Life is sweet

Managing partner of Blossom Sweets, Amna Al Hashly, tells StartUp how the family-run business has been able to bloom
By Neil King
Tue 26 Nov 2013 02:23 PM

When asked how Blossom Sweets started, managing partner Amna Al Hashly is succinct.

“Blossom Sweets is the birth of creativity and passion,” she says about the bakery she launched in 2011 with her sister.

The result of the duo’s love for tasty treats, the Abu Dhabi bakery has gone from strength to strength since first opening its doors, almost doubling its staff from eight to seventeen, and selling more than one million desserts to date.

Operations have expanded quickly, with the sisters branching out into the commercial market and developing a capacity to serve large orders.

It’s all a far cry from the family favours they used to produce at a young age.

Al Hashly says: “My sister Lamia is the founder of Blossom Sweets. She has been extremely passionate about baking as well as every form of art and design from a very early age.

“Initially Lamia started baking for very close family and friends and it was well received among all. She continued to be inspired with her collection of cookery books and travel. She was so mesmerized with the fine and delicate pastries and exotic deserts.

“She instantly knew it was her calling to create art through food in her own land.”

Al Hashly admits she also had a love for baking and design, as well as the added ingredient of ambition, and the sisters decided to open a small patisserie – Blossom Sweets.

And they immediately attracted attention.

“Through a lot of learning, understanding what customers prefer, and speaking to top industry experts, our products were a huge success.

“Now we can confidently say that we are the only shop to offer an array of classic, modern and fusion Middle Eastern flavours desserts, pastries and cakes.”

Hard work is something that is ingrained in the sisters’ approach to business, especially when it come to finding the best recipes and tastes.

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Al Hashly says: “We approached it in several ways to find what works well in terms of flavours, design and colours. Learning and taking some risk was key in the whole process. Lamia’s knowledge and understanding of palates for different cuisines encouraged her to be adventurous.

“I worked closely with Lamia to understand the smallest details about what goes into production and what ingredients work well together. We later conducted several pilot tasting sessions as well as bringing in a consultant to guide us and give constructive feedback.”

Their due diligence paid off, and customers started to flock to the Muroor Street shop.

What is even more impressive is that Blossom Sweets made its mark in such a busy marketplace.

A basic search for ‘bakeries and sweets’ on yellowpages.ae brings up 115 pages of similar businesses, ranging from the budget to the beautiful, so how does Al Hashly approach the competition?

“Competition is always healthy as it pushes us further to pursue excellence,” she says. “We constantly need to think outside the box to stay ahead and help retain customers.

“Our customers are our ultimate testing ground. This definitely helps us innovate and stay ahead. We love the challenge and I think this has evolved us from a mere cupcake business to offering gourmet desserts and pastries.”

It should come as no surprise that Al Hashly has a good business sense. Having graduated from Zayed University with a degree in finance, she also works as a business counselor for the Khalifa Fund, helping other start-ups pursue their dreams.

She was also one of only 70 students to be picked from a pool of 2,000 to be sponsored by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum for a two year leadership programme.

“My main role with the Khalifa Fund is to provide SMEs with a roadmap and insights into the entrepreneurial world,” she says.

“I suggest several initiatives that can ease the process of starting a new business. Apart from advice, insights and training needed in their development, I help them connect with government entities in order to secure business contracts.

“It has also helped me tremendously. At Khalifa Fund I have understood the nuances of a start-up and how to communicate and work with peers. It has helped provide essential insights into the business world and I was able to apply various skills to my own business.

“Also, I had first-hand knowledge of the challenges and understanding the whole process of starting up a business with Blossom Sweets, so I’m glad I can share this knowledge with other budding entrepreneurs.”

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She is certainly putting her skills to good use with Blossom Sweets, overseeing operations, marketing and growth strategy – skills which are evident when she discusses changing trends in the sweets industry.

“Changing trends can make or break a business,” she continues.

“We need to make sure we introduce the latest trends in the dessert market. Research, speaking to international experts and travelling to look at global trends has given us that understanding. I think in F&B and especially the dessert segment, the UAE is still on the growing curve to reach that international mark.

“Blossom Sweets aims to deliver that. Our main focus is Middle Eastern and Arabic desserts, so we offer a variety of fusion and modern products to suit wider likes and preferences. We also want our customers to experience what’s available globally, so they can always expect something different in addition to their favourites.”

Running a bakery may tap into the strong cultural tendency towards a sweet tooth, but it doesn’t come without it difficulties and concerns.

The long-standing issue of diabetes is increasingly being tackled by health officials in the UAE, and while incredibly important, the strides that are being taken present new challenges for confectioners.

Al Hashly says: “Diabetes has become an epidemic and I am glad that authorities are taking every effort to educate residents to have a healthy lifestyle, diet and exercise.

“Apart from the authorities, every corporate and business should champion this cause as part of their CSR. We know people will continue eating, so at Blossom Sweets we offer diabetic-friendly products that give them a healthier alternative.

“We offer a variety of products such as low-calorie, low-sugar and gluten-free, among others.”

According to Al Hashly, there are equally pressing concerns attached to running a start-up dessert shop.

“It is not as easy as one would think,” she says. “There are several elements that need to be considered to have a more sustainable business.

“Finding the right location for the kitchen and the shop was key for a smooth operation in terms of logistics, storage and ultimately a place with better footfall.

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“Another major challenge, especially in the food industry, is looking at every health and safety aspect to ensure this won’t bring about future obstacles.

“The next is investing in the right equipment as a commercial kitchen is very expensive. We also had to ensure we had the right people with the right skills to help drive our passion and creativity.

“Investment and funding is always another concern. The best way to overcome these things is to thoroughly research, plan, learn from other entrepreneurs, and keep innovating.”

For many family businesses, working with kin is another challenge, but for Al Hashly the family bond is one which brings a greater range of skills and abilities, though she admits it’s not all plain sailing.

“We bring two very different strengths to the business,” she says. “Lamia looks at the flavor concept, production and design, while I look at the operation and marketing. So we actually complement each other at every step of the way.

“Some things we do together, such as train our staff and look at expenses. Should we have a conflict, we reasonably fight and openly discuss it. I believe sometimes when there are differences, it does help to clear the air and see each other’s perspective.”

The sisters are two of a growing group of young Emiratis who have launched their own businesses. The Khalifa fund, along with other initiatives and programmes, is increasingly helping UAE nationals develop their entrepreneurial skills and set up companies.

Al Hashly says: “I am amazed and proud as an Emirati to see so many ambitious young people who want to start something of their own.

“I recently volunteered at Enjaz – a programme driven by the Khalifa Fund that provides high school students with a platform to realise their full potential. We saw a lot of young, enthusiastic, smart, especially female Emiratis who were  keen to continue their studies and start their own business.”

So what advice would Al Hashly give to budding entrepreneurs?

“I think for anyone, whether starting a career or starting their own business, my advice is to pursue what makes you happy and see yourself five to ten years ahead with it.

“When you are passionate about something you will be naturally determined to put all your time and effort into it.

“Write down a realistic and less aggressive business plan, projecting and questioning challenges every step of the way. Evaluate your finances and check for easier repayable financing options if needed.

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“See every legal detail and regulation set for your industry. Find different ways to market your business. Network and build your contacts. Always look at best practices of more successful businesses, as learning always helps you innovate.

“Finally, listen to your customers and be optimistic.”

Having first-hand knowledge of the Khalifa Fund, Al Hashly is keen to praise the help they give entrepreneurs in the UAE. But she believes there still needs to be a shift in attitude among private businesses to nurture young entrepreneurs.

“Most entrepreneurs today are still too afraid of failure, or do not have the proper know-how or financial support,” she says.

“I believe a lot of private corporate should shoulder the responsibility to provide the required training, guidance, and funding, as there are so many inspirational and promising ideas but most of those are not explored.

“This sector is slowly growing, but more support is needed.”

On the other side of the coin, she also urges young people to take up the challenge of starting an SME.

“Most Emiratis prefer to work in the government because it’s a secure job. We have many young talents out there, and I think whoever has the potential should take the challenge.

“Seeing several Emirati women like me who have started their own business definitely makes me feel proud to see how much talent and capability is out there.”

The future of the SME landscape in the UAE might be of interest to Al Hashly, but it’s the fortunes of Blossom Sweets which is firmly in the forefront of her mind at present.

She reveals that they plan to continue the company’s already impressive growth by opening more stores in the near future, as well as adding new elements and features to the business as a way of expanding operations.

In the meantime, however,  it’s clear that life is sweet for the Al Hashly sisters. And you wouldn’t bet against things getting even sweeter before too long.

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