Meet the Entrepreneur Taking Hong Kong’s Vegan Bakery & Cheese Scene to the Next Level

8 Mins Read

The Cakery founder Shirley Kwok speaks to Green Queen about her new businesses shaking up Hong Kong’s plant-based scene: vegan cheese brand Cultured and plant-forward bakery Maya.

Shirley Kwok is one busy lady. Under her entrepreneur belt so far: a cakery, a bakery, and an artisanal cheese brand, and it’s not even been a decade!

And oh, her products range from better-for-you, allergen-friendly, vegan-friendly and diet-inclusive to a combination of all the above. The best part, though? The flavour is – some would say – bomb.

What started as a pop-up cake shop at Hong Kong’s famous commercial complex Landmark in 2016 has now evolved into five locations that offer cakes in all shapes and sizes, for all occasions and diets. But about a year and a half ago, The Cakery was no longer enough for Kwok, a mother of two.

You see, there was this local vegan cheese she loved, but the brand was sadly closing down – a fate that many of the city’s plant-forward businesses have suffered post-pandemic. Kwok was going to buy out that business, but that didn’t pan out. So instead, she created her own artisanal vegan cheese brand.

vegan cheese hong kong
Courtesy: Cultured

“I was doing a lot of tests at home,” she tells me. After testing a few different versions, she brought the cheese to work. “Everybody tried and they’re like: ‘Oh, it’s really nice. And I can’t stop eating,'” recalls Kwok. That’s when the thought occurred – maybe there was a real business in all this.

It came to fruition at the end of last year in the form of Cultured, a CPG brand offering kitchen staples like spreadable cheese blocks, cream cheeses, superfood crackers and curried hummus – all vegan.

Inspired by nations, powered by fermentation

As the name suggests, Cultured is rooted in fermentation, blending a base of cashews with probiotics and ageing them to unlock depth, complexity and umami notes. Plus, there’s the good-for-you bacteria and enzymes to support digestion and a strong immune system. “Everyone’s talking about gut health,” notes Kwok.

“The reason why I use the word ‘Cultured’ is because I wanted to bring in all sorts of cultures into this new thing. I want the brand to be inclusive, so it’s for everyone to try,” she tells me. The idea was to blend global cultures with fermentation cultures, with product flavours linked to different parts of the world (truffles are a nod to Italy, jalapeños to Mexico, and so on).

Her decision to make blocks of spreadable cheese over grated/gratable versions was part of a conscious move away from ingredients like agar or cornstarch, keeping her products as clean-label as possible. ethos intact. That is evident when you take a peek at the label: the sundried tomato and roasted garlic cheese, for example, has cashews, water, lemon juice, nutritional yeast, sundried tomatoes, garlic, salt and probiotics.

cultured vegan cheese
Courtesy: Cultured

The process of making the cheese starts with a 48-hour ferment at room temperature, followed by another two to three days in the fridge, which will make it good to last for at least two weeks. Kwok has tried plenty of nuts, but cashews just work well with the flavour and texture of her current portfolio. “I’m going to start using other nuts,” she adds. Almonds, macadamias, and the like.

But with nut-based cheeses, cost is always an issue. Cultured’s cashew cheeses range from HK$120-135 ($15-17) for less than 200g, which is quite steep. Having said that, it is artisanal cheese, and the prices aren’t much different from high-end conventional counterparts.

“I feel like people who really understand my product should be able to appreciate that,” she says. “Even for my cakes, some people say: ‘Oh, yeah, your cakes are really expensive. But I can tell you use really good ingredients.'”

From The Cakery to a plant-forward bakery

This brings us neatly to the setting of our chat – we’re sat at the site of Maya in the commercial hub that is Taikoo Place. Borrowing similar principles from The Cakery, Maya is Kwok’s newest brand, a bakery with an almost fully plant-based menu. There are vegan versions of local favourites in egg tarts and pineapple buns, international treasures in pistachio croissants and blueberry muffins, and indulgent treats in peanut-butter-filled chocolate cookies.

My favourite part (aside from the flavour, of course) is the price. The vegan egg tart costs HK$18 ($2.30), the pistachio croissant HK$26 ($3.30), and the pandan-fulled pineapple bun HK$22 ($2.80). For high-quality plant-based products, that is excellent pricing. How did Kwok manage to keep prices so low for Maya, especially when Cultured’s rates are relatively high?

vegan bakery hong kong
Processed with VSCO with al3 preset

“It’s a new concept, and we’re having the shop in a commercial area,” she explains. She was expecting to get some pushback. “I wanted people to give it a try first, and not have a barrier. So then they like it and come back again. But if the price point is too high, they’ll be like: ‘Why would I want to pay so much for something that I’m not even sure whether I would like?'”

It’s a pertinent point for a region where 20% of the population lives in poverty, and inflation has mirrored increases globally, with things costing 2.4% more in December 2023 than the month before. But despite a spate of post-pandemic closures and collapses for plant-based businesses, the demand for vegan food remains, with a June 2023 survey finding that 86% of locals want to see more plant-based options in public places, while 70% don’t think restaurants offer enough meat-free options.

Speaking of which, you may have noticed I described Maya as a bakery with an almost 100% vegan menu. That’s because the menu has one meat-based option: a turmeric chicken sourdough sandwich. “I was debating whether to use ‘fake’ meat,” says Kwok. “But it’s processed, and we really don’t want to use that.” She acknowledges that the menu does have a sandwich with vegan tuna, which she says is “the most processed food in this café”.

plant based hong kong
Courtesy: Green Queen Media

“I was also worried that we’re in a commercial area, where probably most of the people are not vegan – I still want to try to accommodate people who are not vegan, you know?” she adds. Explaining her rationale, she says meat-eaters might come to the store and select the chicken sandwich the first time, but they might like it so much that they’d try something else – maybe one of the vegan sandwiches (which incorporate Cultured’s products), quiches or soups – next time. It’s a working example of how flexitarians hold the key to protein diversification.

Kwok isn’t vegan herself but says she really appreciates good plant-based food. “But it’s quite hard to find in Hong Kong,” she tells me. “Even though they say they’re vegan, they’re heavily processed, and I don’t feel healthy after eating it.” It’s a view held by many around the world, with the heightened discourse about ultra-processed foods (UPFs) associating certain vegan foods with ill health – though not all UPFs or plant-based meats are unhealthy. “I try to eat very clean. I prefer wholesome food, rather than really processed food.”

It’s all about the aesthetics – and family

The other reason why Maya isn’t fully vegan is because the espresso bar serves cow’s milk. Don’t worry though, there’s oat and soy too – and the coffee, sourced from a local roaster, is truly great. There are two options: “nutty” and “fruity” (which I assume are layperson’s terms for washed and natural processed coffee, respectively).

Aesthetics are important to Kwok. There’s an underlying pastel theme running through Maya’s exteriors, serveware and the food itself. The hot drinks come in gorgeous stone mugs with golden spoons, with takeaway packaging sourced from local supplier Sustainabl. For iced beverages, there are plastic-free, starch-based straws.

maya vegan bakery
Courtesy: Maya

As for the food, take that pistachio croissant, for instance. The top is meticulously half-covered in a pistachio-white chocolate glaze, lined with pistachio pieces. I ask her why she chose to go with an exterior glaze instead of a filling. “I really appreciate things that look nice,” she responds. “So if I put it on top, it can be very catchy.” Traditional croissants can be “shiny and nice”, but it’s hard to replicate that with a margarine-based vegan croissant. So she wanted something that would grab the attention of people standing afar.

But Maya isn’t just a bakery: it moonlights as a bar, with cocktails like Honeybee Gin Tea, Coriander Blast and a classic negroni, alongside craft beers and organic wines. You can grab a vegan cheese platter too, if you’re into that. It’s a whole package, and it makes sense when you consider how personal the brand is to Kwok.

Maya is the name of her 11-year-old daughter, who helped conceptualise the business’s mascot and logo, a bird also called Maya. The new business is a tribute to both her kids, and signals that she’s in it for the long haul. She’s already deep in R&D for future releases (a not-so-subtle hint: if you’re into kimchi and hot sauces, you may be in for a treat).

shirley kwok
Courtesy: Maya

While Kwok does want to expand eventually, she’s wary that vegan cheese brands in Hong Kong have come and gone, so education for her is key. In the long term, she hopes people recognise she’s trying to help her own community and normalise veganism. “Right now, people are still asking us: ‘Do you have normal cakes?’ Hopefully, in five years, I won’t get those kinds of customers,” she says.

In the end, for Kwok, it’s about convincing people that it’s okay to eat vegan food: “Just give it a try.”


  • Anay Mridul

    Anay is Green Queen's resident news reporter. Originally from India, he worked as a vegan food writer and editor in London, and is now travelling and reporting from across Asia. He's passionate about coffee, plant-based milk, cooking, eating, veganism, food tech, writing about all that, profiling people, and the Oxford comma.

    View all posts

You might also like