What started as a journey of one man to test the faith that others had in his skill has bloomed from being a small shop in a by-lane in Colombo to being a landmark one cannot miss along Galle Road. Sponge Pastry shop has grown through the times to become a name synonymous for great taste and a quality gastronomical experience. Now joined by his son, the father & son combo keeps steaming ahead despite many eateries sprouting in Colombo. Kathya Fernando of team BusinessLounge explores the journey behind their story.
1) Going all the way back to 1985 when the passion of a person drove him to start his own little bakery. What is the story behind the creation of Sponge?
Akantha : I started my career as a cook at the Hotel Ceylon Intercontinental working under European chefs. My progress at the hotel led me to the privilege of becoming the 1st Sri Lankan executive pastry chef in the first 5 star hotel in the country. During that time I was very much influenced by two chefs, one from France and the other from Belgium. They told me that with my potential I shouldn’t be engaged like this but rather to be an entrepreneur and have a business of my own. And then it struck me why not give it a try. In the meantime, my wife was also very talented in baking and cake decorations, she is very artistic.
Having these things in hand we started a small business at home and called it “Akantha’s pastry shop”. We started getting orders, most of it came from the hotel staff requesting us to make their wedding cakes and children’s birthday cakes. And that was our humble beginning.
We then thought why not have a place of our own in the public and not at home. That led me to look for several places and then finally with one of my friend’s help we opened up in 1985 in the garage of a house in Kolpity (Colombo 3).
The staff at that time was just my wife, a friend of mine and I. My elder brother helped me to set up and to get the place running. When time went by I had to employ two girls, one for the kitchen and one for the restaurant. I was doing sales as well as the cooking before I employed both of them. It wasn’t easy to communicate at that time because we didn’t have land lines or mobile phones.
So, I used to walk up to Galle road to take a call from the phone booth around the corner and ask the girl at the restaurant to stand just outside the door. If a customer comes in, I would know, because she would walk in with the customer.
So, I’ll quickly run back without taking the call. And how the name sponge was bought up was from the name of the base of the cake we used.
2) How does the father-son duo come into and what impact did it have on the journey? How is the experience of decision making within this combination?
Over the years I have learnt to adjust myself to suit and work with people of any age group. When I can trust a person irrespective of age, then there’s no problem at all. Talking of the father son combination I do have a lot of respect and regard for my son to do something better than me. I’ve been running this mostly by myself for 32 years with a little bit of help from him at one time.
Then he went overseas and now he is back which gives me immense strength. It also makes me lively having him with me because I know I can do something new and better than before. There is no problem coming up in the father son combination because I am very comfortable in handing over to him the whole thing and devoting more time for myself to be in the kitchen.
Dilshan : I got involved with the business around 2009. My background is in IT, I was software engineer. Having an IT background, I gradually started integrating IT into the operations. Most of our administrative operations used to be manual before. In terms of management decision making we separate the work load as much as we can and balance it between the both of us. I play my part and he plays his role. We have conversations and discussions, sometimes just once or even several times a month, but when we sit down together the work seems truly possible and we get it done.
3) What does the brand “Sponge” stand for?
Dilshan : The first thing that comes to mind is quality, because that’s one thing my dad has been focused on from the start itself, to make sure that whatever the cakes and savories that he make are of high standards with good quality ingredient. Exclusivity and consistency also plays a role here because we operate from one location and also in terms of availability of our products. Our main goal is customer satisfaction by fulfilling their requirements and ensuring that they are happy.
4) Sponge has now been serving for over 30 years, what do you think has helped it survive in the midst of all other Colombo’s pastry shops and multiple competitors?
Akantha : I don’t look at the others as competitors, instead I look at it as a service that we all do to the community and everyone should try to be up there. I believe that you must do the best that you can and improve in the best way possible. If you do the right thing, then definitely you can be up there. I tell my staff members to be proud of what they do, and for that they put in a 100%. In business don’t hide yourself, just be forward. Build your trust, maintain your quality and make sure you deliver what is said.
Dilshan : I have an outside perspective to that as well. They’ve been working day in day out from the start itself; my dad, mom and the staff members. Behind all this, is a lot of hard work, consistency and trust among our staff members because we are like one family. There are even some staff who has been with us for over 25 years. We all have the same goals and objectives, so that helps us a lot. As my dad said, it’s not really competitors but better opportunity and more variety that we provide for the consumer.
5) How has the industry evolved over the years and in what ways has Sponge changed accordingly?
Akantha : Every 2 years we go for the Food Asia exhibition, which is one of the biggest exhibitions in the world and is held in Singapore where we get to observe the new trends in the industry and thus we adopt ourselves accordingly.
We also receive e- flyers that are sent to us which helps us get an idea of the
latest tools and equipment. Most of the time we need to have the regular items with us because if not we would have problems coming from our usual customers. I think we must be having the biggest range in savories and in cakes, but we can display only a certain amount due to the limited space available. So we gradually include something new, take off something old for the moment which can come in back later on again.
Dilshan : You can consider it to be a very subtle and unnoticeable innovations that we do. We introduce new cakes and savories on a regular basis but don’t really promote these new items. We always want to offer variety to our customers. Technology has radically changed over the years. About 15 years ago we started using projection systems to sketch art work on to cakes so that customers can send us designs of the cake they want. Later on about 10 years ago we started using edible print. It wasn’t popular back then and we didn’t promote it. If someone wanted a cake done in a day or in a couple of hours, it was an option that was available. But now we are pushing it as a regular product of ours.
We were running manual systems at first and gradually started incorporating computing systems. In 2014 we launched our website www.sponge.lk with online ordering at a time when none of the pastry shops had a fully featured website. As oppose to standard online ordering where you would expect delivery on another day, our website was made in a way that the earliest possible time to have an order delivered to the customers’ doorstep was estimated based on the items on order. Along with that comes social media, we are not strongly into it but since we want to keep up with modern trends, we have engaged in social media as well.
6) What is your customer service strategy? And how do you get the employees to deliver it?
Akantha : We have a training program where we bring trainers on service and motivational trainers that helps our staff develop not only in their career but also to add something useful to their personal life. I used to do the training at first but now I get trainers from outside. I want them to feel a part of our story and it’s not only the MD’s story that matters.
We have 96 in the staff so we divide them into 3 or 4 groups at one given time. If the training program is about 2 or 3 days long, we stretch it to about 4 or 5 days because it would only be about 2 hours per session. After 2 days or so we have the second session. During this training program we provide them with refreshments that are not made in house. This is to give them a feeling that they have stepped out of Sponge during that time. Our training studio is fully equipped with aircon, projectors and sound systems.
When recruiting, we try to employ the youngest lot possible because they are not influenced by other places of work. We want them to make products that we train them on, so that we maintain one style. There is no inferior quality products being used or even bought here.
Dilshan : Whatever training we do, is to make our staff confident, and let them know what exactly they are doing so that there is no ambiguity and they know their responsibilities. From the kitchen to the restaurant and to the person who is at the phone, they all think the same and are in line with making sure that the customer is happy. We also prefer building one on one customer relationships. We take time to listen to customer feedback, criticisms, complaints and pay attention to it making sure that the training will also focus on a few of those things.
7) Premium pricing during tough economic times? How does that work out?
Akantha : We don’t use second grade ingredients, the quality has to remain and so the pricing has to remain premium too. That has not shown any bad effect on the business. The customer is satisfied by taste and quality, and of course if you are happy then you don’t mind paying for it.
Dilshan : That’s the chef who doesn’t want to compromise quality. We need more of that. I grew up eating from Sponge and I can say it still has the same taste that it had at the beginning. If I notice a change then there’s something wrong. In order to maintain the taste, we source high quality ingredients and for this we pick and choose suppliers carefully. Pricing wise, yes it is tough times but you or I would not compromise on something that I eat.
8) Where to from here? What is the growth strategy for Sponge?
Akantha : I know how difficult it is when you begin your life and half way through it gets tougher, so one of my focuses is to look into the needs of our staff. I would like all of them to remain with us so in order to do that we need to look after their families, which we do. We take them on family outings and now organize cricket tournaments and dinner dances for them. Going forward, that is one of the things I would like to continue, keeping our staff happy which they will in return make the customers happy. We don’t have massive plans but we want to be right on top and we want to remain there.
Dilshan : Growth wise we would like to continue more of the same probably, we wouldn’t expand a lot at this time. Maybe one other branch would be possible. But we will always maintain our exclusive nature as much as possible with what my parents have started so long ago, and not forgetting to protect our existing customers.
Akantha : We would like to have another main place, but I wouldn’t call it a branch though. Then the customers will have a choice because there are many customers who come straight only to us. I want to enjoy work and that’s another reason why I am not that interested into opening up branches. The kitchen space at the moment is about 12000 square feet and is running out, and our staff will increase to about 120. In order to accommodate this organic growth, we will have to look into opening another place so that we can distribute the work load into both places.