The Louis Vuitton of Cakes: Exclusive Interview with Founder of Lady M
Imagine this: After a long walk on Robertson Road, you’re dying to find something to satisfy that sweet tooth of yours. What better choice is there than to drop in and take a break at the patisserie Lady M, the Louis Vuitton of Cakes?
The shop has a clean and simplistic style of design. The walls and chairs are milky white, and even the white flowers on the dining tables seem to announce to you that you’ve arrived at a cake paradise. You envision yourself at the set of Gossip Girl, or Sex and the City, making small talk with the crème de la crème from the Upper East Side. Oprah Winfrey or Martha Stewart is just sitting there, smiling at you.
Well, this might be going a little overboard with the descriptions, but it does give you a relatively good idea and vivid image of the cakery that’s on everybody’s lips in China recently.
In Beijing, the atmosphere is quite different however. At the first day of the Lady M opening, huge crowds were lining up, eager to have a taste of the luxurious cakes. It’s not about the food, it’s what’s considered high-end fashion. A female anchor wearing a short skirt and dark red lipsticks went to the store for a live streaming show. People like her do natural marketing. Mr. Ken Romaniszyn, the CEO and founder of Lady M likes to refer to this as “word of mouth” marketing.
In 14 years’ time, they have gone from a single shop in New York to 31 stores around the globe, including seven in China, which is its second biggest market. The speed of growth is probably not that impressive compared with the exponentially growing local brands in China. HeyTea, the Cantonese tea brand, is opening at least one store every single week in China. However in this era of fast expansion, one should learn from Romaniszyn’s “quality first” mentality. His message is simple and clear, “It’s a fun business and I get to make people happy.”
Recently, Pandaily founder Kevin Zhou happened to be in Los Angeles, and managed to get a close-up interview with Romaniszyn, the man behind the exquisite mille crepes himself. The casual conversation took place on a pleasant afternoon on West 3rd Street. Romaniszyn shared with us stories about his upbringing and his cake-making history, while both him and Kevin indulged in mouth-watering strawberry short cakes.
You started Lady M in 2004. Can you tell me the story behind the founding of Lady M?
We started the company at around 2001, but the first store in New York opened in 2004.
Actually they are Japanese style cakes. A family friend wanted to introduce them to America, and we helped them come to New York and get started. We started a kind of wholesale business, in hotels and restaurants in New York. The cakes got so popular, we finally opened a store in 2004 for the first time. So we really started as an idea of a wholesale just to help other restaurants and hotels.
You were born in Hawaii? Tell me about your experiences?
I was born in the east coast, Pennsylvania. I grew up here (Los Angeles) and went to UCLA for my undergraduate, mostly growing up in southern California.
Basically every summer since I was born, I went back to see my grandmother in Tokyo. It was like “school is out” and the next day I was in Japan.
I studied international economics in UCLA, and Mandarin in Beijing Language and Culture University. I lived in Beijing for six months in 1995, the city is so different now. My first job in Hong Kong was for FIFA, setting up soccer tournaments in Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Thailand, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, and China, Asian Cup or World Cup qualifiers. Basically I lived out of a suitcase and traveled to all these different countries, setting up soccer tournaments everywhere. When you’re young, it’s good. no money but a lot of fun. I stayed in Dalian for two weeks, and then went to Saudi Arabia for 10 days, that’s what it was like.
Were you a cake-lover growing up?
Yes, I especially liked Japanese sweets that aren’t too sweet. American desserts tend to be too sweet, too much sugar. In a lot of American style cakes they don’t use the best ingredients, so instead they use a lot of sugar. Sugar can hide bad ingredients.
My favorite cake is strawberry short cake. Eating Japanese style strawberry short cake with my grandma in Japan is one of my favorite childhood memories. We also had them at the celebration of my son’s first 100 days two days ago.
For us, we really concentrate on using the best ingredients that we can find, no matter where we go, flour, strawberries, chestnuts. We get chestnuts from France and chocolate from Belgium, flour from Japan. We don’t just go to the grocery stores to get our ingredients. We go around the globe.
Several American brands, even Starbucks has worked with Alibaba to deliver coffee. Almost every restaurant in China does food delivery. What do you think of China’s food delivery services?
China’s ecosystem for retail is just phenomenal. In 1995, there was only cash, and in many places you couldn’t even use credit card. Now China just skipped the whole credit card revolution and completely bypassed it with mobile payment, like Alipay and WeChat. With all these easy payment methods, delivery services are just flourishing in China.
Are you considering delivering Lady M cakes?
I think we will, someday in the future. We would have to do it very carefully. Some other cake companies try to do delivery. But they may drive too fast, or make other deliveries in between, so the cake could be in the car for one hour. Then the quality isn’t as good as we’d like. But it would be nice to do deliveries in China, but we just have to make sure that the quality of the cake is respected. I would just be worried about the back of the bike.
Sometimes we get customers with a long list of things to buy, “five of this, three of that..” so I can tell that they’re getting deliveries for other people. In China, a lot of people fly to Hong Kong to buy like eight cakes and bring them back. People are doing it so much that Shanghai customs banned Lady M. It’s crazy!
You chose to open your first mainland China store in Shanghai. Why Shanghai?
Yeah, we opened the first store in Pudong, Shanghai two years ago in September, and the second one in Puxi, Shanghai, Xintiandi. And then we opened one in Hangzhou, Nanjing, and then in Beijing.
For eight years, I used to live in Hong Kong and I traveled to Shanghai for work a lot. I really like the city. Shanghai reminds me more of New York, a lot of fashion, a lot of art, more trendy I guess. We find a lot of our customers care about fashion, and the people that come here dress nicely, with nice handbags, nice shoes and a nice car. But from Shanghai, we had to get used to things before we could open in Beijing.
We took our time before going to China. We did a lot of research. We probably had tens of thousands of franchise requests from China. From the top ten wealthiest people China, to young curious students, they were all asking “Can you work with us? We want to open Lady M in China.” We took a lot of time finding good local partners, someone who’s able to communicate and respect the brand. We were looking for people willing to make the necessary investments to grow the brand, grow it slowly. We don’t want to grow too fast, because for us we really want to focus on quality. We could open 100 stores in one year in China if we wanted to. But I feel like the cake wouldn’t be made well. “Manmanlai” (Chinese: Take it easy!)
Are you also going to open the Sanlitun store in December?
Disclaimer: Sanlitun is a popular high-fashion destination for shopping and dining in Beijing.
I don’t think it’s going to happen this year, maybe next year. They are doing a big renovation there. So “fashion”! What I find funny is that some girls get dressed up, they go to Sanlitun and ask photographers to take pictures of them.
Is the flavor in the US exactly the same as in China?
I can’t say exactly because we can’t get the same ingredients. China is always so much more strict with food than America. The laws are fascinating. We have the cleanest factories, and our own laboratories to test all the food. We take triple precautions. Our factories in Shanghai are all medical level in cleanliness. American people would think China is very relaxed on this. It’s not. China is very strict about how things are made, and they make sure we are testing, especially for food.
Lady M is really good at branding and marketing. Did you do any marketing campaign in China?
Not so much. I think we’re very lucky because of social media now like WeChat and Weibo. We’re very fortunate to have students studying in America sharing their American experiences with their friends in China. A lot of students here would see our commitment to quality, really like it and then share it. I felt like the word-of-mouth advertising really helped us spread the word to China.
All the stores, no matter in the US or in China, are kind of small. Are you doing this on purpose?
It’s just the nature of where we tend to go, we always end up renting in expensive locations. The New York store is the biggest one we have, with 20+ seats. We always go to big cities, so the rent is really high. We try to choose the best location.
We don’t wanna go somewhere with super cheap rent if there are no people there. We tend to go to higher fashion spots. We got Robertson Road here, a very fashionable street, and the Beverly Center. We got the Beverly Hills close by, so there is a lot of traffic here. They are big major cities, Boston, Chicago, LA, New York. In the future, we are gonna go to San Francisco, Seattle and Huston.
Are you worried about China’s copycats?
There are so many already. I’ve tried a few, and they are not as good. I think it’s the nature of the business. It’s like Louis Vuitton, there are a lot of fake Louis Vuittons. Do you want an original or a copycat? If we stay committed to the quality, I think we should be OK.
If we try to make the mistake and try to open a hundred stores in one year in China, then the quality will go down and we won’t be any different from the copycats. I know there are so many copycats, using our pictures and all that stuff. They just show up on social media.
What do you do on a normal working day? Visiting different stores?
Not so much. I go to work for some 24 hours a day for like a year. There is a lot going on. We have new projects going on internationally, focused on a lot of new products. We are working on some new things for Lady M, other brands outside of cakes, venturing out in different things, maybe in the sweets industry. And there are legal, financial and HR issues. The bigger you get, the more problems and challenges come up.
Now we have 300 employees in the US, globally we have over 1000 people. The main headquarters is in New York, but the office and factory are here in LA. We are building a factory in San Francisco. Those are the three main locations here. We have global partners in Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan. New products, new cakes, new packaging and things of that nature. We are trying to do some creative collaborations with artists, singers and movie stars. I want to collaborate with Supreme, the fashion brand. So many kids are wearing it.
How do you make sure that the quality is always the best?
We do taste a lot. For all the countries we go to, the head chef is from our team. In China right now, the head chef Japanese lady is also from our team, checking everything. From our team, one lady is in charge of the international stores, and she goes to China every month. I talk to the China (team) almost everyday on WeChat. I have my China phone.
In China, it’s totally different. If someone is doing really good, they will expand as quickly as possible.
For me, growing quickly scares me. I fear about quality. We don’t want it to be popular in China for just one or two years. When my son grows up and graduates from college, I still want Lady M to be there.
In China, even in Japan, one of the worst thing that could happen is overnight sensation. If you become so popular, you can become unpopular so fast, it’s almost another American phrase “kiss of death”. Cake itself is not a new invention, you’ve had birthday cake since you were one year old. But like HeyTea, or other desserts, are inventive and new. So sometimes they get popular and then go away fast. But cake has been here since the beginning of time, cake is part of celebration for every culture, Japan, China, Saudi Arabia, Russia. So the whole cake industry is never going to go away.
So we’ve taken an industry that lasted for a long time. We change it by trying to raise the level of the quality, the texture and the appearance. Even people in America are not used to paying 90 dollars for a cake. But a lot of people try this and say, “Oh I can taste the difference, now I understand.”
In China, a lot of businesses in recent years are backed by venture capital, which always pushes them to grow as quickly as possible.
The mentality of venture capital or private equity is that, they want to buy something now, they pressure you to grow quickly because they want to sell to somebody else. We do everything by ourselves, we’re self-financed. That’s how we grow slowly. Because I don’t have a lot of money, I can’t grow fast, which is kind of good and bad. But I think it’s good. This is a small family business. We don’t have Tencent or Alibaba giving us unlimited funds.
(Featured photo credit to Lady M Taiwan)