Out of Print

They Pair Well Together

by Jonty Cruz
Photos courtesy of Carlyn Chuacokiong
Carlyn Chuacokiong and Andrew Yap, founders of Nextdoor Neighbor Bakery, share the ups and downs of starting a business as a couple and how working together strengthened their relationship.

Before the pandemic, the kitchen was the last place you’d find Andrew Yap and Carlyn Chuacokiong. Andrew was still working as an art director in Singapore while Carlyn went back to her family business after apprenticing as a tattoo artist. They had been a couple for barely a year and still managing a long distance relationship.  The thought of working together, let alone starting a bakery, had never crossed their minds.

And then the world they knew ended—or at least changed completely.

Andrew decided to move back to the Philippines right as the coronavirus was starting to spread across the region. It was meant to be a career break where he would  figure out what he wanted to do next. “It was a weird hectic time wrapping up my projects while dealing with this emotional journey of moving back home after four years,” he says over email.

Carlyn similarly had to deal with the uncertainty of her own future. She was used to filling up her calendar with projects and adventures abroad. She was the kind of person who planned things out months in advance, so the sudden halt in activity proved harder to deal with than expected.

With Andrew back in the Philippines, the couple found themselves at the same crossroads, and not only decided to move forward together but to venture into something new with Nextdoor Neighbor Bakery.

“We never baked, and we barely even cooked,” says Carlyn when I asked them if they ever baked before. Back when quarantine started she said that selling food wasn’t even the first thing they thought of doing. She laughs when she says they focused on joining or subscribing to “quarantine fitness clubs” first. According to her, it was a bagel craving from Andrew that made them try baking in the first place and to their surprise they loved the outcome. 

They’ll be the first to admit that they were pretty late in the quarantine baking game but after a few more attempts at improving their skills, they decided to work on what would become Nextdoor Neighbor. “We decided to start selling it because the pandemic gave us this ‘why not’ attitude,” says Carlyn. “We were thinking: if the world is going to crumble anyway, we might as well just do what we want and not overthink things, which I normally do, et voila!”

They share more about how their newest venture began, the challenges and rewards of working with your significant other, and channeling their inner old angry Chinese lady.

The following was conducted over email and has been edited for publication.


Out of Print: Hey Andrew and Carlyn, so why bagels? And do you remember the first or best bagel you ever had?
Andrew: I did most of my bagel eating when I was in Singapore. There was a bagel sandwich shop called Two Men Bagel that opened right next to my office. This was my first proper bagel experience, everything before that was commercial cafe bagels that tasted of sawdust. From there, I went on to try bagels in both New York and Montreal, New York still having the best bagel.

Carlyn: I really didn’t like bagels before. My mom and brother would always eat them, but I would opt for other breads. I was in that group who stigmatized bagels based on misconceptions, so for me to have liked what we made and discovered that what I previously believed bagels to be WAS A LIE, I was motivated to share it to people who had the same mindset as I did before.

How were the first few weeks of the business like?
Carlyn: It was… not romantic at all. Andrew and I have really different personalities and work styles, so it started out as a disaster in terms of our relationship, but it was going well in terms of the business. Going well in the sense that we were getting customers, we were churning out bagels that we were happy with, and we were getting partners who trusted us to carry their products even though we were just starting. It’s a really funny image, actually: we would be hating on each other as we were baking but we were actually most productive when we were upset at each other.  BUT we’re happy to report that we have smoothed things out, and we found a way to work well with each other.

How’d the branding come about?
Andrew: The branding is Carlyn’s brainchild: she had this idea of an old cranky Chinese military baker who had just retired. She lived with anger all her life, which was good in war, but was out of place in the suburbs (think suburbs in the US). This then leads her to try to work on kindness and find her inner peace. Her therapist suggests that she finds a way to be a “good neighbor” to everyone, and so she decides to bake for her neighbors since it’s in baking where she finds most comfort.

When Carlyn pitched this idea to me, I instantly had a vision of what the logo should look like. From there, we created a mood board together, fine tuned the details, and agreed on the overall vibe we wanted our brand to have. Creative jamming, COVID edition.

Where did the inspiration for the old cranky baker come from? Was it from any personal experience?
Carlyn: MY LIFE. We joke that the old cranky baker is my true form if I didn't have to go by what society deems acceptable—yes, short, saggy, and angry but in a floral onesie. In a way, we think she's the anger in all of us. Not baseless anger, but the anger that's against what's unfair or what's inefficient or the anger that we feel when things don't go our way. But we acknowledge that this anger is also coming from a point of selfishness, and that's why she's in the process of changing and trying to be kinder, gentler, and more outward-focus. This is also something I'm personally working on, that's why it's easier for me to create an identity for her and express that in our posts.

Andrew: Carlyn immediately thought of this concept after I said that the logo should be more exciting, and less expected, while we were initially working on a completely different logo/vibe for the brand. When she pitched the idea, I knew I wanted the cranky old baker to be in a floral onesie, almost like a mix of Jackass’ Bad Grandpa and accidental Chinese hipsters.

For Andrew and Carlyn, it’s not about beating the competition but building a community. “Home bakers are popping up left and right,” says Andrew. “Why not create a platform where the best home-made products can be available?”

In your opinion what makes a good brand?
Andrew: A good brand takes into account what’s happening in the market and how it can either capitalize or stand out, aesthetically and strategically.

Carlyn: I have always been drawn to branding that makes sense and branding that is executed subtly but with purpose, like a Denis Villeneuve movie, where he unfolds layers of various stories here and there, and no matter how big the gap of those stories are, he always ties them together so beautifully in the end. There are no crazy special effects or stunts, just a purely great story, script, and acting.

I don’t know if what we do is good, but I make sure that we’re guided by the identity we created of the lady in our logo when we come up with our posts and captions so that it’s cohesive and genuine.

Do you feel you’ve distinguished your brand from similar businesses?
Andrew: In some ways we’ve actually gone against the gut reaction to separate ourselves, and instead joined forces with similar businesses. Home bakers are popping up left and right, why not create a platform where the best home-made products can be available? We believe each home in the neighborhood has a specialty to offer, and we’d like to offer it to our audience.

Carlyn: As bagel-sellers, we tried to differentiate ourselves by having a homier vibe. In the crowd of perfectly curated accounts, we wanted to be the more lived-in one, messier and darker but warmer too. We also wanted our customers to feel this in our bagels by making sure we don’t take any shortcuts in the process. If it’s harder to do, it’s harder to do. If it takes longer, it takes longer. What’s important is that we do what we think is best in every step, even though no one is looking and maybe no one will even notice the difference, but we treat every customer as if he or she were family, and we only want the best for family.

As a bakery, we didn’t really think about how we want to differentiate ourselves. We just wanted to bring bakers together so that we can give people a more convenient way to access them in one platform. This expansion was really more to fulfill a dream I’ve always had to bring my favorite bakers together to make sure that people don’t have to go through the tedious process of having to research where to buy good pastries and having to eventually choose one bakery at time to buy from—story of my life. I wanted to create a bakery where people don’t have to make that decision anymore, where they can buy from multiple bakeries, if not all, if they wanted to.

Have you ever done anything as laborious in the kitchen before?
Andrew: Not at all, before this, you could count with one hand how many times we’ve been in a kitchen.

Carlyn: Uhm… I volunteered to be a dishwasher for our Days with the Lord back in high school?

“I’ve always been about the broad strokes,” says Andrew. “It’s been tedious, but learning how to sweat a lot of the details is exactly what I needed to learn.”

It’s interesting to hear that from zero experience the two of you have pushed yourselves to just really go for it all and learn everything as you go along. Beyond excitement, what do you think is driving the two of you forward?
Carlyn: Yeah. I usually get stuck in my thoughts, so I end up not doing anything, but when the lockdown happened, I felt like I needed to do something differently to stay sane, so Andrew and I just did it without any plan, which I don’t do, usually. We decided to start selling bagels even while we were just learning to do it better, and we’re still constantly learning now. In a way, doing it this way taught me to be more okay with making mistakes and to be more forgiving of myself (and of others *coughs*). I’m learning a lot about myself, about Andrew, and about our relationship through this venture. We’ve developed this teamwork that extended outside of the kitchen, and I definitely want to see how far that can take us. More than anything, this bakery is helping us become better people, kinder to others and to ourselves, and I think that’s what genuinely keeps us running.

Andrew: To be honest, I just like being able to build things with Carlyn, and seeing her get excited and excel in something. There’s a sense of security in knowing that your partner is doing everything she can to make the business the best it can be which in turn inspires me to do the same.

What’s the reception been like so far?
Carlyn: We really love the customers we’ve been receiving. It’s not a lot, but I think the quality is great! They can be split into two categories: titas and creatives—two of my favorite personalities!

Andrew: We’re actually surprised that there’s been a bunch of people that have been craving for bagels. We thought we’d have to push the letter a lot more but I guess there’s been this low-key interest for bagels in Manila. It just took some brands to step up to the challenge.

Starting a business entails a lot of patience particularly when it comes to dealing with customers and outside forces. What has the experience been like?
Carlyn: I LOVE IT! I feel like I’m the type of person who needs social interaction to thrive, so it has been a really good avenue to find joy in, given how we’re all under lockdown and we’re pretty paranoid, so we don’t go out as much as possible. Our regular customers and the other people we meet along the way really motivate us to work harder and keep on going. Our bake days can get really busy, and there are days when things just aren’t going the way you want them to, but we always just decide to bite the bullet so that we don’t let those who believe in us and in our products down.

Andrew: I usually lurk in the background as Carlyn works her magic with people. I get kind of nervous waiting to see what they think of our product. I kind of like being this fly on the wall while Carlyn creates this comfortable space for our customers to voice their opinions.

How did your lives or careers before the pandemic influence or affect or contribute to this new venture?
Carlyn: I grew up in a business family, and I’ve been doing business development since college (almost a decade—waah!). This background was helpful in structuring our venture, deciding where and how to start, where we want to go, and figuring out the steps to get there; Andrew has been in creatives most of his life, so we really wanted to incorporate his art and his ideas/experiences into our brand. Also, I’m more of a thinker, while Andrew is more of a doer, so I guess that’s how we were able to get past Step 1 of Starting An Online Bakery for Dummies.

Andrew: I’ve worked in advertising ever since college so I immediately put that hat on and started to think about how the brand can come to life especially in this crowded pool of competitors. It helps a lot that Carlyn has both a business and art sense so we can easily brainstorm about all facets from strategic angles to the look of the brand.

What did you learn about each other as the business went on?
Andrew: That in many ways we are extremely [Carlyn: EXTREMELY!] different, but at the same time we each hold the key to what has been holding the other person back. Carlyn’s all about the details, while I’ve always been about the broad strokes. It’s been tedious, but learning how to sweat a lot of the details is exactly what I needed to learn.

Carlyn: I learned that Andrew fooled me from the very start. He is not who he marketed himself to be on Bumble!!!

I learned that, in spite of our differences and our bajillion arguments, we’re a pretty good team. Andrew is strong where I am weak and vice versa. It just takes a million years for us to get on the same level or successfully decode what the other person is trying to say, but once we get past that, and we always surprisingly do, we’re golden. I’m trying my hardest to not make this sound sappy, but anyone would be lucky to be partners with Andrew because he’s super hard working and he always gets things done. Although his process might just drive all my obsessive-compulsive homies crazy. Haha!

“We actually try to avoid trends because that’s not how we want our bakery to be. We have our own identity, our own specialities, and our own preferences.”

Would you say this is something you’d like to continue beyond quarantine?
Andrew:  For sure! I mean, we’ve been daydreaming about having a small shop where people can finally try our bagel fresh out of the oven. Even if we don’t go into a commercial space, making home-made bagels is therapeutic in a weird way so I can see this going on for a long time.

Carlyn: Yes for me too. This pandemic glaringly shows how life is so short and unpredictable, so I’d like to take whatever time I have and do things that make me grow, impact others positively, and be genuinely happy.

Food is always a tricky business to sustain especially in a country that operates in trends. What do you think is the key to having a consistent stream of customers?
Andrew: I think constant collaboration is a thing that we need to keep doing to excite customers. Whether it’s finding new palaman for our bagels or reaching out to the next unique home baker, we need to keep coming up with fresh products to stay on the ball.

Carlyn: I’ve always thought that those who follow the trends will sway with the trends, so they’re not the type to really stay unless your business model is set up for constant change too. We actually try to avoid trends because that’s not how we want our bakery to be. We have our own identity, our own specialities, and our own preferences. Either people subscribe to our taste or they don’t, and that’s okay.

One of the reasons why we decided on the name Nextdoor Neighbor is so that we can wear our heart on our sleeve as we do this venture. We’ve always made it a point to take care of our customers by making sure we have consistently good products, that we innovate or introduce something new every so often, and that we treat everyone, whether they’re just passing by or they actually stay, as family. Whether this is the key to having a consistent stream of customers, we’re not sure yet, but we can talk again if we become insta-famous some day. See you in 50 years. I’m claiming it!

Once the pandemic is long gone, Andrew and Carlyn say they hope they can still grow Nextdoor Neighbor. “We’ve been daydreaming about having a small shop where people can finally try our bagel fresh out of the oven.”

I noticed your Instagram posts have become more personalized, more human even, these last few weeks. Why do you feel that’s important? What’s the thinking behind it?
Carlyn: I treat Nextdoor Neighbor Bakery as a person, the angry Chinese lady who is seen with a hard exterior but is a softy inside but she just doesn’t know how to show it or to shake away the discomfort. That persona, that struggle, is something I always try to convey in our posts. It’s the heart of our brand, so it’s what I use to guide myself when I think of captions or doodle concepts to post.

One thing I don’t like about Instagram or social media is how it can be so impersonal and detached. I wanted to avoid that for our account, that’s why we made the general vibe feel more like a person than a shop. We’re always thinking of ways to humanize our account because it’s now more than ever that people need to feel genuinely connected.

What do you feel you’ve done well? What are the things you hope or plan to improve? Andrew: I think we’ve done customer service really well. I have Carlyn to thank for that. She brings that very human connection during a distant time like COVID.

Carlyn: I think we’ve also done a good job in constantly improving our bagels. Andrew likes to watch a ton of baking videos now, so he gets to make little tweaks here and there that takes our bagels a long way.

Andrew: I hope we can eventually improve our baking setup with better gear so that we can get them to our customers quicker.

Carlyn: YES! To have a better kitchen setup (the dream!), to create more bagel variants, and to give our customers a better and more complete sandwich experience.

What do you hope for your brand moving forward?
Andrew: I just hope it becomes a good representation of the different culinary talents hiding in each household. I also hope it becomes this platform where fellow entrepreneurs can band together and get their stuff out there. 

Carlyn: I hope that it will ultimately be able to give convenience to a lot of people.

What are your go-to or favorite things to put on a bagel?
Andrew: Nothing beats fresh corned beef and mustard.

Carlyn: Easy-peasy. Cream cheese and jam. Any jam!

Gun to your head: Why is the bagel superior to a piece of toast?
Andrew: A bagel is always gonna have a top and a bottom plus it fits in your pocket.

Carlyn: You can put a string through a bagel (or many bagels) and make a bagel necklace. You’ll never starve again on Edsa and you get to walk around with it, hands-free! ︎

Jonty Cruz is a writer and creative consultant based in Manila.