Knowing how to strike a balance

“It might sound laughably naive, but back in the nineties I had a vision of having a company which was the antithesis of how The Apprentice show on television perpetuated a stereotyped image of business. I have this belief that business can be done in a more linear than hierarchical way, that the machismo associated with success is outdated.”

The company Emma Goss-Custard set up is also the antithesis of most food producers, whose cakes have an ingredients list which read like the contents of a chemistry set.

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Actually in the first iteration of Honeybuns, cakes were almost a sideline. “The premise was to cycle over to the industrial estates around Oxford on a traditional tradesman’s bike selling lunch. “People liked the sandwiches, but they loved the cakes,” explains Goss-Custard. “That gave me the confidence to focus.”

At the start, the big question for Honeybuns was whether to embrace organic or not. “Better animal welfare was a big draw for us as well as less use of pesticides, processing agents and chemicals generally,” she explains.

“Rather than go entirely organic we use organic ingredients if it means we can avoid an additive. For instance, organic icing sugar doesn’t contain an anti-caking agent such as Tricalcium Phosphate (E341) and organic maple syrup is guaranteed free from contamination by formaldehyde, which is sometimes used during its production. There is a balance between sticking to your guns and looking at options which could be as good or even better. With the price of ground almonds rising expotentially year after year, the consequence of poor harvests and increased demand from China, we found that a blind tasting demonstrated that ground cashew nuts would be an acceptable alternative at a better price.”

“When we create a new product it isn’t to a price point,” says Goss-Custard. “We’ll have a guideline price from a customer, but that can’t be at the expense of flavour and texture. By setting our oven temperature low, for example, it allows the flavours to mingle and develop properly.

“A business like Honeybuns has to have a clear vision of wanting to be the best it could be. If you want to make heaps of cash quickly, don’t start an artisan bakery business. But there is real enjoyment in the responsibility of producing a good product, building a sustainable business with values rather than to a tub-thumping agenda.”

Today, Honeybuns have 15,000sqft of farm buildings in the middle of the Dorset countryside, As well as facings in retailers including Waitrose, their gluten-free products can be found in cafes at John Lewis, and at Waterstones. Husband Matt joined the business thirteen years ago and looks after finance and procurement.

It’s interesting that Goss-Custard considers the word kindness to be important in recruitment. “I would say it’s a vital character attribute,” she maintains. “There are thirty of us here and I don’t want us to develop a factory mindset. If people are to be happy at work, that doesn’t just happen by itself; like gardening, a culture has to be nurtured. I would be lying to say that every team member has a say in every decision but when we wanted to relocate we involved the staff in identifying which would be the best site.”

Interestingly, when Honeybuns decided to launch a dairy-free, gluten free, refined sugar free product in the crowded fruit and nut bar market, they created one which tastes like a cake. They developed it for the Leon fast-food chain (it’s co-branded). “It’s definitely a hybrid product,” says Goss-Custard, “but it sold two and a half times more than Leon thought it would, which gave us confidence to develop a version for general sale.”

And while some companies are content with putting their values up on a wall in reception, Goss-Custard wrote a book about them. Five years ago her gluten-free baking book was published. “I had to be careful that it didn’t become a vanity project, but we saw this book would earn its keep by the market leverage it would produce,” There were some unexpected spin-offs. “Writing the book encouraged us to look at new ideas and apply them to our new product development,” she explains. “I can’t tell you how important that is. My morbid dread is that people will say oh, Honeybuns, they used to be great.”

Not everything will work, even if antennae and experience suggest that it should, she muses. A product devoid of refined sugar launched seven years ago was just too early for the market. “It’s a horrible pun, but if we didn’t take risks, we would become stale,” GossCustard says. “It’s a difficult combination, bringing together what the consumer wants and what they don’t know they want next.

Sometimes though, that can happen by fortuitous accident. When the paleolithic diet suddenly became flavoursome, Honeybuns noticed a spike in the sales of one of their products. It happened to contain no dairy or refined sugar as ingredients. Without realising it, they created the perfect product for that particular market.

It is just as easy to make a slightly wrong turn which could have catastrophic consequences. “Before producing the book, I wondered whether we should streamline our range down to the best selling products,” recalls GossCustard. “But that would have fossilised our thinking and killed the brand. In fact what we needed to do was to produce a more carefully curated range.”

The company had what Goss-Custard describes as a seismic epiphany at Christmas time 2013. “We were under a lot of pressure by a customer who wanted a new product,” she recalls. “I said of course they could have it. The production team rightly said it wasn’t going to be straightforward. Of course that resulted in a crunch point. It’s made me realise there will always be completely valid pros and cons on either side of a discussion. I remember my meeting with our bakery team leader. We were both very humble about it and realised we needed a structure place to bring on innovation and deliver it as quickly as possible within our resource capabilities. That is essential because in our sector, a customer wants a product with the same timelines as a fashion retailer.

“We are developing new products with fruit derivatives as well as reducing the sugar content in existing recipes. The challenge is to ensure that what we are producing is still an indulgent treat.”

What she would like to do is explore some export opportunities. There was a brief time when the company was supplying a wholesaler in Germany – it lasted for some four years – but when they were taken over “things just seemed to fizzle out.” We haven’t had another opportunity like that come our way, says GossCustard. “I know it takes an awful lot of time for a food company to invest in opening up overseas markets, just in order to comply with different requirements for packaging alone. We’ve still got enough work to do in the UK, so my view is let’s not over-reach.

“When a business starts it is action-orientated because there is a need for survival. Strategy comes later and for it to be effective, you have to be ruthlessly honest about your strengths and weaknesses. As the company grows it has to be a marriage of kitchen table spirit and business processes. So we introduced a monthly bright idea incentive, with a cash prize if it can be implemented. We have to be the iconic VW campervan on the outside but with a BMW engine.

“And it is also important to get feedback internally to find out what we need to do to improve. A company can only focus on solutions if there is a no blame culture.”

Online presents more immediate opportunity for Honeybuns. “We were one of the first businesses of our kind to have an online shop, but internet sales stalled at 5% of turnover and I would like that figure to be 15%,” she says.

But she doesn’t worry overly about what other companies are doing. “We have an awareness, but ultimately our focus has to be on what we do, and we should have the inner confidence to plough our own furrow.”

According to Goss-Custard, a holy grail for any company in their position is to be bought out eventually. “But actually,” she says, “we are really enjoying the journey. What would we be doing if we sold the business? As things begin to get bigger, and I suppose trickier, I find they get more interesting. We also have a sense of purpose. We don’t bang on about being ethical but it is a motivation to be doing the right thing.”

And how did Goss-Custard decide on Honeybuns as the brand? “It was only going to be an interim name, a working title,” she explains. “I was thinking about what to call the business when a friend phoned me and said ‘hello honeybuns’, and I thought that will do.”

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