Leila Sedky first noticed the Western craze for cupcakes as an undergraduate in Canada, and she was immediately intrigued. So much so that she, along with her younger brother, decided to introduce the decadent dessert to the Egyptian market.
After graduating with a BA in finance from Concordia University in Montreal, Canada, Sedky turned down her father’s offer to finance her postgraduate studies in England, asking him instead to fund her cupcake project.
“I told him: Instead of the master’s degree, let’s invest in this project, and I asked him to give me only one year so that I could prove to him how successful the project could be,” said the 30-year-old Sedky.
With EGP700,000 (US$39,130) in capital, Sedky and her brother opened the first branch of NOLA Cupcakes in the upper-middle-class neighborhood of Zamalek in 2010.
“We Egyptians love food, and I myself love food and enjoy it so much. Hence, I really wanted to get into the food business but I wanted to introduce a product that would meet international standards of quality and hygiene,” said Sedky.
Over eight years, NOLA opened 22 branches in 10 provinces nationwide, established its own factory in one of Cairo’s main industrial hubs, and hired 350 employees.
“In a short period of time, we could establish a name and be present everywhere,” she said. “Our products can now beat any other brand because we offer the best quality and we are always innovative.”
Maintaining the brand’s high quality remains Sedky’s main concern.
“In Egypt, [food and beverage] businesses usually have a successful start,” she said. “Then, owners start compromising the quality in order to increase their profits until the brand gets too unstable.
“It is true that Egyptians like food but not all food brands can survive for so long. Customers cannot forgive you when you mess up with a food brand or do not maintain the same quality.”
Based on customer feedback, Sedky diversified her products. In addition to cupcakes, NOLA launched a comprehensive line of pastries and desserts that includes croissants, sandwiches, macaroons, chocolate, ice-cream and cakes.
NOLA’s target clientele is diverse too, according to Sedky.
“NOLA products are a luxury affordable to all,” she said. “You can walk in and buy a cupcake for EGP15 or a cake for EGP300.”
Sedky, who stands out as a model for young female entrepreneurs in Egypt, believes her gender has helped NOLA grow. “My being a woman helped NOLA a lot because there were lots of opportunities that are exclusively available to women, such as trainings and loans,” she said.
“Yet it was my age rather than my gender that posed the biggest challenge in the beginning. I was a 23-year-old fresh graduate when I first started and people used to look down upon me as a kid. I wanted to prove that I was no kid and that I was so passionate about my work.”
Apart from her age, the instability of the Egyptian market, following the January 2011 upheaval, posed a further challenge to Sedky’s business.
“At the time, I believed that the market could take our business model, especially that we opened only two months before the revolution and at the time there was real economic growth. We were unaware then of what was coming,” said Sedky.
She added that the economic uncertainty, particularly the fluctuating local currency, did affect their business in the aftermath of the revolution.
Yet Sedky now feels more optimistic about the Egyptian market, and hopes to attract investors from the food and beverage sector who can help her brand reach global markets.
“Today, we are very confident that there will be economic growth. Also, NOLA has already created its own network in the Egyptian market and the customer has adjusted to the new NOLA prices,” she added.