How many accountants and engineers does it take to create a roaringly-successful bakery? The answer is one of each. Giselle Sim and her husband and business partner Harold Bong were living very different corporate lives in Sydney before doing a complete 180 and taking a big leap into the unknown.
Now, that leap of faith is paying dividends for Giselle and Harold, not to mention those who frequent their specialty bakery, Croff.
Situated ideally in the Perth CBD, Croff only opened in January this year, bearing the brunt of the coronavirus pandemic, but has become a firm favourite with the corporate lunch crowd for its unique specialty croissants and coffee. In fact, the bakery got its name from those two things: croissants and coffee equals Croff.
“Our logo is pretty much a picture of a croissant and a coffee mug,” says Giselle of the naming choice.
“We wanted to open a bakery and do croissants and coffee and be a specialty house. Just make really good croissants and sell really good coffee. It’s a small market and there haven’t been a lot of such things in WA.”
The specialty menu is far from simple or limiting, however: Giselle says one of their most important goals in starting Croff was having a really good base product to build on. And build on it they have – along with a few permanent items, Giselle and Harold try to come up with one new savoury and one new sweet flavour every month, drawing on their travels and upbringings for inspiration.
“Most people know that our croissants are kind of like an Asian fusion, with a lot of Asian flavours,” Giselle says.
“So, we kind of went ahead with that route, like ‘okay, what was good in our own cuisine that tastes well in itself and could actually be incorporated into a croissant?’ The first few flavours we came up with are even to this day still on our menu because they were just so popular.”
One of these early additions was the Salted Egg Croissant, which Giselle likens to salted caramel, and the other one was a Pandan Coconut, which consists of coconut frangipane with a pandan coconut jam.
“I like very classic Asian flavours and it’s really blended so well with a really nice flaky pastry that people really love,” she says.
“It has been a journey to really create new flavours and new ideas because we really want it to be innovative and creative.”
In terms of juggling the work, Giselle and Harold have a pretty great balance of teamwork going on behind the scenes, with Giselle handling the croissants and sweet fillings, while leaving Harold to embrace his wild side by coming up with the savoury fillings.
My husband loves food so much and he loves cooking – it’s always been his little passion and he’s been crazy about doing different things,” Giselle says.
“I think he’s a bit more modern than I am with the ideas he comes up with on the savoury menu. He’s like, ‘oh it can work; try this and try that’, and he’s really crazy coming out with so many savoury items.
“We have some really popular ones like the BBQ Pork Croissant and the newest one we have is Korean Fried Chicken Sanga. We make a croissant loaf in-house – we make it into a big loaf of croissant and slice it into sandwiches. People love it because it’s different from the plain white bread or sourdough – it’s buttery and crispy.
“It’s just been a lot of coming up with wild ideas and has been quite a fun journey.”
Considering the expertise with which Giselle talks about baking and the creative process behind developing new flavours, you might be surprised to learn that neither she, nor Harold, come from baking backgrounds. Far from it in fact, with Giselle having previously been an accountant in Sydney, and Harold an engineer with his own business.
The couple moved back to Perth a year or two before opening Croff, during which time Giselle took the little passion she had for baking and started learning to make pastries. Eventually, Harold started encouraging her to pursue it as a career.
“I was interested in how it all comes together and all the perfection that can come into making croissants,” she says.
“One and a half years into moving here I was just sitting here at home and he (Harold) started pressuring me into doing my own thing. Being driven himself and running his own business he was like, ‘why not just give it a shot before we get married and settle down and before we get too old and you regret not giving it a shot.’
“So, we started planning and seeing what we could do, and we came up with having this shop in the city.”
Without hospitality backgrounds, some of the work involved in starting a bakery came as a surprise to the pair when compared with opening any other type of business, with various regulations to consider, as well as the general fit out of the store and the necessary equipment.
“It took us quite a bit of time to get everything up and going,” Giselle says.
“We had to do a lot of stuff by ourselves because we wanted to save money – not spending so much money on a first-time new business.
“We were really hands-on with doing a lot of the renovations and buying the equipment and learning how to refurbish them.”
Despite working to a budget, the store’s design and branding really stand out, with some big-name inspiration behind many of the styling choices including Supermoon Bakehouse in New York City, and Melbourne’s own Lune Croissant. Giselle says she loved the neon and pink of Supermoon, as well as the industrial feel of Lune.
“We just loved the industrial look of it, so we tried to incorporate that with the pink neon to give a good contrast to the design.
“Our store is really long, so it’s a good space to have people be able to watch and have a bigger space than just a really tiny shop front. We ended up knocking down walls and ended up creating a glass kitchen in the middle so people can see through the kitchen, see what we’re doing and also have a bigger, open, more spacious feeling when you walk into the shop.”
By January this year, they were set up and really to make the leap, not knowing that a global pandemic was about to knock the whole world off-kilter. After a strong opening, COVID-19 meant a drop in profits for the brand new store, which was also ineligible for government assistance due to how recently it had opened, but Giselle and Harold made the decision to forge ahead while many other stores were closing – a decision that turned fruitful.
“We made a choice to keep the staff and keep it open just to kind of invest and believe that we could gain new customers during this time, Giselle says.
“We had a lot of shops close and businesses not operating in the city and working from home, but fortunately we had the minority of people who did have to go into the city and work and they sort of had nowhere else to go because their usual places were shut.”
The lack of lunch options in the Perth CBD led to workers discovering Croff and then passing the word onto friends and co-workers that they must try it.
“They try our product, taste our croissants and coffee and really love our environment and spread the word,” Giselle says.
“It helps to gain new people walking through our doors and keep us afloat. We’re really grateful and thankful to the whole community for being so supportive.”
Having survived such a turbulent nine or 10 months since opening, it’s only natural to wonder what will be next for the pocket rocket that is Croff. As it turns out, Giselle and Harold have somewhat differing opinions on this front.
“We’re still seeing how everything goes,” Giselle says.
“Harold likes to dream big and everything, but I personally want to make what we have really good. I believe in doing things well.
“Expanding is a choice and it may or may not happen, but I want to make sure the foundation is good and we have a few good products. We’ll do the best we can with what we have so far.”