SINGAPORE - When Mrs Violet Kwan put up the storied Lana Cake Shop for sale in 2016, she was adamant about finding "the right person" to take over the business.
That person has turned out to be her son Jason Kwan, 53, who gave up his job as a banker in Tokyo to move back to Singapore. It has been 18 months, and he said he is finally ready to talk about why he decided to continue his mother's business in Greenwood Avenue.
He said: "If I had come out and said I'd taken over, the only question people would ask is whether the cake is as good. It was never about me taking over. I wanted customers to see that there was a seamless transition. I've talked to customers who are happy that I've taken over. The encouragement, feedback and goodwill has been amazing."
It all started when Mrs Kwan, now 91, wanted to look for someone to continue Lana Cake, which she started in 1964. That news sent a ripple through Singapore. Many people have grown up having her Chocolate Fudge Cake for birthdays and other milestones. The price she was asking also made people sit up - the shop space was worth a cool $4 million, and she refused to say in public what she wanted for the recipes.
Apart from a surge in demand for her cakes, there was a lot of interest from potential buyers. Mrs Kwan told The Straits Times that she worried the buyers would not have enough manpower to cope. Some wanted a longer training time too.
Mr Kwan said his mother had never asked him or his older sister Jennifer to take over the business. He said of a trip to Singapore in March 2017: "I spent time with her and I could see that she didn't have the heart to sell the shop. I was also sad that my mum, who had this wonderful business, something that had kept her going, would have to sell.
"She asked if I would consider taking over the business."
He discussed it with his wife Sora. He had been in banking for 28 years, working in Singapore, Zurich, London and Tokyo, where he was the chief risk officer in a bank. He said he loved banking and had to think hard about making a career switch.
"We both agreed that if I were to change careers, it would have been then or never," he said. "Our older son was going to serve NS and the original plan was for him to stay with my mum, and my wife and I would visit."
That plan changed, and he came back in July 2017, for good.
"You jump straight in, and it was daunting," he said.
He was not a complete newbie, however. He was born a year after Mrs Kwan started the business and grew up in the shop, helping out during school holidays.
"I sort of knew I could do it," he said. "Nothing was unfamiliar. But this is my mum's legacy. I wanted to make sure I got it right."
Mrs Kwan said that her son took three months to master the recipes and learn the ropes. She knew he was ready when she took a cake to her doctor, and asked what he thought of it.
"He told me it was marvellous. I said 'Really? My son Jason made it'," she said.
Since taking over, Mr Kwan has made improvements to the shop and the cakes.
The best-selling Chocolate Fudge Cake has a more intense chocolate flavour.
He said: "It is essentially the same cake but the chiffon is a little lighter. It needed to be the perfect balance of saltiness, sweetness and bitterness, with an airy, moist chiffon. It should be easy to eat, almost too easy to eat."
That cake can now be ordered online and there is islandwide delivery. Healthy orders have been rolling in since the service started two weeks ago.
Other improvements include changes to the workflow in the kitchen to make it more efficient. Instead of cup measurements, the nine staff in the kitchen now weigh out the ingredients. The 40-year-old cake pans have also been replaced. This means the fudge cakes are now larger. A 1.15kg cake costs $48, and a 1.45kg cake is $58.
There is a menu of cakes now, each with a description, for customers to discover other Lana treasures. These include Orange Velvet, one of the original cakes Mrs Kwan sold and which was initially more popular than the chocolate fudge; Coconut Cream cake made with fresh coconut milk; and the California Date Cake, studded with chocolate chips.
Since December, Lana has had a website (www.lanacakes-since1964.com) and a Facebook page (www.facebook.com/LANACAKESsince1964/?ref=br_rs). There is a new logo, a new lilac ribbon for the boxes and a new look for the shop, which was renovated in January.
Mrs Kwan visits the shop three times a week to chat with customers and sometimes to work a little in the kitchen. The kitchen can produce more cakes now - it sells 400 to 500 cakes a week - and lucky customers might be able to walk in and buy a cake without pre-ordering, although Mr Kwan said calling ahead is usually a safer bet.
Asked if he plans to expand the business, he said: "I have aspirations and thoughts about where I want to go. But it's too early to plan that out. The changes we've made have brought us on a par with the market place. I want to keep the quality as good as it can be. I am confident of our increased capacity but I don't want to go towards having a central kitchen."
Lana Cake Shop, 36 Greenwood Avenue, tel: 6466-5315, open: 10am to 6pm (Tuesday to Friday), 10am to 5pm (Saturday), closed Sunday and Monday