Even businesses that enjoy the sweet taste of success need to be reassessed as they grow, as the founder of Honeybuns has discovered. Tessa Gates meets her.
Eight years ago Emma Goss-Custard got on her bike to start a business, but today that bike stands redundant in front of her Dorset farm-based bakery. From small beginnings in Oxford she now employs up to 30 people and needs wholesalers to distribute the 5.5t of Honeybuns handmade cakes produced each week.
It’s no small feat for a woman of 32 who studied English, not cookery, at university and who admits to never having drawn up a business plan. “It’s ironic that we are currently being judged for a business award,” says Emma. “When I started out, I was a student and I just wanted to make enough money to pay the rent. I made sandwiches and cakes and delivered them by bike around Oxford.”
But with a talent for baking honed from childhood, her business grew and after college she moved with her partner Matt to Guildford, started employing staff and baking a wide range of individual-sized cakes.
The business was all-consuming yet her dream was to find a rural site where she could run the bakery and have the space and time to keep dogs and horses and enjoy the countryside. When Matt, who worked in IT, had the chance to work from home, it was the spur to find such a place. Naish Farm, Holwell, Dorset, seemed ideal.
“It was on the market with 50 acres. We couldn’t afford that, but bought the 500-year-old farmhouse and outbuildings with five acres,” she says, adding that after giving many hours of his time, free, to Honeybuns, Matt now works for it, too.
The couple moved to the farm two-and-a-half years ago and the old cowshed is now the bakery. Fitted to meet all health and hygiene regulations, it nevertheless retains its character. “All our changes can be reversed. It was important to us that, we keep the place looking like a farm.”
Planning consent has not been a problem even though the farm is Grade II Listed. “We chose to be as transparent as we could and the planning department was very supportive.’ she says. Now the old milking stalls are a packing room and the big barn houses freezing equipment
“On the whole, local people have been very welcoming and the former owners are glad it was not sold to weekenders. Their son has become a friend and has even helped us do some of the renovation work”
A planning application is now under way to remove a galvanized building and replace it with a staff room and showers – “built in a charming and sustainable way”.. Selling like hot cakes In the bakery
The business, too, has under-gone some changes, although it still bakes scrumptious individual cakes, cookies and flapjacks, handmade in small batches with the finest ingredients.
Three lines have won gold medals at the Great Taste Awards: Snowy Hills – lemon frangipane made with local free-range eggs and butter from Denhay Farms, on a polenta and stem ginger base; Coppice Cake – a combination of cranberries, ground hazelnuts and chocolate; and the deliciously-dark Heathcliffe Brownie. All extremely moreish.
“If you are worried about calories have a small piece at a time, that’s what I do,” advises Emma. “I like to think of them as little slices of temptation in the fridge.”
When Emma first started out, she used the recipes her mother and grandmother had taught her. “My grandmother was Italian and her cakes used polenta and almonds rather than flour. Unknowingly, I was making cakes that people with coeliac disease – who can’t tolerate gluten – could enjoy. I was just interested in making tasty things.
“Now we have become very niche and the whole range is gluten- and wheat-free, although this is not how it is marketed. We don’t put gluten-free on the front of the cake. It’s an all-inclusive product and the first reaction we want is, ‘this is a great cake’,” says Emma. “Coeliacs will look on the back label for the gluten-free logo. Sales go down if it is separated to a basket of gluten-free products.”
The cakes are blast frozen and sold through wholesalers to a wide range of outlets including top London stores, health food shops, delicatessens, the House of Commons, Virgin and First Great Western trains. Honeybuns also has a strong regional following.
“Retailers defrost part of the order as they need it, and the cakes are sold from chill cabinets,” says Emma. “Our cakes don’t contain preservatives; you can’t have really long-lasting cakes without chemicals, although people don’t seem to realise that.”
Since moving to the farm, Emma has had to make some hard decisions. “I had run the company very idealistically. I did everything myself and the company had outgrown that. I had to draft in help and act grown up and restructure the business.
“We had 50 lines and people were always asking for new stuff and we would oblige. It was out of control. Now we have 16 lines and the confidence to stick to a range. If we launch a new product we pull another one out.”
Emma has reassessed her role, too. She has a great bakery team, and is happy to delegate now and concentrates on product development. “You need to know when to step back when you have a good team around you, “ she says. “Matt and I have just had our first three-week holiday away and the business didn’t skip a beat.”
Tessa Gates © Farmers Weekly 2005