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MANILA, Philippines – The two years of lockdown saw a significant surge in entrepreneurial home bakers who made it big on Instagram, with a handful even able to set up their very first brick-and-mortar shops in a pandemic. But how many were able to open their first ever physical store overseas? Inspiringly, Filipina mom-owned and home-based business, Pajama Baker, just did – and in Los Angeles, nonetheless.
Juno Rosales, founder of Pajama Baker, achieved the feat just a year after launching her home bakeshop on Instagram in May 2020. But what started Pajama Baker, home of frozen refrigerator cakes, in the first place? Aside from a mother’s love for feeding her children, Juno has her pandemic-born obsessions with Dalgona coffee and baking in her pajamas to thank, plus a lot of free time stuck at home.
From therapy to full-blown business
Before The Pajama Baker was founded, all Juno knew was that she wanted to prepare good comfort food for her family. Baking at home in her PJs also became her own version of “me time” – a therapeutic hobby she found for herself in the lockdown.
“After my kids went to bed, I would stay in the kitchen and create little indulgences in my pajamas. This helped me relax and fed my need to be productive. Spending time in the kitchen was very therapeutic for me. This was also the moment The Pajama Baker brand was born,” Juno told Rappler.
Because she was into experimenting with different versions of the Dalgona coffee trend then, she ended up creating a frozen Dalgona cake she was “very happy about.”
“My first words were literally ‘oh my gosh, this is so good. We need to share this!’ There was such a comforting feeling in every bite of that frozen cake. And during that time of COVID-19 uncertainty, sharing comfort through food felt purposeful,” Juno said.
She started sharing her sweet treat in plastic containers with her village Viber group, during a restrictive time when even food delivery riders weren’t allowed inside some subdivisions and neighbors depended on one another for sustenance. Word got around so fast about Juno’s frozen cakes, that as soon as the lockdown was lifted, orders from friends all over the metro poured in.
“It was then I decided to open an Instagram page to post photos and allow others to order through that page. A few months in, I was able to partner up with a reefer truck company to deliver my cakes in temperature-controlled vehicles. As orders kept pouring in, I decided to make it official and filed for business permits, made an official website, and partnered with a professional kitchen to help me make my cakes,” Juno said. And as cliché as it may sound, the rest was history.
The flavors take the cake
The Pajama Baker specializes in frozen cakes, also known as refrigerator cakes. Imagine a hybrid between a classic cheesecake and ice cream – it’s a firm, cold cake, topped with sweet toppings, syrups, fruits, and other ingredients that set each flavor apart from the rest.
The best-selling flavor, which was the OG variant that made The Pajama Baker popular in 2020, is the Dalgona Coffee (P450). In a tin can you get a buttery graham crust, a creamy frozen cheesecake base, homemade cream, and strong whipped coffee made from fresh brew on top. Balanced sweetness aside, it also boasts a potent bittersweet coffee taste.
“Taste, comfort, and purpose” are how Juno would describe her choice of food – prior to the frozen cakes, her kitchen experiments would vary from butterscotch brownies, to Lebanese garlic paste, to turon bites, and so on. When she finally pinned down her recipe for her frozen cake, her purpose followed.
“Since I was also trying to find a bigger purpose when the world was put to a halt, I started sending batches of frozen Dalgona coffee cakes to our frontliners, as I knew it would keep them alert and awake, since I use coffee and sugar. I felt like in my own little way, I was able to help these hardworking people and bring some joy and comfort to their long hospital shifts,” Juno added.
After the success of Dalgona coffee, Juno began releasing new flavors, only upon the approval of her four young kids. Each flavor goes through “intense scrutiny” by each child; after all, Juno said that “kids will always be honest with their opinions;” no filters at all. But at the root of it all, Juno’s novelties must never be “complicated,” she said – as long as simplicity reigns, she is happy.
The Pajama Baker’s other frozen cake flavors include Speculoos (P495), inspired by the Belgian holiday cookie and perfect for cookie butter fans; the Strawberry Nutella Ganache (P600) for strawberry-hazelnut combo enthusiasts; Frozen Malted Milk Cake (P575); Frozen Banana Surprise (P495) with salted caramel; and Frozen TwixT (P575), which is inspired by the popular candy bar.
During the first few months of business, Juno said that the taste of the cake was “well received by many.” However, many customers had problems with the packaging, as the cakes started melting quickly while in transit.
“Since we first started using plastic containers, the cakes would melt fast. This led us to using tin cans and eventually finding a temperature-controlled vehicle service. We knew listening to our Pajama eaters would only help us improve the whole Pajama eating experience,” she said.
A day in the life
There is no fixed schedule to the Pajama Baker, Juno said – being a mom comes first, and a baker comes second. But typically, the day starts with with fulfilling orders and sending them out first thing in the morning. Next is all the desk work, such as organizing posts, replying to inquiries, checking inventory, buying ingredients, and researching.
“After that comes the fun part, which is experimenting on different flavors, creating new marketing ideas, and tasting cakes on a regular basis,” Juno added. But it wasn’t always fun and easy for her; the pandemic posed distinct challenges that many home bakers during this time undoubtedly experienced, too.
“Since I could not go out, I could only source ingredients and materials through online sellers. I turned to a lot of Viber groups, Instagram sellers, and Facebook Marketplace during our initial stages. It was also difficult adjusting to bigger orders as we suddenly grew,” Juno said. They needed an inventory system to track cakes, and their home kitchen was not enough anymore.
“We needed a bigger space and a bigger freezer. We needed to professionalize right away even if the country was still closed,” she added. And along the way, she also realized there were some things she was not good at.
“I decided to seek help and consulted with professionals, and this included seeing a therapist! Interestingly, there was a lot of personal growth that came with the growth of the business,” Juno said.
The hustle and bustle was worth it.
“Being able to provide jobs at a time when most people lost theirs is something I am really proud of. Meeting new people online and connecting with the Pajama Community has also been an amazing experience. I have met people online saying that the cakes helped them through a stressful day,” she said. Customers said that their cakes became a favorite ayuda item to give to loved ones, and a staple on special occasions.
“Being more than just food and bringing happiness to people have been the best things about this business.”
Treading foreign waters: Opening in the US
When The Pajama Baker announced that they were opening their first physical store in 2021, fans didn’t expect that it would be located across the globe in Los Angeles, California! It was a bold move and a laudable achievement, considering their humble online beginnings. But to Juno, it wasn’t a “completely random” decision.
“We used to live in LA. Since I have been posting the cakes on my social media, our Angeleno friends and family started sending me messages about wanting to try the cakes,” she said.
Juno had to be in LA to open the store, so she worked hard to make sure the PH hub could stand on its own first before making the move. She knew it would take a few months – or even years – to get the LA store established.
“In December 2020, I had to travel to LA briefly for personal reasons (this was seven months after opening our PH store). Unknowingly, it served as a trial run for the PH store to function on its own. We launched a website for a more efficient ordering system and kept on improving order-taking from there on,” she said.
“That experience gave me confidence that our PH store can operate while I open the LA branch. Of course, it goes without saying that we had bumps on the road while transitioning. But these bumps only helped me improve the business and learn more about starting a global brand.”
One major “bump” was handling logistics in the US. Unlike in the Philippines, there are no Grab or Lalamove riders who can easily pick up goods from point A and deliver to point B immediately. Communities are also farther from each other in LA so shipping is more expensive. To address this, Juno established select delivery areas and also created meet-up points in LA.
“We also considered shipping to other states but this requires using dry ice. To be able to ship with dry ice, we need to take special classes and get a hazmat license. This is something we did not need to deal with in the Philippines since transit time for our Palawan, Baguio, and Pampanga branches is only for a few hours,” she said. So far, the LA branch requires more hands-on work while the Philippine branch – which has more movement – requires more management work.
As of now, there are only three flavors available in the US: Dalgona Coffee, Speculoos, and Strawberry Nutella Ganache. Baking in a different location, it took a lot of trial and error to get the cake right.
“We had to change proportions since some ingredients taste different in LA. We are also currently in the process of switching all the USA cakes to gluten-free since this is one of the major requests from our Pajama community in LA,” Juno said.
The Pajama Baker was also able to partner with a commissary in LA by fate. Their delivery girl accidentally texted a US number saying to expect Pajama Baker cakes to be delivered. This US number did not order anything but it apparently belonged to the daughter of a commissary business owner!
“They googled Pajama Baker and contacted me online. One thing led to another and they now help me make the cakes in LA. Amazingly, this commissary business is owned and operated by Filipino-Americans. Again we were able to help fellow Filipinos even abroad and I will forever be grateful to that wrong text – I even have it saved in a special folder in my phone,” Juno said.
There is an advantage to having locations in two countries, though – Juno said that they have made it easier for loved ones to send gifts. Manila-based customers can easily send frozen cake gifts to their LA loved ones, and vice versa. “One family even shared that they celebrated Christmas together online (in both countries) and coincidentally had the same frozen cake flavor while all in a Zoom call,” she shared. The Pajama Baker was even featured on-air by Los Angeles news station KTLA!
To Juno, the continuous evolution of what was once called “refrigerator cakes” is one way of putting our local culture in the international spotlight as well.
“Although it is not as distinct as ube, I would like everyone to know that homemade Filipino desserts are as palatable as any dessert. It could simply be a combination of flavors like bananas and condensed milk that our lolas used to make – no secret ingredient there but just comfort food that Filipino households have been enjoying for generations now,” she said
What’s in store for The Pajama Baker?
Now that Juno has a clearer picture of how to open a Pajama Kitchen in a different country, the momma baker is now inspired to continue growing her brand globally, and eventually reach more people to share good food with.
However, it wasn’t something she planned for her now family-involved business. Creating a global business was always just a big dream.
“Being able to get to this point took a lot of courage, studying, risk, stress, and even therapy. The pandemic made me realize that life can change in an instant and if we don’t act on our dreams, it will remain intangible. Opening in another country is not easy and even after we had good reviews by the press in LA, there is still a lot of learning and adjusting to do,” Juno said.
“Sharing happiness through feel-good food is something I want to be able to achieve not just in LA, but all around the world. That is my big dream. LA is just one step closer to that goal. Yes, opening a store in LA was a risky decision but I knew that there was nothing like our frozen cakes in LA. It was worth giving it a try,” Juno said.
Having the opportunity to open business in another country was a privilege Juno will never take for granted. She also wants other home business owners to know that any one has the potential to grow big, too.
“It is so cliche to say, but keeping focused on an end goal is very important. It is so easy to get derailed and think it’s too big of a dream or maybe it’s just not meant to happen. It is also so easy to default to ‘I just started small at home or there are people better in this field’ mentality but if you keep yourself focused, sweet dreams are definitely achievable,” she said.
With a quality product you believe in, a solid vision for success, a lot of risk calculations, and a heaping amount of courage, any SME can make it to the big leagues, Juno believes. She hopes that by sharing her story, she can inspire even just one home baker or another fellow mom-preneur to aim higher, dream big, and know that a bigger world outside the Internet awaits them. – Rappler.com
You can check out The Pajama Baker on Instagram.
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