With a degree in hospitality and catering, Samantha Ross had worked front-of-house at venues such as the Oval and Lords before what she made what she describes as a “catastrophic” career change. Having completed a post-grad in personnel management, she took the job of training manager at Butlin’s in Minehead but was fired after six months. “I couldn’t get on with the management style or their approach to recruitment,” she recalls.
Then over a dinner party at her house one evening, friends began talking about their hopes and aspirations. What are you going to do with your life, they asked their host. Ross paused for a moment before replying: “I’m going to bake peculiar biscuits.”
The location for the Lavender Blue Bakery business she set up was rural and its beginnings distinctly rustic. She started with hand-made lavender biscuits, then olive, sun-dried tomato breads which did a “roaring” trade from the boot of her car when she picked her son up from school.
“People remember the lavender biscuits and the lavender blue table cloth on my market stall. Other mums I met from the school would help by packing the biscuits,”she recalls.
But cakes proved to be the way forward, in terms of margin, which she sells through village and farm shops as well as tea rooms. The product roster includes pirates fruitcake (with rum), gamekeeper’s fruitcake (with sloe gin), tray bakes (such as cherry shortbread), quiches (red onion and stilton for example), puddings (treacle tart to chocolate truffle tort), “big fat” Victoria sponge and loaf cakes (sticky ginger, lemon and almond).When order levels and size necessitated the requirement of a fork-lift truck and pallets, Ross took on premises on a nearby industrial estate and her first employee.
Not that processes became automated with that step up. “A supplier came in one day and said why don’t I invest in a ‘depositer’, a machine which pre-determines the amount required for a cake and puts it into each tin,” says Ross. “But we do that just as effectively by eye. Similarly, we apply icing by hand with a palette knife.”
This was a time when artisan bakeries were becoming prolific in number, so Ross decided to enter food awards to gain exposure. And then something extraordinary happened.
“Someone came up to our stall at a market, dressed immaculately in pin stripe, and began to ask questions about one of our fruit cakes,” explains Ross. “He asked if I had any samples he could take away, and when I said I didn’t he replied that was a shame because he was a buyer from Fortnum and Mason. I told him to take the whole cake. He said here’s my card; we’ll speak next week.”
For more than a decade Britain’s most iconic food shop brand stocked the cake in question. “At the beginning, they accounted for 40% of our turnover,” says Ross, “but we realised that we had to increase sales from elsewhere to reduce what otherwise would have become dependancy, and that percentage reduced to 8%.
“When we started fulfilling the Fortnum and Mason order, the intention was to find other outlets in London. It didn’t happen, partly because I am hopeless at cold calling although if someone nibbles slightly I love the thrill of the chase. But the main reason is that the local route is so much more rewarding.” And she doesn’t measure that just in financial terms. “There is a real collaborative approach in the rural economy,” Ross believes. An example: she buys dairy products from a business owned by someone who used to sell logs to her parents (who ran a local bed and breakfast). “I know their provenance and I couldn’t buy at that price elsewhere. In return he transports our products to his customers who would otherwise be beyond our reach,” she explains.
Then there was the time that an independent supermarket phoned first thing in the morning to say they needed to add extra cakes to their usual order being delivered at noon to cater for a wake which they’d forgotten to take into account. “Our vegetable supplier happened to be in the office and said he’d drop them off to our customer because he was going that way,” Ross recounts.
Multiple supermarkets are out of the question though. “I can’t see the cakes we bake being lumped into a shopping trolley with cut-price tins of cat food and toilet roll,” says Ross. “I prefer our approach of phoning our trade customers twice a week and delivering on a Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday. We pretty much make to order.”
It’s a family business in that her son, a teacher, helps with deliveries in the school holidays. Altogether Lavender Blue Bakery have some seven staff.
“We produce real food using real ingredients and the same methods you would at home – we just use a bigger bowl,” explains Ross. “We crack proper eggs, we peel onions, we chop apples and we grate real lemons for flavour. We could compromise with ingredients and buy in cheaper grades, as well as using margarine instead of butter for our flapjacks. We could buy liquid egg whites, but then we would lose track of where our ingredients have come from as well as diminish our product.”
“What we produce is as good as home made. I’ve been told by customers that they take the wrapper off and claim our cake as their own.”
Researched and written for Ward Goodman by DECISION magazine