From mum to son: The story of Singapore’s chocolate cake institution Lana Cakes
In the first episode of CNA Luxury’s podcast series Next Gen, Jason Kwan reveals how he gave up a high-flying banking career in Tokyo to take over Lana Cakes from his mum, and what he plans to do with the business in future.
Stepping into Lana Cakes one weekday afternoon, I’m told that I’m 20 minutes too late. It was not because of tardiness on my part, though. Rather, I had narrowly missed running into a near-celebrity.
“If you had come about 20 minutes earlier, you would have met [the granddaughter of an ex-President],” explained proprietor Jason Kwan, 56. The family had been a longtime Lana Cakes customer. “She talked about how she always had a Lana cake every year. [The ex-President] actually celebrated one of his birthdays at the Istana with our cake.”
Such is the pull of Lana Cakes, that it appeals to everyone from presidents to ordinary folk celebrating their birthdays, weddings, anniversaries and other special occasions.
For the uninitiated, Kwan’s mother, Violet, started Lana Cakes as a home-based business in 1964. Customers would drive up to her residence on Hillcrest Road, park their cars, and enter the house to collect their chocolate fudge or chiffon cakes. Eventually, a permanent location had to be sought, so in 1975, Lana Cakes moved into a shophouse on Greenwood Avenue, where it still stands today.
In 2017, Kwan took over managing the business from his mother. Prior to that, he had spent almost 30 years in the banking industry, working in Zurich, London and Tokyo. In fact, it was never on the cards for him (or his sister Jennifer, who is based in the US with her family) to succeed his mum, now 92.
“It wasn’t a specific decision to come back to take over,” he shared. “My mum was looking for a successor [in 2016]. Around March 2017, I decided to come back for my block leave and check on [my mum]. What I discovered was that my mum was really depressed about the situation. I felt that she didn’t want to sell her cake shop. In fact, in our discussions, it became clear that she was basically thinking of just closing the business and not selling it.”
But when Kwan walked into the shop, memories came flooding back. “It was just so familiar,” he recalled. Mrs Kwan had run the business in much the same way as she did for the past 40 years. “Most of the processes, the equipment, the pots and pans in the shop were exactly the same as I remembered as a small kid.” The only things that eluded him were the recipes: How to make the cakes.
At that point, some introspection was in order. After three decades in banking, was that how he wanted to retire? Or was carrying on his mum’s legacy the way to go? A lengthy discussion with his wife and two sons followed, and in the end, it was decided that he should return to Singapore to carry the mantle of Lana Cakes, while his family remained in Tokyo.
In time, Kwan learned all the cake-making recipes from his mother, who had specific instructions on how to scoop the different portions of the flour, sugar, cocoa and other ingredients. There was much at stake. The success of Lana Cakes rode on the quality and consistency of the offerings; over the years, customers had grown accustomed to the taste of the cakes and would not take well to changes.
“I absolutely respect and I’m extremely proud of my mum,” Kwan shared. “My father passed away when I was 16 years old. So since the early 80s, my mum basically carried on life. She was a single mum, a widow, she was running the cake shop, she was providing for us. And, you know, considering how she has built the business, and to be able to afford to send us to schools overseas. It's just amazing. I'm really proud of what she's done.
“To me, the legacy is not just Lana Cakes but the legacy of how she has brought us up and allowed us the opportunities that we have had. I think this is one of the most amazing things. I’m almost breathless when I think about what she's done for us. And I'm really proud of her, and we really do appreciate what she's done for us.” If there is one lesson from her that Kwan holds dear, it is to "respect and treat people the way you would want to be treated”.
As with any legacy business, it is a challenge to keep things the way they are, while also pushing forward with innovation. In Lana Cakes’ case, the issue lies with maintaining the same flavour profile – the taste that customers grew up with – despite changes in technology and the supply chain.
For Kwan, having a taste legacy is important, but he feels that things do not have to remain status quo. For example, while the classic chocolate fudge cake has remained largely unchanged, customer demands for an even chocolatier version persuaded him to come up with a Fudge Lovers Only (FLO) variety, with two-thirds of the cake’s weight made up of pure fudge. He lovingly dubs it “a chocolate cake on steroids”.
Lana Cakes is charmingly anachronistic: The business still operates from the same single location, and it did not have an internet footprint until the end of 2018. Compare this with the rash of home-based baking businesses that have sprung up since the onset of the pandemic, many of them taking instantly to Instagram to attract customers.
“We look at Instagram, and some of these [social media] tools, as ways of promoting what we have as opposed to selling. We're still a very traditional cake shop. And we believe that word of mouth still works,” said Kwan.
What of franchise plans, then?
“I think considering the challenges of the pandemic, it’s not an area that I'm focusing on. I do think that in the longer term, I would like to consider taking Lana Cakes international. But at the moment I'm focused on making sure that our business is Singapore is strong and as good as it is.
“We built the business based on quality and consistency. It's never about mass production; it’s never about making as much as you can. I look at this more as a marathon, whereby we want to maintain this legacy, we want to go the distance. It’s not a sprint, where you’re just expanding. If we focus just on expanding, can we really continue the quality and the consistency the way customers expect of us?” he asked rhetorically.
No doubt, helming a business that has been around for 57 years comes with its fair share of responsibility. “At any time, a customer can walk into the shop and say that they’ve been eating this cake for the last 30, 40 years. I feel that I almost have to try harder. When I came back I knew it was not easy to take over this business.
“I have no regrets that I have given up my banking career to come into this. I do miss that part of my life. But you know, when you deal with people, it comes with the warmth, it comes with the joys and the tears, stories, and the happiness that your customers share with you. And that's something that keeps me going. Lana Cakes is a lot of work. But I get a lot of intangible rewards from it."
The Next Gen podcast is brought to you by Jaeger-LeCoultre.