The cupcake queen herself, Sonja Ocampo, on how she started and the key to longevity in the F&B industry

“I moved to New York to take up Culinary Arts at first then I ended up enjoying the pastry side of the program more. So after completing the Culinary Arts program, I then took on the Pastry Arts course at the Institute of Culinary Education in Chelsea,” shares Sonja Ocampo, founder of Cupcakes and Cakeshop by Sonja. 

What started out as a quaint, 42 square metre corner bakeshop in Serendra is now the gold standard for many discerning dessert lovers. In the Philippines, when you hear cupcakes or cakes or are in need of an intricate creative bespoke dessert, Sonja’s name comes to mind almost instantaneously. This entrepreneurial gourmand has built a reliable, trustworthy, and scrumptious brand that she should be proud of - we, patrons sure are. 

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Back when she was developing her skills and allowing her curiosity and passion to flourish, Sonja faced challenges with fearlessness and excitement, jumping into new experiences thrilled at what the next door would lead to. “I staged in several pastry kitchens in the city, but my biggest break came when I took a chance and applied for a pastry position at Bouley Restaurant and Bakery. They sponsored me, and I got to work there for almost two years before heading back home [to the Philippines],” shares Sonja.

Of this life-changing moment, she says: “I remember getting hired the morning they got the much-coveted four-star rating from NY Times. We were so busy in the days and months to follow.” However, the truth is that there is nothing more meaningful and educational than on the job training and real-life experience. Getting your feet wet and learning as you go builds not only expertise but character. “It was so tough,” she admitted, saying that they would work 12-hours a day, six times a week. However, in agreement, she said: “It was the best training I could ever get. I really got to move up the ladder and work in different stations and departments. It was this incubator for a lot of young, eager wide-eyed chefs who later went on to open some of my favourite restaurants in NYC. It was such a special time for me, working for such an important restaurant.”

Read on to learn about her culinary experiences and sage advice:

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Could you tell me about your platform/brand, Sonja's, and how it all started?   

We opened on 8 September 2006. At that time, we really only had all these big bakery chains around, but there wasn't any bakery where you could come in, and see or experience everything being made in front of you. Our open kitchen allowed customers to watch the entire process: from the moment the cupcakes were placed into the oven until the time the frosting is carefully placed on top of the cupcakes.  

We really tried to do everything the old-fashioned way, by baking in small batches and using the best ingredients we could find. We were open every day, baking 24 hours a day, for a good six years. We have [since] expanded our menu beyond cupcakes, grew the business, built a commissary, and opened more branches. Apart from Cupcakes by Sonja, there is Cakeshop by Sonja, which is our custom side of the business. 

Did you always love baking? Why cupcakes? 

I do have very fond memories of baking store-bought blueberry muffins with my mum when I was young. But I don't think I got passionate about it until I got to New York.                                                        

I had a brief stint at the original Magnolia Bakery in West Village, and I was blown away by how so many people were falling in line [no matter what] ...in the cold, for just two flavours of cupcakes! I felt there was room for me to take it a little further [back here in the Philippines]. I was excited to apply the experiences I had, and the French techniques that I learned, to a very home-baked style of dessert, and to really bring my own take to it. Plus, cupcakes are fun and cute! You can eat them anywhere, and no one has to argue about who gets the last slice.  

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How was Sonjas been affected by the pandemic? How did you respond and adapt?

The foot traffic in our stores drastically decreased.  We had to migrate our business online, as fast as we could. We created an e-store, joined food delivery platforms, offered smaller cakes for celebrations at home, and we had to devise a more stable, delivery-friendly packaging to withstand bumpy roads while our products are in transit. We also created DIY decorating and baking kits and opened an additional hub in Alabang, so we can be more accessible to our customers in that area.  

Your brand is one that has lasted and remained popular for years, becoming a favourite for many people. What do you attribute to your longevity and the success of your brand?

I think [it's] because we haven’t stopped caring. We do genuinely care about the people we are serving and the products we are making. We try to bring that love and care into everything we do.

With so many online/at-home bakers, what do you think people need to do in order to thrive and stand out in a crowded marketplace? How did the Sonja brand respond to increased competition? 

The only thing in a saturated market that no one else can do is to be you. So if you can find a way to bring yourself into your brand, in whatever capacity that is [that really makes a difference]. These little details make us unique, and that authenticity is how people connect with us and our products. So be true to yourself, because your perspective and personal take on things are what you can bring to the table that no one else can.

I try not to look so much at what other people around me are doing and I try to focus more on who I’m creating for, and how we are adding value to them. Oftentimes, it’s also a lot of asking, listening, and adapting when things don’t work out as we expect them to. 

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What hobbies did you get into during the pandemic?

I do really love learning, so whenever I get a chance, I'll travel and take a class or I'd stage somewhere.

What unexpected opportunities arose from the pandemic for you (e.g. opportunity to do private chef jobs, collaborations with other chefs/F&B professionals)? 

I did some R&D (research and development) for Hershey’s; created a few recipes for them.

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What did you learn about yourself during these challenging times? Did you pick up any new skills?

On 14 March 2020, when the pandemic started, I lived on our family farm in Batangas to keep my dad company. I still spend most of my time there and go to Manila every few weeks. Being there really got me thinking about how food is grown, made and sold. I love being able to cook with fresh, organic produce, and working with the local community of farmers in the area. It has gotten me thinking [about] how we as a brand, should be committing to becoming more sustainable and rethinking how we can actively improve the world, and do less harm to the environment. 

I also started becoming an early riser. My alarm goes off at 4:45am each day, and I have a whole morning routine that I’ve consistently committed to, for almost a year now. It really helps me start my day in the right direction.  

You went into plant-based desserts recently. Why did you see the need to do this? 

We have had more and more people come to us and ask us if we do anything dairy-free or without eggs, because of allergies. I would feel bad whenever we didn’t have anything we can do for them. One particular incident was when a little girl had received our animal sugar cookies, and she couldn’t have a bite because she was allergic to eggs, so she broke into tears. That prompted me to go to the kitchen and work on a cookie that she could enjoy. I just felt like everyone deserves a cookie!

It has really been interesting. Creating new desserts for certain dietary needs, and this particular niche. It’s something I definitely want to continue doing. I feel like we are just getting started, and that there are a lot of possibilities. There is so much growth happening in the alternatives space that are available for us to play around with. Some have really game-changing potential for the baking industry and that really excites me.  

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Everything evolves. So, it’s really important that we keep reinventing ourselves.
Sonja Ocampo, Sonja's Cupcakes

How best do you think consumers/diners can support you and the F&B industry in the short term, and the longer term? 

Give us constructive feedback. We learn so much from our customers and it really allows us to make better decisions.  

What are the most important tips you have for people who want to be in your line of business?

Don’t try to do so many things at once. Choose a product or two that you want to do really well. Make it fun. Put your own spin on things. Take risks, put fear behind you, and just dive in.  

As a seasoned pastry chef/dessert connoisseur what have you learned about yourself and the industry over the years? 

So much. The learning has been never-ending. Everything evolves. So, it’s really important that we keep reinventing ourselves.

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  • ImagesCupcakes by Sonja