Home baker helps make SA's favourite treats vegan

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Heidi Dempers, founder of Yum Baker.
Heidi Dempers, founder of Yum Baker.
  • Heidi Dempers makes home baked South African vegan treats. 
  • She started her company, Yum Baker, during the Covid-19 lockdown. 
  • Yum Baker products are stocked online and at several Checkers outlets in Joburg.

In the land of braaivleis and biltong, veganism is not exactly synonymous with being South African, least of all on Heritage Day, when meat seems to be the order of the day. 

But one innovative brand, Yum Baker, is producing genuinely tasty vegan treats, including all the traditional favourites – from peppermint crisp tart to malva pudding, milk tart and more.

"All people actually want is what we grew up with," says the woman behind the brand, Heidi Dempers.

"They want the koeksisters, and everybody likes a good cheesecake. A buttermilk rusk, I think, will forever be a staple for South Africans."

Chatting to News24 over a plate of decadently moist chocolate brownies, topped with a walnut crumb, Dempers explains that Yum Baker was born out of necessity during the Covid-19 lockdown when her nine-to-five job in the tourism industry simply wasn't enough to make ends meet.

The baking was not vegan at first and Dempers' first order for cookies and rusks was, in fact, for a local butchery.

"I was so keen for that order, and then I got into the car and thought – 'so it's 15 pieces in a packet, and I'll need so many pans'. And then I was like, 'I don't know how I'm going to do this'. But we did," says Dempers, referring to the help she got from her husband.

That order helped pay for an additional second-hand oven and soon the business was on its way.  It was not long before Yum Baker began venturing into vegan options.

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"I really enjoy the development of the menus, and I started asking vegan friends what they miss, and they said they would love some fudge. So the first vegan item by Yum Baker was the walnut fudge," says Dempers.

"I started developing more vegan items and actually loved it, you know, changing normal recipes into vegan recipes. A few months later, there were 15 vegan items, and I eventually stopped baking the normal stuff."

A key milestone was in April last year when Yum Baker's vegan treats were stocked in a Checkers store, a retail chain which turned out to be an excellent fit for a home baking venture like Dempers'.

The brand has since grown from strength to strength in a remarkably short space of time, and Yum Baker is now stocked at 38 Checkers stores in Johannesburg.

"It's been an interesting ride," she says.

She added:

When I started originally with one store, I was baking like four punnets of cupcakes. Now on a Monday night, we need to bake 300 cupcakes.

As Dempers remains a full-time employee in tourism, and her husband a teacher, Yum Baker is a labour of love which only takes place after the children have been put to bed.

"I would have said you are crazy if you told me 18 months ago I would be baking 300 or 400 cupcakes a time at night or that I would own a home bakery – and that it was vegan! But life has completely changed, and even our house is now completely vegan," she says.

Dempers drew inspiration from her grandmother's recipe books, as has been the case with many of her other offerings, in preparation for Yum Baker's Christmas range rollout.

"I was searching for old-fashioned Christmas cookies and found her hand-written fruitcake recipe, full of oil and dough stains. That was quite emotional," she says. Work to veganise the recipe has been ongoing for two years since.

"And the family has approved; they said I didn't kill gran's recipe!"

Dempers can't say how big the business will grow, although she plans to remain a home baker.

"I think what's special is that everything that's out there has come past my hands. It was created with ingredients, a mixer and love," she says. "I really just want people to eat it and go, 'yum'. I want them to feel at home; I want them to feel the love."

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