Nearly a decade after routinely watching her mother’s baking,  Rutgers School of Arts and Sciences senior Hiba Shahid now operates a catering business that prepares entirely halal desserts called Sweets by Hiba.

The beginning of Sweets by Hiba

While Shahid frequently made cupcakes throughout her adolescent years, she said she began to deeply explore her passion for baking during the early days of the Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic lockdown in 2020.

“I was at home all the time,” Shahid said. “That’s when I really started getting more into baking and then turning it more into a business than just doing it in my free time.”

Among other trends like whipped coffee and homemade focaccia, hot chocolate bombs were a popular food item at the time. For this trend, people filled chocolate shells with cocoa powder, marshmallows and other toppings. Then, they placed the shells in a mug of warm milk to explode open, ultimately enhancing their hot chocolate.

Given the popularity of hot chocolate bombs, Shahid said she created a batch of her own with unique fillings like caramel and sprinkles. She began sharing her work via local Facebook groups and quickly diversified her menu once people showed interest in placing orders, she said.

Thus, Sweets by Hiba was founded in January of 2021.

“I just started posting everything I was making,” said Shahid. “When I started, it was just hot chocolate bombs, then I got my first cake order.”

A booming business

Despite the daunting task of creating custom cakes, Shahid said doing so has become her specialty beyond the small confections she had initially served. In addition, she said she offers cake pops and chocolate-covered strawberries.

Shahid requests that all interested customers place an order through the Sweets by Hiba Instagram page at least two weeks before the date of their event. If customers are inquiring about purchasing an item besides a custom cake, she also asks that they place a minimum order of at least one dozen treats. 

Though she is based in East Brunswick and prefers for her customers to pick up their orders, Shahid said she offers delivery for those approximately 30 to 40 minutes from her residence. She mentioned that she has also helped set up customers’ orders at their events if they asked her to.

How Shahid's culture benefits her business

Typically, Shahid caters to occasions like birthday parties, engagement celebrations, and pop-up events at nearby mosques. Specifically, she said she has collaborated with the Islamic Society of Central Jersey for events in recognition of Islamic holidays like Ramadan and Eid.

“Since I offer halal treats, I get a lot of Muslim customers,” Shahid said.

She revealed that approximately 80 percent of her customers are those who identify with the Islamic faith and opt to eat halal food.

Given her predominantly Muslim customer demographic, Shahid said she sees an uptick in orders placed before and after the observance of Ramadan.

Shahid even offers favor boxes with an assortment of chocolate-covered dates as well as Ramadan- and Eid-themed cookies. She said customers have the option to fill the dates with ingredients such as hazelnut spread, peanut butter, crushed nuts, and coconut flakes.

Over the weekend of March 9 to March 10, Shahid said she assembled approximately 100 favor boxes ahead of Ramadan — an increase from her usual six orders per week.

“People were giving out [the favor boxes] to their offices…friends and community,” she said. “Towards the beginning of Ramadan and towards the end of Ramadan, [the business is] much more hectic.”

Besides the support Shahid has received from Islamic communities in neighboring towns like North Brunswick and South Brunswick, she has also been supported by her fellow Scarlet Knights.

When the business started three years ago, Shahid said she had accepted her first bulk order from the Rutgers’ Muslim Student Association (MSA) chapter as part of its Road to Revival Conference event.

She prepared 100 hot chocolate bombs to be included in a giveaway because of the pandemic-related restrictions, she said.

“[Rutgers’ Muslim Student Association] helped me grow my business and put my name out there,” said Shahid. “I’ve received a lot of orders through the way that they have promoted my business.”

This year, she accepted an order of 400 cookies for the same event.

Considering her ties to the Islamic community and status as a student at the University, Shahid said she recognized a handful of people at the event who had come to try her desserts.

“It was amazing to see people try my stuff in front of me and be able to interact with them, tell them the process that went into making [the cookies], and then everyone just being so appreciative of the effort that I’ve put into it,” said Shahid.

In fact, Shahid said improving her baking skills and creating intimate connections with her customers are aspects of the business that she takes great pride in.

When packing an order for a regular customer, said Shahid, she includes extra items along with their desserts to express her gratitude for their loyalty.

She said she has a customer who has frequented Sweets by Hiba since its inception.

“I made her engagement cake…a cake for her baby shower, now I just made a cake for her child’s first birthday.”

Looking ahead, Shahid hopes to continue taking orders following graduation and, eventually, open Sweets by Hiba’s first location in New Brunswick.

“I’m always…putting in a lot of love and effort in every order that I curate,” she said. “I know there’s a big community within [the New Brunswick] area that would be willing to support me.”