A young couple had to reinvent themselves after losing their jobs during the first wave of the covid19 pandemic in Trinidad and Tobago.
Alyssa and Rajindra Dhanraj of Pepper Village, Erin got married about a year and a half ago and were living happily until they were blindsided by job losses.
Like so many other people, having to find another income or supplemental income allowed them to dig deep into their creative boxes and explore options for a business idea.
Alyssa, 32, is a counselling psycho-therapist and while still employed as a guidance counsellor at the Open Bible High School, San Fernando, she lost her part-time job at the Caribbean Life Resources Centre in San Fernando, a private counselling agency.
Since the physical closure of schools, she also had to find new ways to reach out to the students, and this too has had its challenges.
“Because school has gone online, I do not have much interaction with the kids, even though counselling is available. I would send information through the teachers, but that system has not been well received.
“I took the initiative to do a self-management video series because that is one of the most important things the students need at this time.”
Alyssa noted that suicidal thoughts and self-harm were among the top issues raised by students who cited they were stressed by online learning and preparing for examinations.
She urged parents to pay extra attention to their children and have more open conversations with them because they were unaware of how to deal with their emotions.
Rajindra, 30, also lost his job as a computer technician at LL Tech Cyber Café in Erin. With only one income, bills piling up and loans to pay, Alyssa decided to experiment with her hobby to see whether it could become a viable business venture.
"I always baked," she said, "but it was just for my family and friends."
Her love of baking cheesecakes took a new turn in 2012 when her aunt gave her a recipe which she later modified, but it was only this year she began doing it for commercial gain.
“I made the run-of-the-mill cheesecakes and then I realised that cream cheese was something that could be infused with almost any flavour.
“I decided to experiment, and my family became the guinea pigs. They would give me feedback and that was how my baking ventured into mostly cheesecakes. It is actually one of the easier cakes to make.”
Alyssa’s specialty is cheesecakes, but she also bakes sponge cakes, tiramisu and other types of cakes, by request only.
Her cake flavours, especially her cheesecake, include coconut, soursop, Baileys, blueberry, cookies and cream, pina colada, Nutella, caramel, apple pie, chocolate, mocha, Reese's, red velvet, black forest, kiwi-lime, pumpkin spice, mint chocolate, mixed berries, cinnamon roll, strawberries, s’mores, chocolate chip, rum n’ raisin, pecan pie, ponche-a-crème, fruitcake, sorrel and passion fruit.
“I like Caribbean things – clothes, decor and things that could enhance my identity as being part of the Caribbean. Not everything should be an apple pie or have that international feeling, especially for our Christmas celebrations. It should be local and Caribbean-infused,” she said.
Alyssa said her love of local foods and fruits, combined with her upbringing on an agricultural estate in Mendez Village, Siparia, were her motive for using local and Caribbean fruits in her creations originates.
“I grow my own soursop trees and sorrel, and I thought definitely when this produce is ready I will use it in my cheesecakes. I try to do flavours that are related to the various celebrations and what fruit is in season.
“My two older brothers instilled in me the importance of planting and harvesting and in doing something that could help my standard of living, and it did not matter how small it was. I took that with me, and it has cut costs in certain areas in the production of my cakes.”
Alyssa works out of her kitchen at home, but the demand for her cakes has increased tenfold. And while it may seem like a lot of work, she said that it was rare that people could turn their hobby into a business.
“I enjoy doing this, so it is not a chore or job. And since I have been home since March, so time permitted to commit to the request for orders.”
The future of the business
Alyssa’s passion remained with counselling. It has been the main reason why she has not fully committed to opening a bakery or investing more in her cakes.
She has not yet fully come to terms with the success of her hobby, which has turned into what she described as a successful and budding business.
“It is always good to have a side hustle, but I never imagined that it would turn out to be like this in such a short space of time.
“I have not considered a name for it or even fully tried to market it on social media.”
Her greatest challenge was finding ways to decorate her cupcakes. With no formal baking experience, she said decorating cakes was not her strongest point.
“I am a creative person, so I found ways to turn this weakness into a positive thing. I started looking at the Food Network channel and would spend hours on Pinterest for decorative ideas.
“Then I would spend hours practising and of course making mess, which my husband would have to clean up because I am (too) exhausted to,” she said.
Alyssa’s word of advice to anyone seeking additional income is to find what you are good at and exploit it, responsibly.
“Do what you love, and I know everybody may not be able to do it as a career, but it should be made a huge part of your life. It brings a fulfilment to life.”
She added that family support is critical in this new chapter of her life but noted strongly that belief in oneself was of great importance in achieving set goals.
Alyssa’s story and motivation has inspired her husband also to start his own business. It has been two months since he opened Catalyst Technologies, but with covid19, the business is making a slow start.
He said, “It is something I intend to pursue, and seeing my wife go after what she wants has encouraged me to do the same.”
They said part proceeds from the sale of the cakes go toward assisting less fortunate families with clothes, food and other basic living items, as well as devices to children to help with online learning.
What’s next for Alyssa? She said a honey-flavoured cheesecake with honey from her brother’s personal beekeeping collection was coming soon.
Alyssa can be found on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/alyssa.rsingh or WhatsApp only at 372-0916.