By Prudence Minayo
Valentine Cake House is a leading bakery in Kenya with 31 branches spread across the country. The owner, Mathew Gathua, was a dishwasher who had a bigger vision and he worked hard to realize it. He dropped out of school and this meant he had no certificates that would have enabled him to be gainfully employed. Determined to make it in life, the self-taught chef put his best foot forward and built an empire that is Valentine Cake House.
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He is 52-years-old. Mathew was born in 1969.
The entrepreneur came from a very humble background. His parents could not afford to pay his fees forcing him to prematurely drop out of school.
He then worked as an untrained mason for a while in Kiserian before an uncle who lived in Mombasa connected him with a job as a kitchen hand.
Mathew worked as a dishwasher but was always fascinated with baking. His work station was close to the area where chefs would bake. He keenly watched them and internalised the craft of baking cakes. Soon, he was offering his assistance whenever possible.
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Sharing his journey on TV47, the entrepreneur said he learned baking on the job,
“My uncle took me to work at a hotel in South Coast as a hotel cleaner. After cleaning dishes I would cross over to pastry and lend the old bakers a hand in their work. I never knew about pastry and baking, I learned it by default on the job,” the Valentine’s Cake owner said.
Within a year, he was promoted to assist the bakers. He worked at Golden Beach Hotel for two years and then he secured a job at Intercontinental Hotel where he worked for another two years.
In 1996, he quit his job to start his own business. He had saved Ksh27,000 which he used to buy an oven.
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Also Read: Eugene Mbugua Profile, Education, Career, Big Break, TV Shows, Businesses & Awards“With my three months salary worth Ksh 27000, I bought an oven at ksh26000. A lady I used to help baking while at the hotel, Mama Carol, lent me a mixer. I was all set and excited to get into the business,” he explained in the same interview.
From his home, he began baking cupcakes and would sell them to different places including at school gates and the Kenyatta Public beach. He sold them at Ksh10 and in a day would make up to Ksh420.
Unfortunately, his mother fell sick forcing Mathew to look for employment after his savings were depleted taking care of her. When she died, he received Ksh30,000 her mother had saved in a SACCO. The money afforded him a mixer and he started a small bakery in Bombolulu.
He named the small shop Valentine as he loved the display of red flowers he would see whenever he visited Nairobi on Valentine’s day. According to Valentine’s website, the businessman closed his first outlet in Mombasa because of “myriad teething problems” and relocated to Nairobi.
Move to Nairobi
In 1999, he moved to Nairobi after realizing cakes fetched higher prices in the capital city compared to Mombasa. But his capital was not enough to set up shop and he had to look for a job in the meantime. He secured employment at Sarova Panafric, where he worked for two years.
The award winning businessman was able to set up his first outlet outside Mombas in Ongata Rongai after raising enough capital. He got enough clients and referrals having worked in the hotel industry. His biggest client at the time was Catholic University.
In 2005, he opened a second branch at Old Mutual Building, which also acts as Valentine Cakes headquarters. This has been followed by many other branches within and outside Nairobi.
Challenges and Lessons
Mr. Gathua has learnt to use his savings to finance his business rather than loans and has learnt the importance of resilience and hard work. He shared how he would hide from K-Rep Bank officials when they came to collect repayments from a ksh100,000 loan he had secured to open an outlet in Komarock that flopped:
” I was forced to pay 2500 per week to K-Rep Bank yet I didn’t have the money nor the means to get it. I would hide from K-Rep officials every Tuesday when they would come looking,” he said.
One of the major challenges he has encountered is the high taxes.
In 2007, he opened Valentine School of Cake to train bakers. Since its establishment, the school has produced over 6,000 trained bakers.
The Valentine Cake House founder runs a foundation named Naomi Kuria in honor of his late mother.
The foundation offers scholarships to bright but needy students. It also operates St. Ruthma Children’s Home in Ruiru.
Through the foundation, more than 100 students have completed high school and some proceeded to university.
In 2019, the company launched its Corporate social investment wing to support communities through various initiatives. The launch took place at Suki gardens in Kiserian. The foundation seeks to build a dispensary in Kajiado and provide scholarships to more needy children.
Valentine’s bakery employs more than 200 people. The company has managed to stay relevant over the years despite the stiff competition in the industry.
In 2019, Valentine Cake House was listed among top 100 mid-sized companies by KPMG.
They were also nominated for the Kenya Wedding Industry Award under the Wedding Cake Category.
Mathew Gathua has also been nominated for the Kenya Wedding Industry Award under the Wedding Industry Lifetime Achievement Award.
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