Her happy place: Sophie's Mom turns DIY passion into business

Sophie and Sophie's Mom

Tonette Bautista Rosal walks into the main store of Sophie's Mom on Santol Street, San Antonio Village, Makati, bustling with excitement. She is on her way to a French-themed dessert party to be held at a posh Global City salon later that day, and she will take the lead in setting up the place. 

Tonette is Sophie's mom. 

"I've always loved anything DIY (do-it-yourself)," she says.  "I'm one of those people who keep themselves constantly busy with arts and crafts."  She refers to furniture, interior design, food -- cupcakes included. "Selling what I create is just secondary."

Her training and prior experience don't quite illustrate where her passions lie. Tonette holds an economics and political science degree from the University of the Philippines. She became a trainee of the UP Science Research Foundation -- ("I just signed up because otherwise I would have a very long break in my schedule and I wanted to do something to pass the time!") -- and was eventually recruited to teach computer courses at the university.  She was then hired on contractual basis by the United Nations and was soon assigned to the DC, New York, and Geneva offices. 

"My stint in Switzerland was the longest. I stayed there for 11 years," she narrates.  

When she returned to the Philippines, she joined IBM and headed its software services department. 

Her corporate role brought a serious challenge. "My workload and schedule were very stressful," she recalls.  Secretly, she dreamed of having a small cafe next to her house that would showcase her creations -- nothing grand or fancy, just a place where she could express herself. 

She relished her role as mom to her three girls and wished she had more time to be with them. She tried very hard to make with her own hands whatever it was they fancied at any time. "For example, they may say they want to eat a certain fancy bread, or homemade ravioli. I read up and indulged them. I could see they were very happy. I was happy, too." 

One day in 2010, Tonette decided to take her dream to another level and joined a bazaar. The event was fashion-themed so she thought of style-related ways to present her cake creations. "We had cake bags, for instance." Fortunately, many bloggers were in that event, and they took notice of the rare food exhibitor in that sea of fashion items.  

Yet another event, a shoe-themed one, inspired Tonette to make shoe cakes. There, somebody from SM approached her and encouraged her to try her luck. She spent a few months at the International School for Culinary Arts and Hotel Management. She quit her IT job. 

Since then, things have taken on a life of their own for Sophie's mom the woman, and Sophie's Mom the bakery. 

More than cupcakes

Sophie's Mom has two cafes -- in San Antonio Village and McKinley Hill -- and three kiosks in SM malls -- North Edsa-The Block, Megamall, and Southmall. 

The Makati store, located at the heart of a residential area in the fringes of the central business district, was established two years ago. Last July, the cafe at McKinley Hill debuted. Observing the interiors of both stores, one cannot help but notice the dominance of the colors pink and white, with an occasional dash of blue. The chairs and couches, table fixtures and other knick-knacks all suggest a charming, cozy, comfortable nook -- just the way Tonette has envisioned her next-door shop. 

The bestseller is the Red Velvet cupcake. There are also Dulce De Leche, Banana Walnut, Tres Leches, and countless other cupcakes. There are bars and cookies, mochi ice cream, mocha truffles, special breads and other pastries. 

"So, see, we're a cupcake store, but we are not just a cupcake store," Tonette says. "Here we offer meals and drinks as well. Moreover, we do dessert parties, like the one I am going to today.  We have fun playing with the themes!" 

Indeed some of the toughest yet most rewarding parts of the job involve producing designs for dessert parties, or tea parties -- intimate or otherwise.  "One time we had to do 'poker night'. Another had a nationalist theme.  We've also had baby showers." 

That they are part of other people's special days is special, too. 

Tonette's daughters

Sophie is real, as well. She is 18 and a second-year business administration student at UP Diliman, and is the force behind Sophie's Mom's online presence. Sometimes, she also suggests products to try out -- for example, the rainbow cupcake was her idea. 

Sophie also knew that they had to get in touch with bloggers when they were just starting out. "It was a good move because all of a sudden, people were talking about wanting to check out Sophie's Mom.  In this business, you really make your presence felt through word of mouth."

In a way, Sophie is the market.  "Who we are targeting are basically young women of her age group who prefer what we offer over other types of dessert," Tonette says. 

Tonette's other daughters are Steffi and Sam, who are 15 and nine, respectively. Like any family, Tonette, her husband and three girls enjoy travelling whether to foreign countries like the US, France or Greece, or to local destinations like Boracay and Tagaytay. 

The family also bonds by trying out new restaurants and watching films. "We make it a point to watch at least one movie together a week."

Creator, not competitor

"I'm overwhelmed. I still feel the need to pinch myself sometimes," Tonette says of how Sophie's Mom has progressed in just a few years. 

Now her main challenge is keeping up with the demands for their baked goods. In the beginning, they were selling around 1,000 pieces a day; now it is seven times that figure. 

Tonette also has to manage about 40 staff members, training them and making sure they convey Sophie's Mom's overall philosophy of excellence in quality to customers. 

"In these aspects, I think my management experience helps me a lot."
To be sure, it's not just Sophie's Mom that is benefiting from an apparent surge in interest in cupcakes in recent years. Many other stores, kiosks, and bakers, big and small alike, are cashing in on Filipinos' interest in cupcakes, caused perhaps by the fact that "they are easier to eat  and they are more portable than, say, cakes."  
Is Tonette even concerned about keeping up with the competition?

"I don't think of anything external," she says. "For now I am just happy with what we have, and it's more than what we ever imagined already.  We just pay attention to constantly improving ourselves. I'd like to think of myself as a creator, not a competitor."

The days ahead, especially with the coming holiday season, will be busy for Tonette. This time, she will not mind the workload and the stress -- she's doing what she does best, what she loves most, and it's this passion that has caused the creation of many beautiful, inspiring, delicious things.