Cornel Schalkwyk explains how she pushed herself out of her comfort zone by starting a thriving sideline business during lockdown. Juliet Dennis reports.
Q. How has the Covid-19 pandemic impacted your business?
A. I’ve had quite a hectic ride with Covid. I had huge numbers of bookings with March and April departures which were affected by the pandemic. In March, we were on holiday in Mauritius and planned to go on to South Africa but we could not make it because they closed the borders. We came straight back to lockdown.
From March to May, I had my head down working through cancellations. It was just horrific working as a self-employed travel agent; we didn’t earn salaries. With every booking you saw money walk out the door as we had to pay commission back. I had thousands in commission to pay back. I just had to get my head down and service my bookings. Even now, I am working on cancellations; it’s so draining. I am a very positive person but it does get you down if all you are doing is cancelling and postponing.
“I am a very positive person but it does get you down if all you are doing is cancelling and postponing”
Q. Was it a challenge starting a cake business during a lockdown?
A. I set up Blooming Bakes by Cornel in June. The big problem during lockdown was getting flour to make the cakes, so I bought it wherever I could; it was like gold on the black market – it became the new white gold! I managed to find a local wholesaler of bread and bought flour from them in big plastic bags. You have to keep your chin up and be positive. I have to get my cake orders done before they are picked up at 4pm. I pushed myself out of my comfort zone and the business took off.
Q. Your cakes are like works of art. How do you create cakes that look like bouquets of flowers?
A. I specialise in themed cupcake bouquets. Right now I’m busy with Halloween! I look at photos of flowers and watch videos online. Having baked as a child, it comes naturally to me. I did art at senior school and it’s one of my hobbies. This is like art, you have to mix up colours. It’s a combination of art and baking skills.
“You have to keep your chin up and be positive. I have to get my cake orders done before they are picked up at 4pm. I pushed myself out of my comfort zone and the business took off.”
Q. How have you promoted your business?
A. The business got going through word of mouth. I put photos of my cupcake bouquets on Facebook. The moment people saw my cupcakes, they ordered them! There are lots of local mums’ groups and networking groups on social media and that has helped a lot to get customers.
I also have quite a lot of crossover with my local travel customers buying cakes from me. And I am getting new customers buying cakes who have never bought travel from me. I tell everyone that I am a travel agent as well. People have said they will be in touch to book travel in future.
Q. How do making cakes and selling holidays compare?
A. There is a massive difference between selling cakes and travel. There is no comparison! Cakes are hard work for the money you make, especially if you are making a piece of art like I am. There is a ceiling to the price: people will not pay £10 per cake, as beautiful as they might be. But in a way it’s like Travel Counsellors. It’s very personal. People are so happy when they get their bouquets. It makes them happy, just like a holiday does. There are some synergies.
“Cakes are hard work for the money you make, especially if you are making a piece of art like I am. There is a ceiling to the price: people will not pay £10 per cake, as beautiful as they might be.”
Q. What’s the future for you?
A. I am still very much a travel agent; that’s what I am first and foremost. Cakes come second. I am still making bookings for 2021 and I have a handful of UK bookings too. Most of my business is tailor-made; I do bespoke trips and lean towards luxury travel and family holidays.
Families make up 80% of my customer base. Fingers crossed, travel will pick up. I need to prepare myself to be working 100% on travel again. The cake-making will have to stop! But I’m happy; it’s helped me and it’s been good to set up a new business. I’m also planning to do online cake tutorials in future!
Why did you turn to baking cakes as a sideline business?
I have always baked. I used to bake with my mum and spent a lot of time in the kitchen as a child. It was always a hobby. I never progressed it professionally. From March until May, I was at home looking after my four-year-old daughter. I did a lot of baking and everyone said to me ‘you should sell your cakes’. When she went back to nursery in June, I had a bit more time to myself. I launched the business during lockdown as I needed something else to keep me focused and positive and busy.
Money was definitely one of the reasons. I have always been an independent woman and used to earning my own money, so it was an adjustment to find overnight my income had dropped, with no certainty of when the money would start coming in again. I was hoping that by October it would all be over, but it’s not. I have a few winter ski bookings. Money is one side of this, but for me personally it was something positive too. I have a lot of colleagues who don’t have a sideline business and struggle.