Ever sampled Chinese chocolate or shelled out a week’s salary for imported groceries at City Shop? Trying to satisfy cravings for childhood flavours and native cuisines can be one of the most disappointing aspects of expat life. We sat down with five women who have created culinary cottage industries in an attempt to bring a taste of home to Shanghai.
“Did you hear that Cookie Girl is selling her stuff at Avocado Lady?” The excitement is palpable after everyone hears the news, but this phrase would elicit blank stares anywhere but Shanghai. “Cookie Girl”, better known as Lexie Comstock, is the baker behind Strictly Cookies, the latest in a long line of start-up cottage industries that cater to the expat palate with homemade treats.
“I ate mooncakes for a while, but it just wasn’t the same,’” Comstock says, recalling her dismay at cookie quality when she arrived in Shanghai just seven months ago. “I thought that if I was having such a tough time without my favorite treat, there must be at least three other people out there who also miss cookies, which is a totally solid customer base to begin with.”
With that, Comstock quit her marketing internship and started baking full-time, a story that echoes throughout the cottage industry scene. Unsatisfied with their day jobs, these women turn to the kitchen to bring to life what they miss the most about home.
Amelia Heaton-Renshaw, the seasoned doyenne of Shanghai’s cottage industry business with her homemade jams and chutneys, engineered race cars out in Qingpu for two years before deciding to give up her nine-to-five. Similarly, Christine Asuncion started Spread the Bagel after lamenting the lack of quality bagels in Shanghai while working for an outsourcing company, and Jenna Suharto opened Oh My Goodness Cupcakes after she found that the offerings in Shanghai failed to meet her high standards.
Two years later, OMG Cupcakes is still going strong. Suharto admits the hardest part for her was sourcing, especially since she works with mostly imported organic ingredients. “I can’t find the quality ingredients here,” she explains. “I always opt for quality.”
As a professional chef, Siobhan Gough already had a supplier network in place when she opened Nonna, a homemade ice cream and baked goods shop. She also credits her training, noting that it “helped that I had food knowledge – there was less experimenting that I needed to do in the beginning, which is a lot of effort and time.”
But for the novice chefs, experimenting is half the fun. Asuncion spent her Chinese New Year holiday working on a new jalapeno and cheddar bagel, and Suharto fondly recalls the early days. “In the beginning, all you have is time to figure it out,” she laughs. Trailblazers like Heaton-Renshaw and Suharto have become invaluable resources that help newcomers figure it all out quicker.
“I’ve been so blown away by the support from other people in this little community we have going on,” says Comstock. “Heaton-Renshaw in particular has been such an enormous help. She brought me to fairs in the beginning, set me up with suppliers, basically just included me in anything she thought would help grow my business.”
That same sense of camaraderie and support is echoed throughout the interview, as mentions of chocolate suppliers devolve into discussions on price and quality, ending up with the women offering each other contacts or discussing how they can join forces to up their collective sales in the future.
Heaton-Renshaw already sells her products in cafés, shops and markets around town and has created The Little Blue Cart with Suharto, a late-night snack cart that they cycle around town, serving up sausages topped with chutney and cupcakes to the hungry hordes of drunken expats, but she’s ready for the next step.
“I need something to motivate me,” Heaton-Renshaw says. “I’d love to have a deli. I’m working with a factory to get my jams produced.”
Asuncion hopes to open a brick and mortar bagel joint that serves coffee and bagels by the end of this year and Suharto is on the lookout for bigger kitchen space. Gough recently went back to the kitchen full-time as Executive Chef at Downstairs with David Laris, but Nonna sweets and sourcing locally, a tenet of Downstairs culinary initiatives, are still something she ‘s passionate about.
“There is nothing better than locally-made, handmade and obviously well-made food. A homemade bagel with some homemade jam, you can’t beat that,” says Gough. “And all the better knowing that it’s made here, and not a million miles away!”