I arrive early on a weekday morning and sit in a cosy corner of Bisou Bake Shop (“Bisou”)’s beautifully decorated Tea Room in Bangsar Village I. Bisou’s founder and Creative Director, Debbra Lee, appears just a few minutes later, warmly greets me, before pausing to politely ask: “Do you think we could move to another table?”
The reason? “Aunty Joy”, an 87-year-old lady, was expected to turn up as she usually did, almost every morning. With a chuckle, Debbra explains, “It’s her special corner, I think she likes the view from there, so she can enjoy people-watching.” (Debbra later shares that she’s even bought a pretty cushion, kept behind the counter just for Aunty Joy’s use, as the wooden chairs at the tea room “may be a bit hard for a lady that age!”)
That’s how hands-on Debbra is with her business; even as she spends the year residing in three different countries, has four Bisou branches in Malaysia to oversee, and a family to manage, she still personally upholds Bisou’s ethos of serving delicious, high-quality cakes with great, personal service.
How her mumpreneur journey started
As a fitness buff and a certified trainer who taught in hospital rehab centres, Debbra’s first business venture was to open her own pregnancy fitness centre, called Fit for 2. Why pregnancy fitness? “Because I was a mum to a young child too,” says Debbra, “and I just wanted to do something that I felt really strongly about. I felt there was a need for not just the fitness side of things, but for a community of mothers to support each other, because I really struggled with motherhood.”
Debbra candidly shares her experience with postnatal depression, explaining that the “transition from being me to being somebody’s mum was huge. There was just so much responsibility that came with it. I was miserable.” Joining mummy groups somehow didn’t help during the first year, as other mamas were busy sharing all the positive side of parenting, while sweeping their struggles under the carpet. It was only during her daughter’s first birthday, when other mums congratulated her on “making it through the hardest year”, that Debbra finally received the reassurance all new mamas truly need. “So it’s not just me, I’m not the worst mum in the world [for feeling this way]!” she recalls thinking.
And so, a little café in the fitness space was the perfect addition to create the safe, open community and space that she believed all mamas needed. “I did all the baking, and also had a little kitchen serving healthy, homemade children’s meals.” This became a space for bumps, mums and muffins, a place where women at different points of their motherhood journey could share their real experiences with each other. As a graduate in statistics, Debbra also did some number-crunching and calculated that the revenue from the café would be a great help with the rent of the studio too; a perfect win-win situation.
The many pivots through the years
Having a pregnancy fitness space with such a niche offering unfortunately wasn’t easy back in the 90s, and together with her husband, Debbra moved on to open other food businesses. “I’ve got a really supportive husband,” Debbra says gratefully. With a husband who would step in with things such as school pick-ups and who absolutely enjoys spending time with his daughter, Debbra could focus on a business model that she believed would succeed. “I didn’t like the restaurant model, because there were too many variables that are difficult to control, while baking is much more scientific.” She wanted a business that was scalable, because that’s “where you can grow it.” Even with a lower margin, Debbra believed she could still count on succeeding by focusing on volume.
And thus, her beloved Bisou was birthed.
The secret ingredient: Lasting 16 years in a competitive industry
Bisou has withstood the test of time, managing to survive and thrive for 16 years in a highly competitive food and beverage industry. When asked about the secret to her business’s sustainability, Debbra shared her recipe for success, “We’re here because we maintain our quality. We really do it the old-fashioned way. Everything is made from scratch.” Of course, some adjustments have had to be made along the way, with some of her cakes being reduced in size to keep up with the rising costs of running a business. But, Debbra emphasises, there was not, and will never be, a compromise on quality.
An inclusive environment, especially for the working mamas
Behind the pretty cakes we see displayed at Bisou’s stores is a wonderful team working within a culture that values honesty, accountability, and collaborative efforts. “I want to have a place where there is no politics, where there’s [straightforward] honesty,” Debbra firmly says. With their schedule being planned a year in advance, all levels of the kitchen team are also involved in the fun, yearly exercise of coming up with cute, potential designs for all 12 of Bisou’s “cupcakes of the month” for the year.
Debbra is also well-aware of the struggles faced by working mums. She makes sure that the working mums within her team are supported, to enable them to thrive not just at work, but also at home. To support greater flexibility at work, Bisou even has a library, which is “essentially just a big room with a big table, and during the school holidays, the children are welcome to come in to work.”
Always a silver lining
As a mother and an entrepreneur, Debbra has had to field many unique challenges along the way. Recently, during the lockdown period of the pandemic, she found herself stuck in London with her daughter, separated from her husband in Singapore, and having all her physical stores in limbo in Malaysia. But something positive emerged from those unprecedented years. Being the adaptive person she is, Debbra started a weekly “Bake Along” virtual meet, which began as a way for family and friends to connect and find glimmers of happiness. “[In the beginning], I felt really, really helpless. And then I thought- okay, I can bake, and I can teach people to bake, and then they can bake things for themselves and eat it themselves at home. Everyone will be happy right?”, she says with a laugh.
This then expanded into Bisou Bake Alongs, with customers from around the world, a Digital Bake With Bisou Recipe Book featuring easy recipes with minimal ingredients, and all-in-one Baking and Decorating Kits. Debbra also found a way to contribute to society during the lockdown, with 100% of proceeds from the same of her digital recipe books going to charity ever since its inception. With Bisou having donated their unsold cakes to charities “right from day one”, finding such avenues were simple, as they had already established their points of contact for charity. “I don’t believe in throwing away food. We have a shelf life of two days [for our products],” before everything is then given away to those in need.
The person who helped record the Bake Alongs was none other than Debbra’s daughter, who was studying at a boarding school in London. “[My daughter and I ended up] having a really good time. It was very nice [with] just the two of us!”, shares Debbra. When asked about the highlights of this period, she answers, with a twinkle in her eye, “I’m a bit of a cracko. We used to clear all the furniture in the living room and just dance around. We would turn off all the lights, bouncing around the room and following along to IG live classes on Friday nights.” Walks in outdoor parks were allowed, and Debbra and her daughter would also take long daily walks, watching the seasons change together.
Challenges, changes and growth
The challenges of running a business never really stop, and Bisou’s iconic branch in KLCC, which has been around for 12 years, was forced to close its doors early this year.
Debbra decided to end the last day with a party, focusing on the positives and seeing the occasion as something to celebrate, and honour the past 12 years. This bittersweet event saw mini cupcake giveaways, special deals for customers, and the exchange of heartwarming stories. She describes a story that stood out in particular to her – about a customer who told her how she grew together with Bisou. “I started my first job [at KLCC] 12 years ago. With my first paycheck, I bought a box of cupcakes for my parents and one for myself. I’ve bought one for myself every month since,” she recounts the customer saying.
Growing a business is certainly about adapting, moving forward, and celebrating the good that has happened. Debbra has now shifted her focus, pivoting once again and venturing into new spaces at The LINC KL, 163 Retail Park and IOI City Mall, all slated to open in 2023.
Now is the time
With her inspiring story on riding the tides of a business, we asked Debbra for her view on mothers in the workforce, and for any advice she may have for budding mumpreneurs. “I think women have so much to contribute,” she shares emphatically. “Mothers, in particular, are the best people to work with, because they are so good at organising their time, fitting everything all in.” Not only will working give mamas a confidence booster, but their “kids [will also] get to see [their mums] as individuals”, with unique identities separate from their roles as wives and mothers.
With the new working culture of working from home, flexible hours, and the growth of online businesses, it’s a great time to start now. “And if it doesn’t work, try something else,” encourages Debbra, echoing the many pivots she has personally gone through. This “something else” should, however, “be something that you are passionate or interested about”. After all, growing a business certainly requires resilience and sticking power – something that will be much easier if you actually like and enjoy what you are doing!
And that, mamas, is the sweet story of Debbra Lee and Bisou’s rise to success. From fitness to food, and muffins to making a change, Debbra’s journey has been one filled with determination, hard work, and a whole lot of heart. So the next time you find yourself in one of Bisou’s cozy cafés, take a moment to savour not just their delectable treats, but also the inspiring story behind them.