The co-founder of Dear Harley Cake Studio, Alison Chan shares her journey of opening her dream bakery and how making hyper-realistic cakes helped them bounce back in times of trouble.
Scrolling through Alison Chan’s Instagram page will leave you equal parts confused and amazed. The sheer believability of these deceptively elaborate cakes are guaranteed to make you do a double-take – such is the power of illusion cakes. The “Everything Is Cake” trend first came into the limelight when Buzzfeed’s Tasty put up a video featuring a compilation of random, household objects that were later revealed to be cakes – which quickly went on to become a viral sensation. This led to a series of Is It Cake memes that took over social media handles this summer, catapulting the popularity of hyper-realistic cakes to a whole new level.
When asked why she and co-founder Cony Lam decided to jump on this bandwagon by starting their own custom cake business, Dear Harley Studio, Alison replied, “It was never about following the trends. It just needed to be fun for us to make and fun for the audience to eat. My nephew loves bananas, so for his birthday, we decided to make a banana birthday cake for him. This quickly turned into a fun guessing game as all the kids started trying to figure out which banana was really the cake. That’s when I realised that you can make cakes out of anything. We started experimenting with Hong Kong-styled illusion cakes and that’s how it all began.”
Alison sits down with us to discuss her love for the profession, the pressures that come with balancing passion with commercialism, and, well, cakes.
The Beginnings of Dear Harley Cake Studio
Alison and baking go way, way back. She first fell in love with making cakes after a baking workshop she attended at the tender age of just 13. Since then, it’s been a long journey of self-learning and trial-and-error. “Baking was definitely not an in-born talent for me; you should have seen my first few cakes,” she jokes. “Cony and I learned a lot from experience. We learned it the hard way. Every time a certain technique doesn’t work or we fail at any point, we take it on board and practice until we perfect it. Also, we are a team of two, so we always exchange our opinions. Sometimes we have very different insights and I guess that really helps with the end result of the cake. After all, two is always better than one, right? So we are always open to change and learn from each other as we go.”
Between a career in reporting that didn’t take off and an early revelation that she wasn’t meant to run a family business alongside her father, Alison always knew deep-down that baking was the way to go. “I think the more I made my cakes, the more I was into it. I wanted to keep exploring, to develop my techniques, and just continue improving upon my skills. So the passion was always there,” she explains.
And so began Dear Harley. “Three years ago, while I was still working with my father, I started an Instagram page to sell cakes online. We started very small, baking from our kitchens. Eventually, as the business grew, I developed a sizable customer base. I guess I was confident enough to step out of my comfort zone and concentrate on making my dream studio happen.”
Acquiescing to Crazy Cake Requests
“An advantage we give our customers is that we can make anything. We’ve gotten some crazy requests in the past and sometimes we really freak out over nailing the challenge because we don’t want to disappoint them.” When asked about the most off-beat order she’s ever taken up, she recalls, “Once, we got an order to make a water cycle model, which was probably the weirdest order I’ve gotten. It sounded very complicated and I really had to plan and think for a while before deciding to take that order. Thankfully, it came out nice and the client was very happy with it.”
Making custom cakes that resemble everything from designer handbags and Air Jordans to hyperrealistic cup noodles and sushi (a list that barely scratches the surface of what this remarkable duo can do), it would be an understatement to say that Dear Harley creates cakes for every occasion. Paying close attention to even the most minute details of the actual object, Alison and Cony go to great lengths in order to painstakingly recreate and handcraft the specifics onto their cakes. “It really depends on the cake. Some can be done within an hour, while others may take us up to two days to complete. We really enjoy the challenge.”
Driven by Passion, Balancing Business Realities
Like many young entrepreneurs who struggle to balance doing what they love and making money from it, Alison finds herself in somewhat of a dilemma. “People ask me all the time, “How are you going to scale your business?” “Are you going to expand?” If I am looking in a commercial direction, then I should hire more people and produce standardised cakes so as to increase the quantity of cakes we sell – but I’m not trying to be a millionaire. Dear Harley isn’t just a brand; it’s my passion,” she confesses.
However, she also recognises the societal pressure and familial expectations that come with running a self-financed business. “It’s not like I have someone funding me to do this, so I have to watch my own finances very carefully. You care about how people think about you – your friends and family – and you feel a certain amount of pressure about how much you earn every month. Even if you enjoy every moment of what you do, you need to show people that this is a good business – not only because you’re happy, but also because you can earn a certain amount of money.”
“I don’t want to be a businesswoman. That’s not for me,” she affirms. “I make decent money now but I’m greedy for knowledge. Instead of looking after the workers who produce cakes, I would rather spend the time taking classes to learn things I don’t know about the cake decorating world. I really care about job satisfaction and the quality of Dear Harley’s cakes. I’m keeping it small because I don’t want the quality to drop. Me and my partner always like to do everything by ourselves. If we can’t do it, we won’t take it on.”
Going Viral During the Pandemic
With Hong Kong witnessing consecutive waves of the pandemic, the city’s F&B industry came to a standstill as lockdown and social distancing restrictions were enforced. And Dear Harley was no different. “COVID-19 was especially hard on us because we didn’t know what to do. There were two months where we had no orders and yeah, it was quite frustrating. We didn’t know if we should continue with this anymore because paying rent became such a big burden,” she shares.
However, the duo were able to revive their business to pre-pandemic heights by upping their social media game and establishing a niche for themselves with the illusion cakes. “We knew we couldn’t give up. We were constantly coming up with funny videos and quirky ideas for cakes. We just tried to catch people’s attention since everyone was on their phones during COVID-19 anyways.” These videos went on to become viral within local circles, with Chinese and international media quickly picking up on the story.
Despite Dear Harley’s thriving fan base, not to mention all the media attention devoted towards her cakes, Alison is focused on staying grounded. “I guess we’re lucky. We just wanted to have fun and do good work. Local media started noticing us and then, suddenly, we were getting covered by Japan, Thailand, and Australia. We even got interviewed by Bloomberg and Reuters, which led to more media coverage,” she recalls. “We didn’t have any control over that. Before that, we were paying for Facebook ads like everyone else.”
For enterprising startups looking to improve online traction, she advises having fun, being unique, and networking. “Your videos can go viral if you have the right connections. People will eventually reach you through those connections.” Solid advice to follow, especially given the fact that DearHarley is currently working at full capacity and are booked out with 15-20 orders a week.
More About Dear Harley Cake Studio
Located at PMQ, Dear Harley sells custom illusion cakes priced from HKD 1,500 to 2,000 – some even going up to HKD 12,000. The duo also offers baking workshops and party rental spaces. If you’re looking to surprise a loved one for their birthday or are in need of a cake for a bridal shower or wedding, Dear Harley might just be the place for you.