Lungile Mhlanga, founder of the Treats Club
Courtesy of the Treats Club
Many business models have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic in the past 12 months. Some companies have closed their doors while others have used this time to adapt their business models to a technological age. In the baking industry, consumers have traditionally made physical purchases because they want fresh produce. One entrepreneur who quickly built a formidable dessert brand and used the lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic to grow her business is Lungile Mhlanga, Founder of the Treats Club.
Mhlanga grew up in Essex, UK, with creativity being a large part of her childhood and encouraged by her parents. She initially wanted to pursue a career in the performing arts, but quickly realized it wasn’t for her, but “the journey of falling and standing that I learned while trying it out was extremely valuable”. While enrolled in college, Mhlanga also had a part-time job at Benefit Cosmetics as a makeup consultant. Although Mhlanga had to wake up for work at 5 a.m., she loved her job and wanted to spend more time on it, so she dropped out of college to work full time. She spent a few years at Benefit Cosmetics, but looked for a job at Mac Cosmetics, where she received a job offer and eventually worked at the famous Harrods department store
During Mhlanga’s time at Harrods, she interacted with many clients from Dubai who told her how great the country is, which piqued her interest. Then the opportunity arose to work for Mac as a manager in Dubai, which Mhlanga knew she had to apply for. She didn’t have enough money for a flight, but she borrowed it from a colleague and flew out for the interview for 48 hours. She was offered the job immediately and left for Dubai shortly after, after barely mentioning it to family and friends. She started out as assistant manager, but soon found herself in a regional coaching role, where she was responsible for training new employees on makeup and dealing with clients. That experience really improved her customer service skills. That role took her across the Middle East and India and “was a fantastic experience with some amazing colleagues,” she recalls.
After a wonderful few years in the Middle East and India, Mhlanga wanted to return to London. After a stay in Italy, she moved back to London and had to resign as there were no immediately available positions. While trying to figure out what to do next in her career, she remembered learning how to take business seriously and run a business from many people she’d baked for in both Dubai and London should establish. She started working on the idea of posting photos on her Instagram page and soon after her first corporate client was Mac Cosmetics, a testament to the great terms she left behind. A big hiatus came when she was contacted by Extra Slice, a sister TV show to the award-winning British Bake Off. All guests invited were asked to design a dessert, and Mhlanga chose donuts. These donuts were selected to be included on the show, and she was selected as a “Star Baker,” which served as an endorsement that she should turn that passion into a “real” business 100%.
Treat club expansion
To expand her business, Mhlanga sought out a market stall and was fortunate enough to be granted a concession on Chatsworth Road Market in Hackney in November 2018. Experience in a local market taught Mhlanga how to deal with regular customers and today it is mentioned that “getting new customers is great, but recurring income from your regular customers is your bread and butter”.
A turning point came in April 2019 when Mhlanga entered a baking competition. To get noticed, she chose to make hot donuts instead of pre-made donuts and they were a hit. She didn’t win the competition but the judges told her whatever she does to keep making those hot donuts. She brought the concept to her booth and they were a complete success. To capitalize on the dynamism of their hot donuts, Mhlanga opened a pop-up shop in London’s Old Street Station. However, due to construction work that coincided with the dates of their pop-up, the experience was a disaster, and “I’ve never been so ashamed in my life,” recalls Mhlanga. She had spent considerable money and was unable to put it back on sale. However, the notoriety the pop-up got her in both the press and eyes, led to many corporate partnerships. The first partnership was with the Universal Music Group, which was a moment of the circle for Mhlanga, who grew up as a singer. It was “the first time I felt this was a real deal”.
Treat Club DIY Kits
Courtesy of the Treats Club
Pan into the future
A lot has changed and grown for the Treats Club in the past year. The pandemic and subsequent lockdown meant they had to close their market stalls. However, Mhlanga was never defeated and, with her parents’ encouragement, looked for a way to keep selling. She couldn’t sell her hot donuts online as they would be cold when she arrived. However, she had noticed many companies, such as restaurants, that were selling kits so you could do it yourself at home. She tested the idea for donut kits and soon afterwards developed a website selling these kits.
With very little marketing, the kits were sold and another big hiatus came when the popular morning TV show ‘Sunday Brunch’ launched their kits. She wasn’t expecting a huge surge in demand, but within an hour she had 200 orders. She had to turn down orders and immediately figure out how to meet the surge in demand from home. The website is now making a lot of orders and Mhlanga has also managed to expand their market stalls, adding the famous seven dial market in Covent Garden in addition to their other location in the Netil market. She now sells thousands of donuts a week and has won several high profile awards. Mhlanga’s path to baking wasn’t obvious, but a combination of perseverance, caring for her customers, and passion for her product has enabled her to move forward consistently.
This article is part of a series featuring underrepresented people making a difference. To submit ideas for features or to keep up to date with new releases, find me on Twitter – @ TommyASC91.