Fat by name, fabulous by nature, we catch up with Nira and Heba Shunbo of classic American bakery, The Four Fat Ladies, to find out why their baked good are so obscenely delicious and ask the million dollar question: why aren't you fat?
In a country where cupcakes reign supreme, three sisters are educating our tastebuds on what deserts should really taste like. Famous for their Salted Caramel Brownies, and for adding inches to our waistline, Nira, Heba and Sherine Shunbo are revolutionising what we expect from a bakery, all from their home kitchen. All three sisters have been baking since they were children, but it wasn't until friends and family started requesting Nira to bake things especially for them that they had the idea to turn their hobby into a delicious business. Now delivering all over Cairo, the terrific trio have changed the desert game. We talk to Heba and Nira about their brand, their baking and find out what happened to the fourth (not-so) fat lady...
What happened to the fourth fat lady?
Both: We ate her!
But you’re not even fat...
Nira: This is 25 kilos later!
Heba: We had a big brainstorm around the name and we decided that the Four Fat Ladies sounded much better than the Three Average Ladies!
Nira: A lot of people asked me: "Aren't you worried about having Fat in the name?" Because it's like telling people, straight up, that its fattening. I told them that everything is fattening these days, unless you are eating an ice cube or drinking water.
So let’s start at the beginning. Three sisters sitting around. What happened next?
Nira: Three sisters who love to bake, to be honest. We've been baking for a very long time. I started baking when I was little with my mum, and then I started baking on my own when I was nine. Sherine, our eldest sister, was also cooking on her own. We'd always fight over the batter, as I'd eat half of it before it made it to the oven! My grandmother from my fathers side is Syrian and she is an amazing cook then my mother learned the secrets of baking which made it to The Four Fat Ladies , in the States. The business seemed like a natural extension of who we are.
What does each of you do in the business?
Nira: I do the baking and PR, since that’s what my background is in.
Heba: I do marketing and operations, as well as buying ingredients.
Nira: Sherine is the most talented when it comes to baking. In college she used to watch all the cooking shows religiously. She took it from her grandmother and she is a perfectionist, so she still tweaks the recipes with me like Salted Caramel Brownies and Chocolate Chip Cookies which took forever!
How long is forever?
Nira: The Chocolate Chip Cookies took two years… our Cheese Cake took about 15 years! It was our mum’s recipe and we evolved over time.
Do you fight over it?
Nira: Of course, we are three highly opinionated and independent sisters! We fight all the time and compete a lot.
How is the business going and how is the feedback been so far?
Heba: The feedback is great actually, the number of orders have increased dramatically. I had my client base before we started, people that have been ordering from me for the last four or five years. So when we officially made it a business our database increased and Facebook has gotten us a lot of attention.
So this is a home operation?
Nira: Yes, we rent a flat for now and we don’t have immediate plans to open a store yet. Our initial idea was to work online for the first year and see how it goes.
Heba: And we just introduced delivery a couple of months ago. Initially, you had to come pick it up but now, wherever you are in Cairo, you can get your baked goodies. We use a courier that specialises in food delivery so it’ll always come fresh and intact!
Nira: You have to make your order 24 hours in advance usually, but sometimes it has to be 48 hours as people don't order just one thing, they usually order a dozen of things.
How many kilos of butter and sugar do you go through in a week?
Nira: I can tell you how many kilos of butter we've gone through in the last few days; just a kilo and half. Not as much as you think, because a lot of recipes don't have that much butter. Way more sugar is used, as everything has sugar in it.
So how can we get a job as a taster The Four Fat Ladies!?
Nira: Hahaha, our friends and us taste everything a million times, don’t worry!
Your menu is very classic. How do you compete with other bakeries who have crazy variations on offer?
Heba: We wanted to bake the things that we do well and have that be our identity. Other bakeries might have crazy, eye-catching items that look good but often they don’t taste good. We go for quality and taste rather than the looks and gimmicks, and in that way we are more of an authentic, traditional American bakery.
Nira: It is really rare to find a bakery in Egypt that tastes really good but if there was I'd be the first one to admit it. I find that a lot of deserts lack flavour here and a lot of times it seems like the owners don’t understand baking. Not all of them, of course. Our bakery is not fancy; it's good, it looks homemade and tastes homemade. But sometimes we do introduce one-off things. Last Ramadan, for example, we had a Kunafa Cheese Cake.
Don’t you think not having a store gives your competition the edge?
Nira: Yes, deserts, candies and chocolates are really impulse buys, but we depend more on people who are hosting an event or going to a 3ezouma, so they’re already planning ahead of time. We have loyal customers that would rather wait and get their quality treatment. And, that’s not to mention, we make things no one else does!
Are your ingredients local?
Nira: Not all of the ingredients are Egyptian, but all of them are available here. The basic ingredients here are really good but when it comes to Chocolate Chip Cookies, for example, the chocolate cannot be Egyptian as it doesn't melt properly in your mouth and does not taste good. On the other hand, there are some things that taste better in Egypt than when we’ve made them in the States! Why do you think you can never find bagel like in New York City? The weather is different, the flour is different and the water, which is essential, is different as well.
Speaking of NYC, what do you think of the Cronut?
Nira: What’s that?
Heba: It’s a croissant-doughnut hybrid that actually tastes like some kind of bad honey bread!
Nira: Going to culinary school, I was very contented not having to do neither bread, nor croissants or any of those pastries! They are extremely time consuming; they're not difficult, but I am not going to compete with half of Egyptian bakeries that already do them. That goes slightly away from what we do. Croissants are French and Cronuts are a French pastry with American twist. Americans love to do that; take something that belongs to somebody else and put an American twist on it. We want to stick to what we're good at. That’s why we aren't doing cupcakes; we can do cupcakes way better than most of places in this country but would I enter the market and compete with people who already own this segment. I am a full believer of that to spread yourself over too many things, you’ll do nothing well.
We hear you won awards for your branding. Tell us about that:
Heba: That's not us, unfortunately. A friend of mine, Mohamed Abbas has designed the logo for us. Abbas knows Nira well, so he kind of based the face on her facial expressions and smiles. We were actually really lucky.
Nira: I worked in PR so I know all those advertising people. Abbas is the best person to do this job, as he understands Egyptian mentality better than most people. We gave him some directions on what can be done with the name The Four Fat Ladies. It's American bakery, we wanted something traditional and not so sophisticated and he ran with it.
Unfortunately in Egypt, businesses tend to start out strong, but over time quality decreases and prices increase. How do you plan to avoid that?
Nira: Price increase is constant, it's going to keep on happening unfortunately. A few days ago I bought one of the key ingredients and the prices actually have gone up like 10 LE over night. Everybody increases prices, this is how it will always be; we might consider an increase in prices in another 3-4 months but it is not wise to do that now. Our prices might increase, but we’ll never compromise on quality.
So what do The Four Fat Ladies have to say to their competitors in Egypt?
Nira: Watch out! I think healthy competition is good; it keeps you on your toes, innovating.
Heba: I think competition builds room for growth in Egypt. So good luck to them!
Find out more about The Four Fat Ladies and place your order here.