You are cordially invited for a quick flashback to the quintessential birthday and wedding cakes that dominated the soirées in Malé during the minimalist nineties.
Show-stopping cakes that came in extravagant designs. Cakes which were products of exceptionally talented local 'cake pundits' of the 90s. Among these is Jisthee, a name synonymous with great cakes.
Jisthee's magic with cakes is a long lasting spell that has enchanted many of us in Malé. I caught up with the notable cake connoisseur in her current place of business, 'Ribbons n Balloons'.
Onwards from Majeedhee, I turned onto Nirolhu Magu where 'Ribbons n Balloons' is located. As I walked up to the venue, I was surprised it did not to look like a regular cake shop. It was essentially a banquet hall. A spacious white-washed salon that looked like it was ready to cater to a party, right then and there.
Intrigued, I entered the shop where Jisthee greeted me with a happy smile as we sat down to have our little chat.
As Jisthee began her story, she explained how her “love affair” with sugar had stretched far back to when she was twelve years old. “And it's still going strong”, she said laughingly. Explaining that she believed that some people have natural culinary talent, she affirmed her belief that she was one of them while only simultaneously noting that she further cultivated her talent by pairing it with hard learned skills to become the proficient 'cakes-tress' that she is today.
“From the beginning I have been very passionate about the culinary field and what I was doing. I was very eager to learn everything.”
Shedding light on her early days of baking, she recalled how different things used to be from current times, “Those days, we did not have the Internet and had to rely strictly on books, which we didn't have much of in Malé. Fortunately, my dad was working on a ship and used to bring culinary books for me from other countries like India and Sri lanka.”
“Well, I learnt a lot on my own from books. It was mainly trial and error. But there was also a teacher from Sri Lanka who knew a little about cake decorating, so a group of students in our school who had interest in cake decorating got together and convinced her to teach us. She was my first teacher.”
Her fondness of her early days in the field was evident in the smile that spread across her face recollecting these fondant-folded memories. “We all used to get together in one place and the teacher used to come and demonstrate for us how to bake a cake and decorate a cake. It was an exciting class for us.”
“It was a hobby at first - which gradually turned into a business because earlier I was making cakes only for friends and family. As time went by I was receiving orders from outside as well. So, it just gradually developed into a business. By the time I finished my A levels at Science Education Centre (SEC), I already had quite a lot of customers, so I thought of concentrating on keeping the business going and continuing the work that I loved to do.”, she explained.
“But at the same time, I had a day job because back then we had to serve the government for a certain amount of time when we graduated from schools. I was working at the Information Ministry at first and then later at Voice of Maldives where I prepared the English bulletin, all the while juggling my cake business.”
“Even those days, there was a big demand because initially this business was run only by a handful of foreign teachers here [Malé City]. This was during the late eighties. So there was a market even those days. We were getting a lot of customers but very few people were doing it as a business.”
“I have quite a few memorable cakes. Especially the ones I made for the exhibitions in Malé.”
“I participated in a few exhibitions overseas as well and have won a few awards too. My first overseas exhibition was when I was studying at Ceylon Hotel school, I participated in an exhibition there for the hoteliers in which I won a Bronze. Later on I went to an exhibition in Singapore where I won a Bronze as well. Over the years, I also attended a few more exhibitions and have won Golds and Silvers as well.”
“Well it was the peak of the business and everybody asked me why I was leaving when my business was doing so well. It was mainly because I felt that the political landscape in the Maldives and other unpleasant things happening here, didn't provide for a conducive atmosphere to raise a small child. So in order to give my daughter a better life, I thought I should take the step to move overseas. That is why I moved to New Zealand.”
“During my time overseas, I missed my business everyday. There were three things I missed the most during my time away from the Maldives. Those were my dad, who was alive at the time, my son and my business.”
Jisthee expounded her time in New Zealand, mentioning how she studied for an additional year and joined one of the leading cake decorating companies there as a decorator for three years. “I was still in cakes, I couldn't let it go!” she said, breaking into joyful laughter.
She then delved into how, as soon as she got her residency, she worked hard and opened a shop of her own.
“I had my own shop then, but I found it really hard, mainly because skilled labor is very expensive there. I did not have a team there like I used to here. I was sort of all by myself with only one additional decorator. I also had to travel to Malé frequently because my son was here at the time. So I decided to sell the store and start an online business. Even today, I have my online clients and they are loyal customers. Whenever I return, they always come back to me.”
“Yes, it is my business as well. But the main reason, I would say, is because my son is here. I want to spend more time with him. So at the moment I’m straddling both my legs, one here and one there, sharing my time between my son and my daughter.”
“And the other reason is that I still feel that the Maldives is a land of opportunity. It's easier to make money here than in foreign countries. And since my business is well known here, I have a guarantee that I will be able to pick up from where I left off.'
How do you think your competitors will receive you?
“I don't think they will be threatened, because most of them are established now. The only thing is that we will all have to share the market. We have to share the whole cake, piece by piece, so to speak.”
“My new venture is called Ribbons n Balloons. It is a total solution for parties. We offer the food, the venue, theme decorations for themed parties, and if the customer requests we can also make the invitation cards and everything as well. So, more or less, it is a total solution. A one stop party planner.”
“We concentrate a lot on themed decorations. I would say its a marriage between two of my greatest passions. Designing or decorating and baking. It’s not just about cakes anymore. It is dessert tables and other foods and even party decorations. It is all inclusive.”
Eager to explain more about her 'total solution for parties', Jisthee noted how a lot of young mothers found the idea very appealing. She told me that this kind of a business is relatively new in Malé and that therefore, she expects it to be received well.
“We have already started our business and have successfully planned a few parties as well. The feedback was really really good. The customers were really happy and we really managed to exceed their expectations.” she offered gleefully.
Comparing the existing market to that of the olden days, Jisthee recognized that the customers are more aware that they had been. She believes that they are more educated and aware of the product itself, further noting the progressive palates of local millennials which have manifested the varieties of cakes available at cafés.
“Still, when it comes to birthday cakes, they want to go for a normal butter or chocolate cake. That is still the popular choice.”
“Well, for people looking to host a party that has all aspects taken care of, it is ideal. To tell all my potential customers - we are very flexible. We can design parties according to your budget; if someone comes and lets me know their budget, I can always design something that will suit their needs.”
Any place customers can visit online, to get more information about what Ribbons n Balloons has to offer?
“Yes, you can find us on our Facebook 'Ribbons n Balloons' and on Instagram we are @ribbons_n_balloons. Clients can always reach me.”
With that, I said a great thank you to Jisthee for her time and exited Ribbons n Balloons, racking my brain to figure out which lucky fella had a birthday coming up, since this sweet stop was definitely the answer for any upcoming celebration.