Pastry Chef Aya Fukai is the dynamic, creative mind behind Aya Pastry in the West Town neighborhood. Their mission is to “spread smiles by sharing crave-worthy treats” and they are succeeding! After we recently teamed up with Aya to help Relish Works celebrate their International Women’s Day Event, we had the opportunity to chat about the bakery’s (and Aya’s!) adventures.
Microplanes are so often overlooked! A fresh zest of lime or lemon can make a huge difference.
Any gadget very specific to a task!
(ex: wire cake slicer - that can be done with a knife!)
I do a ton of home cooking, not baking. After growing up in Japan, I always have Dashi Soy Sauce on hand.
Aya Fukai was raised in Japan until her family relocated to Boston when she was nine years old. Life as a pastry chef was always seemed like more of a childhood dream than a career path - until attending and then graduating from Boston University with a hospitality management degree. She has always loved sweets, and can clearly remember at six years old the first time she learned how to make chocolate ganache truffles with her mom (as a Valentine’s Day gift for her dad).
I remember rolling the ganache in my hands and putting the cocoa powder on it. I didn’t know this was the start of something grand! I always said I wanted to be a “cake maker,” have my own place, and eat all the cake in the world.
A job opening brought Aya to Chicago in September 2011 and she first opened Aya Pastry about three and a half years ago. The bakery was started with the intention of providing wholesale breads and pastries to businesses who didn’t have the means to build a bread kitchen or have a pastry chef on staff.
In October 2017, I was peeling stickers off the new trays and making plans for the one account we started with. We’ve come a long way, but the pandemic definitely set off a panic. In March 2020, 70-80% of our revenue was wholesale.
Some wholesale is still available from Aya Pastry, however the business model looks entirely different now. Their website hosts a full offering of retail items and select bake-at-home items. Aya’s pride for and gratitude to her team runs deep - the bakery went from serving guests only the weekend to daily and they had to expand their retail offerings to keep up. Aya Express, their drive-thru window, has added just one more avenue for Aya to safely connect with her bakery’s guests.
We were lucky the building had the option to create a drive-thru. One day I was walking out and saw the window in the parking lot and said, “why not!”
Aya Pastry also accomplished an incredible feat in the last year - they didn’t have to furlough any of their team, and actually had to hire on some extra help.
The ethics and morality of running a business during COVID weigh on me all the time. I have to balance protecting the health and safety of my employees with keeping the business alive and also keeping their needs met with a living wage.
The changing landscape of the hospitality industry has meant a lot of quick decisions. Aya Pastry pivoted so quickly that they didn’t have the infrastructure in place to ensure efficient systems. Now that they have added all their retail products, Aya is constantly asking what, why, and how they’re proceeding in the future.
We’re incredibly lucky - the demand has been so much larger than what we expected and it is a great problem to have. The things we were doing before don’t necessarily make sense, so we’re focusing on how we move forward.
Aya says her team has been a crucial part of the bakery’s success in the last year because the people really, truly care about their work. The people on her team feel like a second family and they contribute to her decision making when it comes to the health and safety precautions as well as menu development.
I won’t put something on the menu that we all don’t want to eat, and I want everyone to be proud of their contributions. I want everyone to get truly excited about selling something we ourselves love.
It is hard to tell if change is being implemented or if any action is actually being put into practice. I can’t speak for other businesses, but I am a minority, female owner and I hire a diverse crew here. Out of the 7 managers we have, 5 are female. Those kinds of things are hard to see in other businesses, but those are values here.
The pandemic has also shone a light on the value of purchasing directly from small businesses and food purveyors. It means so much to Aya and her team that people come to the bakery for bread. There has been a notable shift towards direct purchases from places like Aya Pastry, local butchers, and farmer’s markets. It may have started in the interest of supporting local, but now consumers are also realizing that the quality of fresh products (like hers) makes a real difference in how their meals turn out. Aya has been blown away by the support Aya Pastry has received and is keeping her sight firmly towards the future. Stop by the bakery to pick up a treat this week!
Want to get in on some Aya Pastry goodness? Check out the Female Founders Food Collection and fill your pantry with an assortment of products created by some exceptional female-forward creators.
My very first pastry chef was a career changer from accountant to pastry chef. She was the only one who told me that it was on me to keep my finances in order. Learn what a CD, IRA, 401K is. As I was decorating a cake with her she’d teach me what all these things were and tell me that I had to plan for my own retirement because no one, and likely no job, in the industry was going to do it for me.
— Aya Fukai, Aya Pastry, the best advice she has ever received