The Sweet Spot
Armed with a scraper and a hobby box overflowing with decorative delights, Melissa du Plessis of Honey Bee Baker is shaking up the cake industry, one opulent creation at a time
“Gold leaf makes everything look amazing,” exclaims Melissa du Plessis, owner of Pretoria-based cake studio, Honey Bee Baker. She’s bent over a fresh-out-the-oven macaron, coating it in meticulous golden brushstrokes, and looking at her artwork, I have to agree.
When I ask her if she’s naturally artistic, she bursts out laughing. “Not at all! You should see my handwriting, it’s terrible.” I find this admission hard to believe as I watch her place macarons and sugar crystals atop a perfectly frosted cake, standing back every now and again to assess her oeuvre.
“I used to tell people I’m not at all creative, but somehow, with cakes it just comes,” she says. “My sister sums it up well. She says you have to find your specific artform, and once you do, it will all come together.”
While baking is clearly her artform, selling cakes was never part of the plan for Melissa, a qualified industrial engineer who has spent the last few years working in the family business, maintaining mines in Rustenburg.
It was her husband, Reinhardt, who spotted her talent, and soon began not-so-quietly punting her creations at his work. “He kept bringing his colleagues my cupcakes and muffins and soon they were asking for price lists.”
Melissa was hesitant at first, but Reinhardt encouraged her, and before she knew it, in October 2016, she’d sold her first cake. “I thought to myself, ‘What? Somebody is going to pay me for something I love doing? That’s so cool!’”
Melissa continued to work in the family business, but as she worked from home, she could pop a cake in the oven and carry on with her tasks. “People started ordering more and more cakes, but in my mind, it still wasn’t a business,” she says. “I often joke that my husband was the founder of Honey Bee Baker. First he encouraged me to create a price list, and then he got me to name the business, create a logo and set up a website. I’m not sure any of it would have happened without him.”
It’s also thanks to Reinhardt that the business ended up with its quirky name, Honey Bee Baker. “Melissa means ‘honey bee’ in Greek, so he’s always called me Bytjie, or little bee, in Afrikaans. When I started baking, he adapted it to Heuning Bytjie Bakker and it just stuck. He really is amazing with nicknames.”
Back in the studio, Melissa has given us a slice of her Geode cake, the studio’s cake of the month, to taste. The incredibly moist chocolate sponge with coffee flavoured buttercream is decadently rich and dense, while managing not to be overly sweet, thanks to Melissa’s use of authentic ingredients.
“Every month we ask our followers to help us choose a flavour of the month,” says Melissa, who has embraced the power of social media to market her business. With August being Women’s Month, she agreed with her followers that they just had to go with chocolate and coffee.
But for Melissa, flavour is only half the game, and her cakes all boast a decorative theme, too. “We chose geodes, which grow in rocks, for Women’s Month, as they represent beauty and strength,” explains Melissa. “The rock symbolises strength, while the crystals are feminine and alluring.”
Thanks to Melissa’s industrial engineering degree, in which she studied chemistry, she can create the gorgeous sugar crystals needed to make edible geodes herself, giving her complete control of the creative process. “They form where there is an empty pocket in a rock,” she explains, as she places a richly hued geode onto the backdrop of ivory coloured buttercream frosting. “For me, they represent how women always fill the gap where needed.”
Melissa is quick to add that women are an integral part of her business. “My grandmother was a big baker, so I probably have her genes,” she explains, admitting that she started the business using her gran’s very old Kenwood mixer.
It’s also due to two very involved interns, that Melissa has been able to focus on expanding her business. “Cara Jacobsz and Luzay Stein have been with me since February, and they have really changed the way I do things,” she says, explaining that thanks to her all-girl power team, she has stepped away from the baking so that she can focus on the business and customer relations. “I still get to bake, but I try to do the fun stuff while they do the hard work,” jokes Melissa.
To this end, Melissa tries to do as much of the decorating herself, but increasingly focuses on admin, logistics, marketing and the development of her online store. “You can’t do everything yourself,” she laments. “I think that’s where a lot of business owners fall short. You can’t run a business by only doing what you love.”
While Melissa initially resisted an online store, she now acknowledges that it has become the bread and buttercream, so to speak, of her business. “Having systems such as this in place saves time and allows us to churn out orders every day. And the beauty of it is that we never get bored, as we can still get creative with our custom jobs.”
For the Honey Bee Baker team, custom jobs are usually wedding cakes, and this is where Melissa really lets her creative juices flow. The wedding industry has been bowled over by her elegant, simple, yet opulent creations that are all fresh flowers, berries, gold leaf, macarons and ganache drips.
Deeply committed to her vision, Melissa is a purist when it comes to commissions. “I once had somebody ask me to make her wedding cake. She sent the most beautiful references, and I got really excited, but then she asked if I could add zombies crashing out of it. Needless to say, I politely turned her down.”
And while her aesthetic is what she’s become known for, Melissa is adamant her creations need to taste fabulous, too. “When I do tastings, many customers can’t believe how moist the cake is, and I think to myself, why have you been eating dry cake your whole life? It shouldn’t be like that.”
Melissa therefore takes flavour development very seriously, and as well as classics such as Rich Chocolate, Classic Vanilla and Red Velvet, her cakes are available in an array of original concoctions such as Pumpkin Spice, Blueberry Buttermilk, or of course her flavours of the month, which have been anything from Stroopwaffel and Liquid Nougat, to Rooibos and Honey.
Melissa is ardent about staying ahead of trends, and dedicates much time to online research, following cake makers and bakers all around the world. The constant adaptation of her classic cakes, as well as new additions to the store, such as letter cookie tarts and succulent cupcakes, each of which is decorated as a unique little terrarium, are testament to her passion for the craft.
“I love creating beautiful and delicious things,” says Melissa. “I spend so much time working in mining, where everything is destructive, so it’s wonderful to be able to contribute to people’s happiness and celebrate their milestones. It truly is a rewarding way to spend your day.”