Intently piping butter cookies before they were placed in the pre-heated oven to be baked, Looi Wan Keen was busy trying to fulfil orders from customers. So engrossed was Wan Keen that she did not realise that hours had passed since setting foot into her modest kitchen. As they say, time flies when you are having fun!
It was only recently that Wan Keen’s interest in baking was discovered. Although her businesswoman mother, now retired, had always baked when her five daughters were growing up, Wan Keen, her youngest, had never offered to help out. In fact, even today, she would not bake when her mother was around.
Diagnosed with autism with hyperactivity disorder at the age of two, Wan Keen’s parents enrolled her in an early intervention programme in Ipoh until she was 7. She proceeded to join a mainstream primary school and completed Standard 6 at the age of 13. Her parents then felt that it would be better for her to attend classes for special kids. She left school last year at 19.
“With Wan Keen spending all of her time at home, I roped her in to help me bake Christmas and Chinese New Year cookies for the family,” said second sister, Wan Wai. “We started off with simple cupcakes. Day by day, we found out that she really enjoyed piping frosting. She could spend hours in the kitchen without complaints or tantrums.”
Wan Keen’s family was really surprised by her interest. Although she loved to draw and would do so daily, Wan Keen would pull long faces whenever her family tried to get her involved in activities to help build her basic living skills, such as sewing and crafting. “When it came to baking and cooking, Wan Keen hardly protested,” observed Wan Wai. “She loves to decorate gingerbread men and would roll tamago (egg) balls for my toddler all by herself.”
With the help of Wan Keen in the kitchen, Wan Wai was able to give jars of butter cookies as Chinese New Year goodies to extended family members and friends.
It was later that a friend brought up the idea that the cookies were good enough to be sold that Wan Wai helped her youngest sister to set up Keen’s Cookies. While the original butter cookie recipe was sourced from the internet, Wan Wai and Wan Keen experimented with different flavours to come up with their own range of butter cookies.
“We are always trying to incorporate Wan Keen’s desired flavours using natural ingredients instead of artificial flavouring,” Wan Wai explained.
Wan Keen’s best sellers are easily her coffee, earl grey and chocolate almond butter cookies. “These flavours also happen to be my favourites,” Wan Keen said softly.
Besides word of mouth through their large network of friends, Keen’s Cookies has also received attention on social media.
“We are happy with the encouraging response from friends and strangers alike. However, we hope that people support the business because they genuinely think that the cookies are delicious and worth the price, not merely for the fact that they were baked by someone with autism. Besides direct orders, these cookies are also available at two coffee houses in Ipoh, namely Mustard Sandwich House and Peninsula Café,” Wan Wai added.
Their father and Wan Wai’s husband also assist the home baking business by making deliveries, although sometimes, Wan Wai would drive Wan Keen to do it, as part of her training. “She is beginning to learn to solve problems, which she never needed to do previously. During a recent delivery, she crossed a one-way street by herself, delivered the cookies, and collected the correct amount of money from her customer,” shared Wan Wai proudly.
It has been repeatedly drummed into Wan Keen that this is her business and should anything happen to the rest of the family, she has to take charge of Keen’s Cookies because it is her responsibility.
To Wan Keen, Keen’s Cookies is more than a business. Through it, she has learnt that she has to grow up and not continue to depend entirely on her family, and indeed, she has grown up. She has also been empowered by earning her own money, finally understanding that with her own income, she can purchase whatever she wants, whenever.
Being independent, especially financially, Wan Keen is motivated to work harder on her business. “When she sees that her purse is almost empty, she would tell me that she needs to bake more cookies. She would make extra sure that she does not burn the cookies as that would mean losing money. Whenever we ran low on butter, she would be worried,” Wan Wai laughingly shared. According to Wan Wai, these are signs that Wan Keen is beginning to own the business.
As the administrator of Keen’s Cookies, while juggling duties as a mother and freelance teacher, Wan Wai has bigger dreams for it beyond merely helping Wan Keen. She said, “It is my hope that this can be a platform to promote other products by people with special needs, other than Keen. When it becomes a full-fledged business, we can then hire one or two more persons and train them to do certain tasks that would be useful to them in daily life.
“Many parents are like ours, at a loss on what to do when their special children enter adulthood. How do we help? We hope to slowly unearth their talents and involve them in Keen’s Cookies in any possible way. At this moment, we are already buying hand-drawn cookie jars and hand-sewn fabric pouches from Keen’s friends who are also autistic. We hope Keen’s Cookies can inspire and encourage parents who are in search of a glimmer of hope for their special children.”
Note: An edited version of this article [Keen’s baking freedom] was published on 4th November 2017 in the now-defunct The Malay Mail.