KUALA LUMPUR, June 17 — Sourdough bakers are a dime a dozen (perhaps even a baker’s dozen, if you will) these days. This is especially true after the first worldwide lockdown last year during which almost everyone (or so it seems) tried their hand at fermenting and baking sourdough bread.
Indeed, you were either making your own loaves of sourdough or you were enjoying the fruits of a friend’s or family member’s labour.
So it takes a bit extra for a sourdough artisan to stand out from the crowd these days, particularly if one is online- and delivery-based without a brick and mortar presence. (Then again, a store front presence seems to count for less these days when most of us are sheltering at home.)
Helen Wong understands the urge to lump all sourdough bakers together. The 49-year-old mother of two started Helenshomebake Sourdough Bread in November 2019 and even then sourdough bread was already very common.
She says, “Our sourdough breads are very different from most bakeries. For the loaves, we emphasise on having a soft and airy texture inside, with a light crust outside, rather than a dense inside with a hard crust.”
Wong’s unique take on sourdough baking has garnered her admirers from all over: “Customers, not only from Malaysia, but as far as Jakarta, Bangkok and Singapore, have ordered our breads and bagels to be delivered in Malaysia as birthday or thank you gifts to friends and corporate clients.”
A strong grasp of market strategy is a key factor behind Wong’s success. The former PricewaterhouseCoopers consultant has built her product line steadily, rather than trying to launch too many at one go.
She says, “We started with just one variety — the Country Loaf, a 100 per cent pure sourdough bread. Our sourdough bread requires a slow and long fermentation process of about 18 to 20 hours, before it is ready for baking, making it easier to digest.”
Over time, Wong added more flavours, carefully studying customer feedback the entire time. Today Helenshomebake has 15 different varieties of sourdough bread, including their signature Oliver Twist and seasonal Sun-dried Tomato Loaf.
Wong shares, “Our Oliver Twist is based on an olive ciabatta from a bakery overseas, but with a twist of other favourite ingredients. As the sun-dried tomatoes for our Sun-dried Tomato Loaf are home-made — to ensure they have no preservatives or added sugar — we are constrained by the availability of good quality tomatoes and continuous sunshine.”
Helenshomebake added sourdough bagels to their menu last June, an homage of sorts to a Boston-founded bakery café in Bangkok that Wong used to visit frequently.
She observes, “Good bagels are hard to find here, they have to be chewy but not too hard or ‘bready’. Our bestsellers are the Plain and Onion Cheese Bagels.”
But bread and bagels alone are not enough to build a sourdough empire. As with most things in her life, Wong turned to her family for inspiration.
“Since my husband loves his bread with butter and my children love their bagels with cream cheese, I thought we should introduce cream cheese and cultured butter to our menu as well. This means not only can our customers get their breads and bagels from us, but they can pick up cream cheese and butter to go with them!”
Helenshomebake launched their cream cheese last November and their cultured butter three months ago. Both are made using imported French cream, while their cultured butter differs from regular butter due to the presence of probiotics, which purportedly helps digestion.
Wong shares, “Our Pineapple Cream Cheese, which has no added sugar, was crafted to my personal liking as I could not find any in Malaysia. Now, it is also a customer favourite, while Wasabi Cream Cheese, made from organic wasabi, is my children’s favourite to go with their smoked salmon bagel.”
By not relying solely on sourdough loaves, Helenshomebake has transformed itself into a one-stop online bakery with 23 types of sourdough bagels, artisanal cream cheese in a trio of flavours, and a quartet of cultured butters to choose from.
Yet, as Wong would hasten to remind you, this all started from just a single offering — a basic sourdough bread. A plain Country Loaf without the frills. Even a slow and curated product line expansion has to be built on a solid foundation.
Similarly, Wong herself has taken a circuitous route to becoming a sourdough guru of sorts. She recalls, “In 2004, I married and moved to Bangkok, where we stayed for 14 years before moving to Singapore and later back to Malaysia. Having my own food business, in a market already crowded with a cornucopia of food, always lingered in my mind, but raising our children is always the top priority.”
Ultimately it is her family whom Wong credits for inspiring her to take the plunge towards becoming a food entrepreneur.
She explains, “My husband Nigel and our children are truly bread lovers so I experimented making the types they liked, such as soft milk loaves. For health reasons, we switched to sourdough bread, at first baking only for ourselves before later sharing it with others.”
Besides baking, this sharing took the form of sourdough making workshops; Wong conducted her first in December 2019, barely a month after launching her business.
For now, with the uncertainties posed by the pandemic, Helenshomebake is focusing on product sales. The customer interaction continues unabated though.
Wong shares, “Our customers provide invaluable ideas for us to develop new recipes such as our Jeera Cheese. It was the idea of a regular, who had first sampled it in the UK. Today, we have seasonal loaves like the Kurma Walnut, only available during Ramadan, and also offer panettone during Christmas and Chinese New Year.”
Future releases include a miniature cream cheese cake made with their own cream cheese, as well as new sourdough products such as tortillas and pita bread.
But however the business expands, Wong is adamant about following her original path: “Helenshomebake will always be artisanal, with no shortcuts. Every product that leaves us has been passionately hand-crafted.”