From being a finance professional to selling homemade cookies from her car, Neha Sethi accidentally ventured into the bakery business and is yet to find a downside of it. Her cookie shop, Sweetish House Mafia is one of the most famous patisseries in the town and is serving freshly baked cookies. We caught up with the cookie queen and talked about her love for sweet, tricks and tips about business, and of course, Mumbai. Here's the excerpt from our conversation with Neha Sethi.
Your transformation from a finance professional to a baker and an entrepreneur sounds like a fairy tale, but what are some of the challenges that people are not able to see?
Initially, the biggest challenge or hurdle as such was convincing my family that it was ok for me to make the switch from banking to baking. Considering I had gotten my degree from Wharton Business School. My mother wasn’t very happy with the idea of my leaving all that and then doing a baking stint from home. So, making her and the family understand that the finance life wasn’t for me was a challenge. But the same thing applied to me too.
Initially, there was major self-doubt in what I was doing. Did it make sense? Would it do well? All of these questions plagued me. Even though there wasn’t any major investment as such, it was nerve-wracking to think that I was taking the plunge and it might not work out and lastly, getting the word out there. There was no marketing plan as such. I just sent the cookies out, crossed my fingers and hoped for the best. Luckily it worked out well!
Can you walk us through the journey of the Sweetish House Mafia?
Sweetish House Mafia started because of a dinner conversation with friends. I was baking a lot back at the beginning of 2013 because I didn’t know what I wanted to do professionally. All I knew was that I didn’t like finance or investment banking. So while I was trying to sort out my professional life I was baking and feeding family and friends. A friend suggested I sell my cookies to random people but market the idea via social media. I thought it sounded crazy but he was active on social media and said he would help. That’s literally how it started! With a crazy idea and a plunge of faith. It was helpful that the plunge wasn’t too expensive.
I worked from my kitchen at home, using Bajaj ovens which weren’t expensive to procure, and delivering in a Tata Nano which was a wedding gift from friends. My brother-in-law, Aakash Sethi, thought of the name and I made the logo on PowerPoint. We did all the marketing via social media, which worked different back then. There were no algorithms as such so every post that was put up on Facebook or Twitter was seen by everyone following the brand. There was no need to boost or sponsor posts. Everyone saw everything and that helped. There was constant engagement and interaction because deliveries of the cookie were decided, and then posted, on these platforms.
People voted for the location they wanted me to send the Nano too. And because it was all anonymous it made it all the more intriguing. After about a year or so we realized that we should capitalize on the fame that SHM had managed to garner so far. We figured that people wouldn’t chase the Nano forever and that’s when we decided it was time to open a proper store. So in September 2014, I revealed my identity and our first store opened in Todi Mills. Since then we’ve gone onward and upwards with 12 stores across 4 cities, funding from a billionaire and many more things in the pipeline.
When you first started selling cookies out of your car, what was the thought process? Was it just a side gig to help you with some extra cash or did you hope to grow it to a full-fledged business from Day 1?
I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do professionally. That's when SHM started. The idea was to send cookies once in 2-3 weeks, as and when I pleased so that I could do that and figure out the next move in my career. It was purely a passion project. It started because of my love for desserts and all things sweet. And because I was good at it. I never intended it to be my career. But I guess life had other plans. Because of the way it took off, from the very beginning I was doing 2-3 deliveries in a week versus my initial plan of 1 delivery in 2-3 weeks. Soon after that, I realized that this was my job now, it was what I was meant to do.
You don’t have a culinary background per se, how have you managed to come up with such perfect cookie recipes?
I've always loved desserts. Ever since I was a child I have had a massive sweet tooth. It probably has to do with the fact that my mother involved me in the kitchen whenever she had to make dessert for any party she hosted. We used to make apple pie, cheesecake, brownies and the like. Because I was helping her I got familiar with little tips and tricks that you learn at home. And that improved as I grew older. Because I enjoyed baking and sweets I watched a lot of videos and went through a lot of recipes to try new things and feed my friends and family. My mother taught me and I taught myself too. Eventually, it became easy to come up with ideas and recipes by myself.
Are the recipes by Neha Sethi or do you have professional chefs on board now?
We have a chef in our kitchen to facilitate smooth movement of things but otherwise, all recipes and R&D is still all me.
Do you still bake at home? Try out new recipes? Take us through the process of introducing new desserts on the menu roster?
I do bake at home a lot. It isn’t easy to spend all day at the central kitchen when you have two young children. So I get the same work done at home. I experiment with new recipes and then proceed to feed it to family and friends. The same process as when SHM first started. We do several rounds of taste tests and constructive criticism. After the trials, a recipe finally makes its way to the Sweetish House Mafia kitchen. The recipe is perfected here for distribution to our different outlets.
Was it difficult for Neha Sethi to leave the security of a cushy job and become an entrepreneur?
Not at all because I didn’t enjoy that cushy job in finance at all. It just wasn’t for me. I had no option but to start something on my own as I had only studied finance. Honestly, it was more liberating and much more exciting.
There are a lot of new bakeries and patisseries opening up, do you see them as a competition?
Anything in the dessert space is competition. And it’s healthy for us. Keeps us on our toes. Makes sure we don’t get complacent so we have to constantly keep on coming up with new variants and flavours.
What is the baking business mantra Neha Sethi follows?
Hard work and focus are my business mantra, but also being organized. I feel that during the Nano days, I kept a log of all my deliveries and that organisation helped us when we opened our first brick and mortar store. Even now, having exhaustive data helps us make well-informed decisions. And that has helped us become successful. And of course, using premium ingredients to make the best quality product.
Your brand was born and grew in Mumbai, what is it that drew Mumbaikers to your cookies?
Several things. The marketing strategy using the Nano and social media as a tool, the catchy name, the anonymity, the products themselves. Mumbaikers are always looking for something fun and new, they get bored easily, so Sweetish House Mafia checked all those boxes. Plus no one was doing freshly baked soft cookies in the city. It was the first time they were so readily available so that drew the crowd in too.
What are some of your favourite things about the city?
Mumbai can be whatever you want it to be. It can be easy and laidback or more formal if that’s what you want. I love how I don’t have to dress a certain way or be a certain way to fit in. I can be myself and so can everyone else. Plus the food scene is pretty great. There’s always something new and unique to try. And the sea. That’s my most favourite thing of all!
Would you like to recommend some local places to visit for Local Samosa? (Places to eat, shop and chill)
I guess Phoenix Mills and Palladium offers you everything – food, shopping, entertainment. It’s an easy place to spend the day. Walking around the lanes of Kala Ghoda will also give you many options to eat, shop and chill. Restaurants that are doing well are Americano, Izumi, Rue Du Liban, to name a couple. The VR experience at Todi Mills is pretty cool. I’ve been only once but have been wanting to go back.
So, head to SHM today and if you run into Neha Sethi there, thank her for starting this awesome franchise.