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What I’ve learnt: Holtwhites Bakery

A decade into their respective careers, husband and wife duo, Richard Copsey (former teacher) and Kate Smith (former research director) decided to take a leap of faith, leave their jobs and open up Holtwhites, a local artisan bakery based in North London’s Enfield. We caught up with Kate to find out their journey to date – from opening up a ‘micro-bakery’ in their kitchen while working full-time, to having a shop without knowing how to use a till, and growing into an award-winning pillar of their local community.

Where did the idea of opening up a bakery come from?

Richard had been baking at home for years, and knew he wanted to work in food at some point. He’d become unsatisfied with teaching, and even though I was happy, I couldn’t see my career progressing much further. I knew we were a good team and doing something together was quite a good prospect. It was all very serendipitous – there was a local bakery down the road that’d been open for several generations and it closed down overnight. It left a gap in the market and we knew there was a demand for the type of bread we were baking. It was a ‘now or never’ moment. We thought we could wait a couple of years while the kids get more independent, but we didn’t want to lose momentum or be too tired to take it on, so we just went for it and started a micro-bakery in our kitchen at home while we were working in our other careers.

We started building up quite a lot of support from the local community and our Facebook group started to pick up from that point as well, so I think a lot of our customers came on that journey with us and really bought into it. It’s why we have such a nice interactive group where other group members will post almost as often as we do.

As a micro-bakery, how did you approach marketing and building awareness?

It was really just through word of mouth – we’d mentioned it to a few neighbours and friends who all said they’d sign up for it, so we started with a group of about ten customers and it just snowballed. Friends of friends and people talking at the school gates – it was very much a local thing.

Our Facebook group started to pick up and we also marketed with local stalls and sponsored fetes to get people to sign up for weekly emails. These would tell people what we’d be baking that week so they could place orders. I’d be on the train home from work on my Blackberry answering these emails, so it was really useful being able to do that on the go.

We haven’t created our customer base through social media, but our following has supported it and given us a way to communicate with our customers and generate more interest. The pages have grown and though there are a lot of pages that have millions of followers, we don’t really have that, we’ve never really worked to make that side of it big. It’s a case of quality over quantity.

What was the process of setting up the shop like?

Richard had done some two day training courses a year or so beforehand and we had some help from a bakery consultant who talked us through logistics whilst we were in the process of renovating the site. We had some ideas but we wanted to speak to someone who’d done it themselves. The consultant spoke to us about how we’d be getting the flour in and how we’d get the bread out. Social media has also been really important to us in overcoming some of the challenges we’ve had on baking-related questions. The artisan bakery community is quite small and niche, so being able to talk to other artisan bakers has been invaluable and we’ve had some fantastic help by networking online.

Setting up was just terrifying. We launched the first day and then the realisation came that we’d have to do it again the next day. We just kept thinking, “How are we going to do this every day?” It was a big leap, so the micro-bakery was very useful in that respect. I don’t think we would’ve dared to go for it had we not done that – we wouldn’t have known a fraction of what we’d known otherwise. I didn’t even know how to use a till when we first opened! You have to rely on people to help you along the way.

What would you do differently knowing what you know now?

Well I’d say we’d get somewhere with more space, but you have to find somewhere that’s right for the location, and I don’t think we really could’ve got a bigger space being on retail premises. So having a bigger space would be great but very expensive in this location. Even if it was a bit bigger I think we’d still be saying there isn’t much space.

We never anticipated it being as big as it’s become, and everyone says that’s a nice problem to have, which I guess it is. It does mean we have to think about production space if it’s going to get any bigger, and how we could support that. It would change the nature of mine and Richard’s role in particular if we were working across two sites. So we’ve got to think about why we got into this to begin with – it was really for the love of the product and doing something in our local area. It wasn’t necessarily to be working in industrial units out on the other side and have a much more hierarchical management structure in place.

What about the future of Holtwhites?

We don’t think about the future a lot! Our bakery will hopefully stay in this position for however many years and it’s quite an important part of the community now. We’ve thought about opening up other bakeries and diversifying, by opening up a café or doing more wholesale. We’re just waiting for something that feels right, but we’re happy.

There are always things you can do to improve your business, not necessarily by making it more profitable, but by make working conditions or the quality of the product better. Whatever we do has to be sustainable and compliment the brand, rather than dilute it. We’re cautious of expanding and then crashing.

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