While the upheaval of the past three years has affected the hospitality industry in numerous ways, independent chefs, bakers and makers are defying the challenges of bricks-and-mortar dining by growing enthusiastic followings online, and through pop-ups and special events.

It’s a format that works especially well for anything sweet – such as cakes, pastries, chocolates and buns, which can all be baked fresh to order for delivery or special events. These Auckland-based sweet makers are having a moment.

Zi Sweet
Paloma Harada and Nicholas Maestranzi launched Zi Sweet almost exactly a year ago, in January 2022, specialising in adorable, vintage-style cakes decorated in elaborately piped buttercream. From the get-go, the duo tells Broadsheet, the response was “amazing”, as they tapped into the ’80s-style cake trend that people can’t get enough of. “We definitely were not expecting it to be this way,” they say. “It took off almost a little too fast for us to take a second to think about it all!” When they started, they were working full-time and making cakes at home – a set-up they soon outgrew, quitting their day jobs and moving into a commercial kitchen by March 2022.

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You can order online from a selection of their signature shapes and palettes, including Nostalgic Star, a pink, purple and pale green heart-shaped cake inspired by the noughties aesthetic, and Rainbow Frills, which looks like it should come with its own My Little Pony. Harada and Maestranzi also do custom and wedding cakes, and they have big plans for Zi Sweet moving forward. “We would love a little coffee shop we could sell our cakes out of. This is the near-future plan. A physical site like this would also allow us to be a little more creative outside of cakes and give us the opportunity to better interact with our customers.” zisweet.co.nz

Mor Bakery
It hasn’t even been going for six months, but Kelsie Culpan and Laura Metcalf’s Auckland-based pastry-delivery business has built enough of a following that a recent pop-up at Roses Dining Room had queues out the door and down the street for most of its duration. The duo is undeniably talented when it comes to perfectly laminated sweets.

From Wednesday to Saturday, you can order Mor pastry boxes to be dropped off at your door, with croissants, pains au chocolat and rosettes. The seasonal danishes are a highlight – December’s were topped with roasted nectarine on fig-leaf crème, with a scattering of spiced crumble. “Our whole ethos is a fresh take on the classics,” Culpan told Broadsheet last year. If you’d rather pick up one or two pastries in person, follow Mor on Instagram to catch regular pop-ups at Auckland cafes such as Ozone and Alpha, and market-day appearances. morbakery.co.nz

Chef Krista On Hing launched her micro-bakery during 2021’s level-three lockdown thinking it would be temporary – but, thanks to enthusiastic uptake, it lives on. “I’ve been lucky enough to continue doing what I love and sharing it with our wonderful customers,” she tells Broadsheet. Her initial focus was brioche-dough cinnamon buns; she bakes between 100 and 150 a week for pick-up or delivery. They are pillowy and spiced, and generously topped with brown-butter caramel, vanilla cream cheese or chocolate-crémeux frosting.

On Hing, whose previous cheffing experience includes nearly five years at Gemmayze Street, says she’s looking to expand the offering this year – and has already added boxes of roasted white chocolate, passionfruit and custard-filled choux buns to the selection. She’s also planning to do more special releases, pop-ups and collaborations, following a sold-out dinner pop-up (also at Roses Dining Room) last year. bunanza.co.nz

Ao Cacao
Thomas Hilton founded Ao Cacao in November 2021, channelling international experience that includes an apprenticeship with legendary Scottish chocolatier William Curley and a stint as stagiaire at The French Laundry in California’s Napa Valley. For his bean-to-bar chocolate company, Hilton pairs European techniques with Māori culture and indigenous ingredients, using Pacific cacao beans from Samoa, vanilla from Tahiti, and maple sugar from a community farm run by Indigenous women in Canada. “I thought, being Indigenous myself, Ao Cacao should be about supporting Indigenous producers with ethical practices,” Hilton told Broadsheet in 2022. “In Europe, they talk about provenance. I think we have whakapapa, so [I want to tell] the whakapapa of our cacao and educate people about where our chocolate comes from so they can make a conscious choice.”

Many of Ao Cacao’s high-quality bon bons – such as Mum’s Banoffee Pie and Nan’s Trifle – are inspired by Hilton’s memories. After a busy Christmas period, Hilton has big plans for 2023, including the opening of his first shop in Westgate, north-west Auckland. It’ll include an open kitchen so customers can see the chocolatiers at work, and Hilton plans to host tastings, chef pop-ups and classes in the multi-use space. aocacao.com