We chat with Janine Douglas, a creative and passionate home industry business owner, who loves to sew, bake and cook. Her business, Whittal’s, which operates from her home in Northriding, Johannesburg, offers a variety of delicious jams made with seasonal fruits, as well as freshly baked biscuits. Janine’s love for baking and preserving began in her school days when she started collecting recipes, and her father passed down his passion for jam-making to her. With Whittal’s, Janine is continuing her family’s legacy of traditional baking, and jam-making, bringing her customers the freshest and tastiest products with love and care
Janine Douglas pours her heart and soul into every jar of jam and every batch of biscuits she bakes. Her passion for cooking and baking was kindled at a young age when she started collecting recipes and experimenting with different flavours in her kitchen.
In later years, inspired by her father’s love for his mother’s homemade jams, Janine started experimenting with different fruit combinations, perfecting her recipes until she had a range of jams that tasted out-of-this-world delicious. From tangy apricot jam to sweet plumapple jam, every jar is a testament to Janine’s love for her craft.
The Whittal family has a rich history in South Africa, having arrived on the shores of Algoa Bay in 1820 as part of the 1820 Settlers. They built their homes, farms, schools, and churches from scratch and, through sheer hard work and determination, “took root and grew”. Janine’s passion for jam-making is a continuation of this family tradition, a way of preserving and passing them down from generation to generation.
When you taste Whittal’s jams, you can feel the love and care that went into making it. Every jar is beautifully packaged and labelled, with seasonal fruit that’s cooked up and frozen for later use. The jam is prepared no less than one month in advance to ensure that it’s as fresh and flavorful as possible. With no preservatives or additives, you can taste the pure, unadulterated flavours of the fruit in every bite.
Janine’s biscuits are just as incredible as her jams. Baked to order and delivered within 48 hours, they’re made with only the freshest ingredients. Whether you’re craving a buttery shortbread or a chewy chocolate chip cookie, her biscuits are sure to satisfy your sweet tooth.
For Janine, Whittal’s isn’t just a business – it’s a labour of love. And with every jar of jam and every batch of biscuits, she’s sharing a little piece of her heart.
What inspired you to start your own business, and how did you get started?
I have always loved baking, baking biscuits, cakes and making jams. I started collecting recipes from my teen years and loved baking then already for my family. It was always a joy for me to bake, a challenge to refine a recipe and find the perfect chocolate cake, or choc-chip cookie or make my jam just the way we love it. Scones or crumpets with my apricot jam with whipped cream have always been a treat and loved by all who’ve had some.
I was not happy in my job at the time, it felt like I was going nowhere and in a way dying inside. I reached a crossroad in my life and had to make a choice. We went on holiday to the USA, and I decided to make that time a time of reflection and gathering of inspiration from coffee shops and bakeries. I spent a lot of time praying, preparing and dreaming about starting up my bakery business, gathering ideas for my artwork and approaching a designer/print company to finalise the artwork. I worked out a website plan on Microsoft PowerPoint and from there my web-designer created my website. My plan was to focus on corporate companies, providing a coffee station cookie jar and supplying a refill each week. I got my first corporate customer within a week of opening my business on the 1st of December 2022. Prior to that, I was also offered the opportunity to have a table at our church Christmas market, and I decided to take a royal icing biscuit course at a baking supplies shop in Fourways. That inspired me to offer iced Christmas biscuits and they immediately took off. I had so many orders and feared I would not be able to meet the demand. I was excited and very stressed at the same time, but it was extremely successful. A major influence for getting started was the potential offer to supply a local deli with biscuits, jams, and cakes, as well as the opportunity to serve corporate customers and participate in the Christmas Market. I prayed a lot, and I believe that the door opened. It was a huge step of faith since it would mean a drop in income from my existing position as a full-time Office Manager/Bookkeeper.
How long have you been in business?
I started all my planning from August 2022 to 30 November 2022, and officially started my business on the 1st of December 2022, my website went live on the 31st of December 2022.
What challenges did you face when starting your business, and how did you overcome them?
My biggest challenge was how was I going to meet the demand as soon as the business grew. I was a also a bit rusty on some of my recipes and needed to re-visit old favourite recipes. I had no idea on my packaging quantities, packets per batch and the time it would take to get the orders out. Time management was a big challenge for me as I had to learn what I was capable of producing in a day and a week. I overcame that by baking everything I was planning on selling and working out how many packets of biscuits I would get per batch.
It was a sink or swim situation and I just had to go for it, I soon realised just how much I was capable of doing and got faster at producing the batches of biscuits.
Time management is refined by having a very organised kitchen that works from right to left, ingredients cupboard and shelves, mixing station, rolling and preparing station, oven, baking and cooking, then weighing and packaging. Working systematically and according to my very strict diary/orders.
How did you come up with your business idea, and what sets it apart from others in your industry?
I have always loved baking. It was a passion passed down from my father, who learned from his mother, a farmer’s wife. I love the idea of baking my own biscuits and stocking up the pantry with jams, biscuits, and rusks. I also enjoy being able to offer my guests a lovely cake to enjoy with tea or breakfast scones with jam, or simply a cup of tea with a biscuit on the side. It’s also a pleasure to bake biscuits to give as teacher’s gifts or make jams for Christmas presents.
Converting my love and passion for baking into a business has always been a dream of mine, and it has never felt more right than now.
My dad wrote the Whittal family book, which includes records dating back to when my family arrived in South Africa with the 1820 settlers who came from England on the sailboat, The Chapman, in Algoa Bay. My family “took root in South Africa and grew”, they became farmers, shopkeepers and bakers. Today, I proudly continue our family heritage with a love for baking delectable and comforting biscuits, jams, rusks, cakes, and muffins. I bring the heart of our family into your home, business, and gifting, where you can truly feel the love, passion, and warmth from my kitchen into your life.
How do you stay motivated and focused on your goals as a small business owner?
What motivates me and keeps me focused is always keeping it fresh, both literally and figuratively. My biscuits are baked fresh, and we don’t keep stock of them; we bake them fresh.
After taking the royal icing course last year, I found that it really took off as a gifting option since people have come to love pretty iced biscuits. My aim was not only to make a biscuit that looked pretty but also tasted just as nice as it looked.
I also aimed to come up with great ways for my customers to buy a nice packet or box of biscuits to gift to someone, bringing joy and happiness to those around them. Keeping my customers happy and helping them enjoy life’s little treats truly motivates me.
What skills and experience have been most valuable in running your business?
I am a qualified bookkeeper, so my financial background has been helpful in calculating my costs and selling prices. On the baking side, taking the royal icing course has opened up a whole new line of ideas that I can offer my customers to keep things fresh and exciting. This is not an ordinary day-to-day biscuit company; I want my customers to keep coming back for more and to be excited to see what we bring out next.
How have you adapted your business to changes in your industry, such as new technology or market trends?
I use my Instagram account to follow other bakeries and people in similar industries to see what they are doing to keep their customers coming back for more. I also use Pinterest for inspiration.
How do you balance your personal and professional life as a small business owner?
I adhere to a very strict baking schedule, and orders are slotted into that schedule. Time management is a significant factor, and I must stay on top of the load-shedding schedules. I do my best to complete all of my baking in the mornings. After fetching my daughter from school, I try not to have any baking that needs to be done. I like to keep time aside for my family and for rest, so that I can operate at my best when I do get into my kitchen to bake. If you don’t rest well, you won’t bake well. Sundays are devoted to the Lord; I go to church and make sure to rest on Sundays, as Mondays require me to be up and running again. Without adequate rest, you won’t be able to find inspiration or have the energy that physical work like baking demands.
What have been some of your biggest successes and proudest moments as a business owner?
My biggest success has definitely been the royal icing biscuits. I did my first lot of royal icing-iced biscuits for Christmas last year, and baking and icing some 20 bottles of Christmas biscuits was crazy. But then, when I advertised my Valentine’s biscuits, I received orders for over 80 boxes of biscuits, of which 60 were from one corporate customer. It was a crazy order, but it was definitely very rewarding to package and deliver everything nicely.
How have you built and maintained relationships with customers and clients?
Communication is key, I keep in contact with my customers and make sure that they are happy.
How do you market and promote your business, and what strategies have been most effective for you?
I use Instagram, Facebook, and my website for marketing and promotion. Additionally, I use WhatsApp marketing and email to communicate with my customers. I prepare photographs of my products in advance, as customers love to see what they can expect to get. As they say, you eat with your eyes.
How do you measure the success of your business, and what goals do you have for the future?
It is still early days, but I would say that you know you are making a success of your business when your orders keep coming in, and you stick to it no matter what. Don’t give up, keep going, even when it may be quiet. You can use that time to gather inspiration and bring something new and fresh to your customers. I truly love bringing joy to my customers. I want them to feel my heart in my baking. I never want it to be about chasing the money, but always about my love for baking. The rest will follow suit.
How have you dealt with setbacks or failures in your business, and what did you learn from those experiences?
It was not really a setback, but rather a bit of a failure when I had some challenges with one of my biscuit recipes that gave me difficulties with the royal icing.
I ended up giving away so many “reject” biscuits to the car guards, home help, gardener, you name it, as I felt they did not meet my standards.
I wanted a biscuit that would not lose its crispiness when iced, would keep its shape and hold well. I re-baked many batches, researched, and tried again until I found the perfect, tasty sugar cookie that would be the perfect canvas for our speciality biscuits. I am proud to say that I am very happy with the Royal Icing biscuits I now produce and sell to my customers. What I learnt was not to give up. Stop, step back, tomorrow you can bake some more cookies and you will find the solution.
What impact do you hope your business will have on your community or the world at large?
My hope is to create more speciality biscuits for events such as baby showers, bridal showers, and weddings. I always aim to bring something new to the table, whether it’s for Easter, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Christmas, or any other occasion.
I don’t see a rejected biscuit as a waste. When the dough doesn’t work out the way I hoped, I bake the batch anyway and give the biscuits away to those in need. I believe in giving to receive, and I feel very blessed in my business. Keeping it real, and putting my whole heart into it and seeing it grow.
What advice do you have for other entrepreneurs who are just starting out?
Make sure you have the support of your family because, at first, your income may drop, but it will grow as you keep going. My husband has been an amazing support, not only financially, but he has also built my whole bakery kitchen for me. I bounce a lot of my ideas off my family, and they are my greatest source of encouragement. It will cost you to get your business going, so don’t be afraid to invest in some good equipment (not the most expensive, but essential items). Set yourself up properly, and make sure you have all the necessary tools and resources to make it a success. You cannot do it just 50%, you need to be 100% all in. Pray.
This article was featured in Pivotl Magazine, Issue 2 of 2023. Read the full issue here.
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