When Myanmar began its gradual integration with the international community a few years ago, its citizens became aware of things that the rest of the world had long taken for granted: Facebook, credit cards, smartphones…and fondant cakes. Today, the man behind Frosting Cat café is on a mission to tell the people of Myanmar that their wildest dreams can come true on the surface of a cake.
With over 70,000 Facebook likes — the true measure of a company’s success and popularity in Myanmar — Phyo Han Kyaw’s Frosting Cat café is one of the best-known customized cake bakeries in the country. If you need a one-of-a-kind cake made exactly to your specific requirements, Phyo Han Kyaw is your man.
Like other forms of conspicuous consumption in Myanmar today, the notion of customized cakes was almost unheard of just a few years ago. When Frosting Cat first opened three years ago, the young baker had trouble explaining to people what edible fondant was, let alone persuading customers to buy an entire fondant cake.
“When I first started out, I couldn’t get fondant anywhere. No one else was doing it, and no one knew what it was,” Phyo Han Kyaw tells Coconuts Yangon. “Customers didn’t know what these toy decorations were — they thought they were real toys. I had to carefully explain that they were made of sugar and that they could eat it.”
Due to a lack of local fondant supply, Phyo Han Kyaw had to ask friends who lived abroad to send over small fondant samples with which he could try out different techniques.
In fact, when Frosting Cat first started, even cupcakes had yet to take off in Myanmar.
“We exhausted ourselves trying to explain to others what a cupcake was,” his mother, Thet Thet Htay, recalls with a laugh.
On average, a customized fondant cake takes four to six hours to design. The most elaborate designs can take much longer. Phyo Han Kyaw works on cake designs all day, every day. Apart from Thingyan, he doesn’t take any holidays, even on the weekend.
“Sometimes he’s up designing until 4am,” says Thet Thet Htay.
Although there’s no set daily cake quotas due to their customized nature, Phyo Han Kyaw estimates that he and his staff produce at least five cakes per day, but that definitely hasn’t always been the case.
“In the beginning, we were lucky if we got one order a day,” he says.
Before opening Frosting Cat, Phyo Han Kyaw worked on an oil rig. In addition to the fact that cake making doesn’t exactly scream “multi-million kyat business plan”, in conservative Myanmar, it’s rare for a young man to ditch a stable job to open a bakery.
In fact, the plan wasn’t always to go into cake design. Although he’d always had an eye for design, Phyo Han Kyaw had initially just wanted to open his own café and handle the behind-the-scenes operations, which was why he took a management course. However, the more involved he got with the café plans, the more interested he became in designing cakes himself, which lead him to take a series of culinary courses.
Using what he learned as a starting point, it took him six months between the end of his last baking class and the opening of Frosting Cat to perfect his sponge and frosting recipes.
After learning to create beautiful cakes, there was still the issue of money. When he decided he was going to go through with his café idea, Phyo Han Kyaw warned his parents upfront that the café would have to endure a loss for at least two years. But they were soon pleasantly surprised. Due to the nature of the bakery, the family didn’t have a lot of trouble breaking even; Thet Thet Htay estimates that it took them six months. Apart from a few cupcakes and brownies each day, Frosting Cat doesn’t have any ready-made cakes available, which means that they never let any cakes go to waste.
“We didn’t like it at first,” Thet Thet Htay confessed. “But looking at him, we saw how passionate he was and how much work he was putting into it and we decided that we would fully support him. Whatever he does, we’re always encouraging him.”
When asked about his favorite cake that he’s made, Phyo Han Kyaw says that he can’t really choose a favorite because each one is unique, although he has produced some complex creations that have gone viral on the Myanmar Facebook scene, including the iron throne from Game of Thrones. He’s also become friends with local celebrities who have ordered several cakes from him, such as model Warso Moe Oo.
Phyo Han Kyaw says that they’ve never had to reject a cake concept because it was too difficult to make.
“Sometimes we make a compromise between what I can do and what they want. For instance, some customers want a figure that’s standing up, but the weather is hot here, so the figure could melt or bend. In those cases, I suggest that they have the figure sitting or lying down,” he told Coconuts Yangon. “But there’s never been a cake that we couldn’t make.”
The café first started out with Phyo Han Kyaw and one other baker, but since then, he’s hired an additional two staff members to help out in the kitchen. However, the three bakers only handle the baking; to this day, Phyo Han Kyaw still does all the design work for every cake himself — a trait that Thet Thet Htay believes is what sets her son’s cakes apart from those of other bakeries.
“Others aren’t as successful because they have to hire bakers to design the cakes,” she says. “As soon as someone comes to [Phyo Han Kyaw] with an idea, he can immediately envision it in his head and execute it. He can replicate what he’s thinking — not everyone can do that.”
And Phyo Han Kyaw’s hands-on approach isn’t lost on his customers.
“I’d seen his cakes on Facebook all the time, and sometimes I can’t even believe they’re real cakes! There are some other bakeries who do the same thing, but I think that Frosting Cat is the best. You can see that they really pay attention to the details,” said Su Aung, who recently ordered a birthday cake from Frosting Cat for her sister.
And indeed, Phyo Han Kyaw is constantly coming up with new techniques to add to his portfolio. His latest venture is painting with buttercream. Most recently, he recreated Van Gogh’s Starry Night entirely in cream for his mother’s birthday cake. He tells me that it was something he’d always wanted to try, and when customers give him permission to do so, he takes advantage of the opportunity to perfect his new skill.
Today, Yangon has no shortage of bakeries specializing in customized cakes, but Phyo Han Kyaw isn’t fazed.
“I’m happy that customers now have plenty of options. Also, it [the competition] keeps me creative and pushes me to try harder. I’m always thinking about how to be better than the competition and keep customers interested,” he explains.
Considering the three phones calls that he received from new customers during our conversation — “Sorry, I have to take this,” he told me each time — it’s safe to say that selling fondant to Myanmar people is now a piece of cake.
Frosting Cat is located at No. 37/39, 94th Street (lower block), Kantawlay, Mingalar Taungnyount Township, Yangon.
For more information, check out Frosting Cat on Facebook.