not those who chase and want to make quick money,” he says. “We give the best in what we do. Everything else follows.” To remain afloat, the only trick available to Cake City now is volumes. “That is what is helping us thus far,” he admits.

Building a sustainable culture is also helping bring in some savings to offset the rising costs of inputs. “We are keen to minimize wastage of energy and are always training our people on how to use these resources responsibly.” When it comes to packaging, the company does not compromise on its environmental promise. “We package everything in cardboard boxes which are environmentally friendly,” he says.  Unlike other food companies, Zahir notes that his business does not have a huge carbon footprint that would necessitate extensive investment in carbon offsetting schemes. “We just make cakes, we don’t pollute too much,” he says. “We however try to also minimize our general waste in everything we do.”

Building a national brand

After conquering the Nairobi market, Cake City has its eyes on other towns outside Nairobi. “Now that we have really taken care of all the areas of Nairobi, we want to reach the other counties. Now it’s time to move to Mombasa and Kisumu.” That journey has already started with the two locations that the company recently opened outside Nairobi. Zahir notes that there is indeed demand for their products outside the capital and he is already receiving requests to set up shop elsewhere. Like previous expansions, these too are expected to be organic to cushion the business from the risks of expanding too fast.

An optimistic Okal however can’t wait for Cake City to be in every in each and every village. Only then will she be able to see her dream of Cake City becoming a national brand come to fruition. His Boss Zahir is however working towards that “and if there is more demand maybe also go regional and expand into the rest of East Africa.” His parting shot gives a summary of why the business exists. “People are celebrating every day. Every day we have occasions,” he says.  “So if they think to celebrate and they would want a cake, why not have a cake city cake and have an experience like no other?”

This feature appeared in the April 2023 issue of Milling Middle East & Africa. You can read this and the entire magazine HERE