Milliam Murigi @millymur1
If you had told Mathew Gathua, owner of Valentine Cake House 20 years ago that he would own a big cake house in Kenya, he would probably have taken this prediction with a pinch of salt. This is because he was a school dropout and was forced to work as a casual worker to make ends meet. At the time, the only driving force in his life was purely the instinct to survive.
When he dropped out of Kangema High School, his first hustle was at a construction site in 1987.
Two years later he moved to Ukunda at the Coast where he worked as a casual worker in one of the major hotels. His main duty was to clean dishes.
“My workstation was directly opposite the hotel bakery and I used to help the pastry chefs during my free time,” he says.
One of the pastry chefs noticed his interest and offered to train him. After two years he decided to move on and applied for a job as a pastry chef at a high-end hotel.
“Though I didn’t have papers, I passed all the tests because the employer didn’t want to know how many degrees one had, but what he/she can do for the company. My interview took around two hours and I was employed,” he says.
Even with a good salary and comfortable life he was still restless. He learnt as much as he could from the internationally trained pastry chef who was also working there.
“I used to work double shifts to ensure that I don’t miss any session. This impressed the chef and he was more than willing to train me. During my trainings I vowed that one day I will become a mentor,” he says.
In 1996 he was offered a senior and well–paying position, but he declined the offer and quit to start a bakery, having spotted a gap that needed to be filled. From his savings he bought an oven worth Sh26,000 in 1997 and borrowed a mixing machine from a friend and he started baking from his small house.
This was the beginning of Valentine Cake House. And why Valentine? He says that he once travelled to Nairobi during Valentine’s Day and realised that the day was well celebrated in Nairobi than in the coastal region and he decided to take the idea there.
Since he had identified his market in hair salons and small kiosks his business picked immediately and he bought a bicycle, which he used to deliver the cakes and few months afterwards he had two employees.
“As my business was growing I had a vision of branching to Nairobi, but my dream was short-lived. The same year my mother fell ill and since I am the eldest son I used to travel to Nairobi every weekend to see her at Kenyatta National Hospital. Three months later all my savings had depleted and my business collapsed,” he says.
This forced him to look for another job. Unfortunately, his mother passed on after few weeks. This was the greatest setback, but he did not let it dim his hope of a better life.
One day as he was thinking what to do next he was contacted by a sacco where his mother was a member and since he was named as the next of kin they wanted to know where to deposit his mother’s savings.
“I used that money to revive my business. As the business grew I came to Nairobi to do my research, but life was not easy. In 2000 I secured employment at Sarova Panafric as a pastry chef and my absence made my business to collapse,” he says.
In April 2001, Mathew brought all his baking equipment to Nairobi and started another shop at Rongai. Since his wife was not employed, she used to run the business as he was working. He used to bake the cakes for her. Later that year he quit his job to concentrate on his business.
“I had set my time such that I was working for eight hours, sleeping for eight hours and the rest I used to run my side hustle. This is a trick I learned from one of my mentors and that is why Valentine Cake House is where it is today,” he says.
However, it was not as easy as he thought because the business didn’t pick up as expected. In 2012 he became a pastry lecturer at Park Place Hotel Training Centre in Nairobi to make ends meet. Luckily, he was also contracted by Catholic University of East Africa to supply their canteen.
He also started exhibiting his products in various functions around the central business district. His business started growing gradually and as a way of tapping this opportunity, he relocated his shop to town at Old Mutual Building, where it is located up to now.
He has opened 15 other branches and two more are coming up before the end of the year. He employs hundreds of young people, majority of whom he trains from scratch.
On top of that, he has started a training college. Recently ,the company was relaunched and he introduced new cake varieties for both high and low-end. The company is offering 36 cake varieties. The relaunch was meant to introduce their new and exciting products in the market.