By Sera Tikotikovatu-Sefeti
Raiwaqa Bakery founder, Atela Yee, grew up watching her father work hard at many different jobs to raise his family.
“My dad came from China in 1951, and he started his first business out of an old truck and $500.
“The foundation of how to run a business came from observing him—simple things like work hard, save money, don’t spend too much, and live within your means,” she said.
Yee started Raiwaqa Bakery in 1999 with the sole aim of putting food on the table for her children. “We started very small at Raiwaqa, which is where the name Raiwaqa Bakery came from, with just an old oven and a second hand mixer,” she recalls.
“I wanted to provide for my children; I’m a high school dropout, a teenage mom, with no qualifications, and so my only way to take care of the kids and make money was to do business,” Yee said.
From a small bakery in Raiwaqa, the business has grown. “We observed our competitors, what they were doing and what they were not doing, what people needed, and then tried to fill the gap,” she said.
One gap she identified was ready-made cakes, catering specifically to middle- and low-income earners. Yee says her reasoning behind targeting these customers is down to two reasons: culture and being a mother.
“When you look at our culture, we like last-minute preparation and we don’t usually plan, so to have ready-made cakes that you can just pick up and go is convenient, and then there is the fact that cakes are expensive.”
“I’m a mother of six; I can’t afford a $50 or $100 cake, so I brought the cakes down to a reasonable size with a reasonable cost so it’s affordable to all moms, because we love our children and we want to give them the best,” she said.
The business had to move out of its original home, but rather than setting them back, it has led to an expansion of the Raiwaqa Bakery brand. “We opened up some branches, and we’ve closed them down, while some are still going. Then in 2018, we started a coffee shop, so we diversified, which is something new that I knew nothing about.”
Moving into a café meant Yee had to learn along the way, ask a lot of questions, and solicit customer feedback on the products and the coffee shop.
The challenge of running a business was not the only issue she had to overcome; there was also the challenge of juggling being a single mother to her six children. She recalls sometimes she wanted to throw in the towel and just give up, but reminded herself why she was working.
“I keep thinking, I need to feed my kids, I need to make money, and the only way I can make money is to sell products, provide good customer service, provide quality products, and satisfy my customers,” she explained.
It is also why she has managed her company’s growth carefully.
“I had to turn down four offers last year because I didn’t want to grow too big; I wanted something manageable and still be able to serve my customers,” Yee said.
She believes nothing fails like growing too large, and being unable to maintain service and product quality.
Part of Yee’s job is to randomly pick something off the shelf to make sure the quality is good. “For instance, the other day I ordered fish and chips, but the chips were flapping, so I asked what was happening, I went to the kitchen and told them to fry it for fifteen minutes at a time to keep its crispiness.”
Her tips on keeping customers coming back? “I think listening to the customers, identifying what they want, maintaining the quality of the product, and providing good customer service are important because people are so stressed and have a lot going on, so if they walk into a shop and are served properly, they will be happy.”
Yee puts a lot of importance on time management and strong control systems that account for costs and cash return on products.
“For example, I can’t just give my bakers a bag of flour, a carton of yeast, and a bag of salt and sugar; I have to know how many loaves that need to be baked and how much sugar there is, and then I weigh it, and then it is assigned to whatever shift of work it is; however, if we are cutting out one mix, that amount needs to go back to bulk.”
Raiwaqa Bakery has plans to open new stores in Flagstaff and other areas of Suva but Yee says she is facing a challenge with staff leaving for work overseas under the National Employment Center (NEC) program. While she acknowledges the opportunities working overseas provides, Yee said, “The frustrating part about it is that sometimes the workers don’t inform me that they have applied and are leaving; it’s just a momentary notice, and I have to find a replacement quickly.
“I had to inform my staff that if they are applying, to please let me know so I can prepare the current workers, upskill the senior staff, and recruit new employees in the event that they do leave,” she said.
Treating her workers the way she expects them to treat their customers is important. “I practise customer service with my staff too.
“I come in the morning and make sure I greet them with a smile, ask them how their families are. The other thing is to make sure you give them the pay that they deserve and all the benefits.”
Yee also supports the Yellow Ribbon Project, which assists former inmates to integrate into the community and work on their release. “That’s something that we support here, so when we have fully released inmates, or early release inmates come out, we give them employment. They all work well together.”
She has one final piece of advice.
“I think taking care of your health is very important; there is no point in making too much money or selling more when your confidence is low and you have given up your health for it,” she said.
“Keep a balance; just be happy and healthy; work hard but also work smart.”
With more than two decades running a successful business, Atela Yee has good advice for start-ups and entrepreneurs.
- Scope out your competitors.
- Pick a good location to set up.
- Understand which market you are targeting
- Ensure that the prices of your product correlates with your location and what people can afford.
- Have the right mindset on why you are going into business; what is the purpose? “Or are you just following your friend because sometimes we do that?”
- Determine your customers’ needs, whether there is a market need for your product, and whether it will make money.
- Be prepared to pay at least $500 in fees to the National Fire Authority, the Ministry of Health, and the town councils if you set up a physical shop.
- If you want to start a bakery or cake shop, you will need to apply for the Bake House Certificate from the Ministry of Health.
- Live within your means; you can’t just start a business one year and then buy a car the next; then you have debts to pay off.
- My dad always says, “Do not waste money, and never be in debt to someone, even if it is one cent.”