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Family food intolerances led him to create a gluten-free and vegan doughnut that tastes so good, the internationally recognised and high-end brand that is Selfridges came knocking.
For anyone who dreams of quitting the day job, Ryan shares how he went from being made redundant to turning his home kitchen into a commercial powerhouse.
Navigate the show notes to find out more:
Developing a business from a personal need can have a universal USP
Ryan, thank you so much for coming and taking time out of your hectic doughnut schedule to talk to us.
I know, first hand, that you are insanely busy because I tried to sneak on to your website and buy some doughnuts, but there was a waiting list of nearly two weeks.
That is amazing that you are full of orders for that amount of time. So, you’re flying.
Yeah, it is just mad and crazy. We are just trying to give people what they want, so we have increased the number of orders we do a day.
I do not want to put too much pressure on anyone working here. I still want it to be quite a relaxed environment, as it produces the best results, but we are maxed out.
We could maybe push it further, as we are working in unison more and coordinating more. But it is crazy. I am grateful to have that number of orders. To have that amount of people coming in and ordering from our website is fantastic.
This is probably a good point to discuss how you ended up launching this business because you came at this from a personal angle?
Yeah, absolutely. It was my wife, who has had dairy and gluten intolerance for as long as I have known her. And then my children, when they were both born, we found out very shortly afterwards, had dairy intolerances.
Funnily enough, my wife’s dairy intolerance went away through both pregnancies. But we found out very quickly afterwards that the children could not take it, so she reverted as well. We have always been used to buying free-from dairy products.
As the children got older, my wife developed an online magazine called The London Mother, all things to do with London’s parenting.
She would get invited to these events, such as an advanced screening for a film. So, if you go out to town, it would be an exciting event. They would have loads of balloon animals, face painting and loads of treats for the kids to eat first thing in the morning.
My kids could not eat anything, which frustrated me, especially as it was just a dairy allergy. I thought dairy is so easy to compensate for or to substitute.
There was nothing that was both dairy-free and gluten-free. And on the rare occasions that they did, the quality was not good at all. So, that pushed me into exploring what could I make for them.
I was not new to baking, as I dabbled in it before. I naively thought it could not be that difficult to make something that would excite my family.
That is what pushed me into baking. Not starting a business, but baking for my family to fulfil their needs.
Product testing takes tenacity, trial and error
How tricky was it to make a gluten-free, dairy-free doughnut that tasted good? Tell me about the recipes that you tried. How did you crack that?
Well, I did it in stages.
The first one is dairy-free, which is easy to replicate – a dairy-free bake. So, I made cupcakes because it was the cupcake boom.
You had Hummingbird and Primrose Bakery – everyone was doing them, and they were everywhere. But my wife could not eat them because they had gluten.
I tried to do something gluten-free for her, which was difficult. I thought you could just go by and pick up gluten-free Doves Flour and just substitute it – but it does not work.
I had cakes that would just collapse when they came out of the oven, or you would eat them, and they go to that wet sand consistency in your mouth.
It was tricky getting the balance right between all the different ingredients that you would use.
You could not rely on something that was off the shelf. It would work in certain products such as cookies, which would harden up naturally. But you are not supposed to have biscuit cakes.
There were a lot of errors during the trials. And kids are brutally honest. My kids would tell me, in no uncertain terms, that this is disgusting.
I hate it.
I hate you, dad. Why have you made me eat this?
Pelting me with rock-hard cakes.
I was obsessed. I had the tenacity to try and perfect the recipe. OK, this works. We will add this ingredient and this amount.
Let me tweak something else. Let me tweak the additives that we put in. I discovered xanthan gum, understanding how that works and what it does, and what different ingredients will do to the bake and the chemical reactions to get that result.
I was trying everything such as cakes, cookies and brownies.
I discovered that everybody does a gluten-free brownie. It is as common as bananas. What is something that someone gluten-free who cannot eat bread-based products would miss?
I thought doughnuts. Let us try and make a doughnut. And that is what led me to perfect a recipe, finally nailing it and giving the kids something that they enjoyed.
Start with a self-designed logo, some business cards, and photos
It is quite a leap from making something for your kids and your wife that they will enjoy to them thinking, I will take this to the masses. How did you make that leap?
I was kicking and screaming. I am not an entrepreneur at heart—that is my wife Madeka. That is her nature, she has always had that tenacity, that sort of drive.
She gave me an ultimatum because the ingredients were very hard to come by at that stage. I was ordering stuff from Amazon and America. All these weird and wonderful ingredients that now you find in your local Co-op.
But, at that time, they did not.
My wife noticed I was spending all this money on ingredients, making these beautiful creations, but which had a relatively short shelf life. We could not eat all of them. And you end up giving them away.
Stop giving them away, she said. Sell them. She had never seen anything like these doughnuts in all her escapades to try and find that perfect gluten-free, dairy-free product.
My sister-in-law, who has got very similar allergies to my wife, said the same thing. She told me to sell it or stop making it. She said I needed to make some money to at least cover the cost of the ingredients.
So, very reluctantly, I ordered 1,000 business cards with loads of photos and spent the whole day on my iPad designing the logo.
And then I asked myself, what do I do now? I could not just expect the phone to start ringing or emails to start flying in for people to know that I existed.
So, I started using social media. It all started with Facebook. I found some Coeliac groups, as they were my gluten-free target.
I started stealthily, just working it into the conversation. It was not an aggressive sell, just me asking questions, having conversations, and just dropping the fact I had made doughnuts. Would you be interested in trying them?
Everybody makes gluten-free brownies, they said. Have you got anything else?
I said, “Well, I’ve got these doughnuts. I’ve made them.” There, “What? Doughnuts!” I posted a picture. It blew up from there. My phone was ringing all night, and notifications were coming through all evening. It just went mental.
I knew OK, I think I am on to something here.
Then, it was, right. We have got this product with a short shelf life, how can I get it out to people? That is where I conceived the business, where it took off, and where it started to blossom into what it is today.
How to transition from side gig and redundancy to full-time business
You were working at the time. So, you had to make a transition from being employed to turning this into your full-time business. How did that come about?
I would do the business in the evenings and occasionally on the weekends, just trying to fit it around work. I was very fortunate that at the job that I had, I could manage myself and my own time. It was just trying to make it work.
I was very open and honest to people, and I said, I am not a trained baker. I have made this for my family, they enjoyed it, and I think you will too. I think it’s something that’s missing in the marketplace. I have not seen anything like it, and here is when I can deliver it to you.
So, at that stage, I was working four days a week. I would use that day off in the week to do all the orders and hand-deliver them around London. It sounds ludicrous, thinking about it, a bonkers, crazy idea. But I guess it is one of those kinds of things that make you stand out.
And, I loved it, to be fair, because you would meet so many people, you would hear their stories, and they would be appreciative.
It would just continue to feed that desire, that drive, to push this forward. To hurdle the next obstacle that comes up or came up – doing the business nights and weekends, slowly building it up.
Then I got in front of a buyer at Selfridges, which again was through social media.
That is where I had to get fixed up, organised, and structured to make that work, which was not an easy transition at all. There was a very steep learning curve. I had to use my project management skills that I built up in my previous job and apply that to the business,
It got to a stage where I was saying that in the next 12 months, I am going to make the transition, and I am going to leave. I would say that every month, but then it got to a stage where they were making my role redundant.
I remember having a conversation with my wife and saying it is now or never. Do I do this?
I had another job opportunity waiting for me doing similar project management to what I was doing before. Do I leap, or do I go down a path that is familiar to me?
The guy who offered me the job knew about what I was doing as well, and even he pushed me to make that transition and do the business full time.
Fight imposter syndrome with a support system
You had so much support around you. Often, when people have a business idea, the people who are closest to them say it is risky. But you had the opposite experience.
You got the confidence to do it from everyone believing in you. That must have felt amazing to have that full backing from everyone around you.
You have the most significant conflict within yourself. A bit of imposter syndrome comes into it as well.
I very much just saw it as me being a hamster on a wheel. Once I get on that wheel, once I let this go, I am just going to have to keep going. There’s not going to be a chance to stop. That is how I saw it.
But to have those people around you, pushing you, believing in your products, believing in you. Them saying you are the right person to do this and that you can make this work.
Madeka (Ryan’s wife) was brilliant for pushing me to do that.
But she held me back from making other decisions where I wanted to jump in feet first. When you make that transition from part time to full time, you lose that safety net and steady income. So, you try and recreate that.
You get to a stage where you will do anything or any job that comes your way. She has been the voice of reason. She saved me from a lot of pain. But, at the same time, she has been the most prominent champion.
Connect your product with influential buyers and suppliers on social media
I want to talk about Selfridges. I know people listening will think it is hard to get in front of a buyer at Selfridges, one of the world’s most well-known high-end department stores. Tell us that story.
Even when I tell the story, you can see the smile on my face and probably hear it in my voice. It is just mad how it came about.
I launched the business in October 2014, and I think it was February 2015. Selfridges had a Coeliac Awareness Week in their food hall. It was a whole aisle dedicated to gluten-free foods.
And a lady who I have not met to this day connected with me on Instagram. I think we live near each other in south-east London. We had somehow connected on Instagram for an event or food market that we had both attended.
And, she said to Selfridges on Instagram, look, you need to get this guy in your store, and they said, yeah, sure we are always looking for new suppliers.
Of course, this is all coming through on my phone in real time. I had my mouth just on the floor.
I felt cheeky, so I said to Selfridges that if they sent me the details by sliding into my DM’s, I would get some samples across to them.
About half an hour later, they sent me the details of the buyer and where to go. I remember coming upstairs and not even saying anything but I was smiling. I just showed Madeka the phone and she could not believe it.
I remember everything.
I had some samples made up. It was a beautiful sunny day, I met one of the doormen, and I got him to take a picture with the doughnuts. He was jokingly upset that none were for him, this is all on my Instagram feed.
And then just going up in the lifts, and sitting in this reception room, for the offices upstairs. I met my buyer, Katie, and they were super cool.
I remember saying to her, honestly, that I do not know how I am sat in front of you now in your offices, but I want to make this work. I would love to sell in Selfridges, but I need your help. See what you think about the product.
I have always been like that.
I have never sold or over-sold myself. I just said, see what you think about it, and give me your honest feedback. If you like it, we can discuss it further.
So, maybe a few days later, or even that week, I posted something again on my Instagram.
And Selfridges Foods commented on my posts. Selfridges Foods saying, we have had them, so watch this space or something like that, with the eye emoji. I was running around the house like Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone!
A food business needs to be audited, but they help you raise the bar
It was such a steep learning curve. There are so many stories.
The first order I got, I took delivered in on a train. I am so Caribbean!
Bear in mind that Selfridges open at 9.30am to the public to peruse, and then I think they sell at 10am. I got the train from where I am in south-east London. I arrived a few minutes to nine.
I carried these doughnuts on the train on the Tube and handed them to Katie over the counter. She said I needed to go in through the loading bay!
But they helped me and got me organised. Selfridges taught me about having a copy of what you have given so that you have got that for your records and that it gets stamped and signed.
Having duplicate copies of the purchase order.
All those things, just to help me to get up to a level so they could represent me, or I could represent them in the best way possible.
They sent an auditor to come and audit my kitchen. If you think someone is coming to audit your kitchen, your heart is in your mouth. But they come in just to see how they can help you – that is the best way you can put it.
Even your local environmental health officer, when they come to visit you, are just trying to see how they can help you get up to a standard where you are going to protect yourself and anyone who will have your products.
It just meant that by getting up to that standard, with everywhere that I approached after that, people knew I had all the documentation with information such as allergen sheets, ingredient information, cost price, and minimum order quantity.
All this stuff is in a pack, and I present it to people.
I think that is what has got me in many places because Selfridges raised the bar so much for me and gave me so much help. So, hats off to Selfridges – I love them to bits.
Doughnut rallies to Selfridges sell-out: order management is a steep learning curve
What was the jump in how many doughnuts you were making before the Selfridges deal and then after?
At first, it was not many. Maybe three or four orders a week. Bear in mind, I am still working part time. I have not, to this day, used any form of PR agency or done any other kind of marketing. It is all social media.
I did do a doughnut rally, where I travelled along the M4 to Bristol and did stops, like Reading, Chippenham, Bath, delivering doughnuts along the way. It was a nightmare, I said I will never do it again.
But the first Selfridges order, I think I had given them six flavours to choose from. I think the first order was 36 of each flavour.
I had never made that many quantities. I would take them in with the cupcake boxes that I was using to transport the doughnuts, which was quite hard.
But going into the store, delivering that first day, waiting outside for half an hour until the store opened, and then going back in and seeing them in-store, I was so proud.
Everything was a steep learning curve.
So, the numbers went up, they sold out, and I had to deliver more. I think I delivered the first orders on a Thursday, then on a Saturday. Then they contacted me and said they wanted more for the August bank holiday Monday.
It just blew me away. And it never really dropped it just kept increasing and increasing. And, yeah, before long, Selfridges were asking, “Can you supply Manchester and Birmingham as well?”
Finding a photogenic niche attracted a big buyer
I feel I am there, standing next to you, with that big box of doughnuts.
There seems to be a social media voice that you have cracked because when Selfridges saw you on Instagram, they must have looked through your posts and noticed something about how you interact with your audience.
The pictures that you chose must have given them confidence as well.
I am just curious whether you know what you have been doing, right? Is it just the doughnuts, because they look so delicious, are an easy sell?
How have you made that online social media brand so powerful?
I think that a large part of it is that they are so photogenic, and, I think at the time, there was nothing like it out there. No one was doing the sort of flavours I was doing.
I think there was one other company that existed. But the doughnuts they did were a product among many other products that they did. Nobody was dedicated. I think that helped a lot.
It helped that they tasted good as well and my kids approved them. One of my goals was to make something my kids and friends would get them excited about.
If, for example, my children went for a party, I would not bring a box of doughnuts that are just for my son because he has got allergies. No, this is for everybody.
Children would be scrambling to get one of these doughnuts. That was always the main aim.
I know what it is like through my wife and children to be somewhere and in a place where there are so many lovely things, and you cannot have any of it. It is torturous.
There are quite a few memes on it.
When you find out something is gluten-free, kids go mental. When you finally find something, you do get that excitement.
I was talking to people in their language and coming from my experience, knowing how hard it was to find anything.
But back in 2012 or 2013, knowing how hard it was to find something and then finally releasing these doughnuts in 2014 and having them on the market. It was reassuring people that this was not a box-ticking exercise.
I have not made these because we want to capitalise and make loads of money. I made these for my family.
Talk to your customers and build a personal rapport
I love my family. I do not want to see them ill. I wanted them to have something nice that they can get excited about. I was talking to other people on that level and reassuring them.
If anyone asked questions, I would respond to them personally, asking them to email me directly. In some cases, if it was too complicated and they had loads of questions, I said, here is my number, let us have a conversation and give me a phone call.
If anyone ever commented, I was grateful and engaged with them, replying to each comment.
It is not something that I consciously realised that I was doing. I just did it because I thought if someone is taking the time to contact me, then I will take the time to respond.
But someone said it is impressive that I responded to all these people. I think it helped that people have been along the journey with me. You see how excited I get when I talk about Selfridges for the first time.
The people were there with me and saw that through social media. I was trying to maintain an honest reflection of myself. I am also trying to take the best photos of the doughnuts, which is not that difficult because they are so photogenic.
The business, Borough 22, is me. I am the business. I want to reassure people around me. It is a trick that I have seen a couple of people do.
One person was Emma Bunton from the Spice Girls (who I met) through (my wife’s magazine) The London Mother. She is a super celebrity, everybody knows who she is.
But she has this unique ability. When she is engaging with you, she makes you feel that you are the only person in that room. I have not seen many people who can do that, especially in that sort of limelight.
But it makes a massive difference if engaging with people through social media that they feel like they are having a one-to-one conversation with me.
I have spoken to people’s kids and done workshops with parents, adults, mums, and dads. The beautiful thing is that there is no discrimination.
Anyone can be gluten-free or dairy intolerant or affected with coeliac disease – it does not matter about your age or your gender.
It is just trying to have all these one-to-one conversations with people, get them involved, and make them feel reassured. I’ve listened to what they’ve said and provided feedback based on that. I think that is why it is worked.
Market research gives your instant product feedback
I like the idea about kids not lying and them giving it to you straight.
Based on listening to your customers, have you made any significant tweaks to your recipes or the flavours you offer? Have there been any back and forth communications that have ended up being business wins?
The most significant change initially was that doughnuts were gluten-free and tweaked to be vegan.
So, it was gluten-free, but I would use salted caramel dairy for some of the toppings. There would be other toppings that did not have dairy in them. I would use Nutella on some of the doughnuts as well.
One of the questions that I kept getting asked would be which ones were vegan and which ones are gluten-free. I got fed up with saying you can have this one or this one. So, I tweaked the recipes.
So, I came out in February 2016 and went back in October 2016 with everything gluten-free and vegan, off the bat and standard.
That was brilliant because it was just before the big vegan boom that hit London, which you now see spread out across the country.
There is one example that I remember so clearly.
I was doing a tasting in Selfridges in Manchester. A lady had come into the store, and I was offering out samples of doughnuts and just saying, oh, they are oven-baked doughnuts.
I was not saying they are gluten-free or vegan, but just that the doughnuts were oven-baked. I found that worked better, as people would be more inclined to try.
And, this lady came up, she goes, “Ah, thank you, but I’m vegan, so I can’t have them.” And, I was, “Actually, you know what, these are vegan.”
She goes, “Oh my goodness, you’re joking.” And she had headphones in, so she took them out. She goes, “Ah, I’m gluten-free as well.”
And, I said, “You’re not going to believe this, I am not just saying this just for you to try them, but they’re gluten-free and vegan. All my doughnuts are gluten-free and vegan, and they’re sold here in Selfridges.”
She said, “What?” and stopped. She tasted one and started to cry. I said, “Please don’t cry! You’re going to drive these customers away!”
I am not joking. I think she would have cried regardless of what they tasted like because it is quite a niche to be vegan and gluten-free.
That was a good decision. I am glad that I chose to do that, just because it saved me repeating the same thing repeatedly and opened it up to more people.
You could hit both camps, vegan and gluten-free, at the same time.
One of the other ones was to try and tweak the recipe to provide a low fodmap alternative. In very much layman’s terms, the way I understand a fodmap diet is that it is almost like a resetting diet. You cut out a lot of stuff.
My wife has done it, and it can be quite a depressing time. I think you do it for six weeks, at least. You can do it longer than that. Some people are completely low fodmap – they cannot come off the diet and need to stay on it for health reasons.
Then, as I understand it, you introduce certain food groups. You might introduce a bit of gluten, or a bit of dairy, or a bit of this and that, just to see how your body reacts. You record it in a diary.
Looking through the recipe and the book that had listed all the low fodmap ingredients, I found out that I could tweak the recipe ever so slightly and make it low fodmap. It would still work and tasted not too dissimilar to the standard doughnuts I was making.
And, so I did that as an offering as well.
I had many people, especially throughout lockdown, just grateful that they exist, because again, it is such a niche market.
In terms of a product offering, if everyone ordered low fodmap doughnuts, I will be set for the year, even though it is such a small market.
To have that exist for somebody on that diet, which is back to basics, is a real treat. That was another minor tweak that I did, which, I think, stood me apart and which people they have taken to.
You don’t necessarily need bricks-and-mortar premises – do it at home
How did you make your kitchen capable of making all these doughnuts when dealing with these enormous brands?
I went through the process.
If you want to start a food business, you contact your local environmental health officer, and they will come and audit. And I am not going to lie. It is probably one of the most nerve-wracking things you could ever think of.
I had this preconceived notion that they are coming to shut me down. There is going to be all this gaffer tape across the kitchen door, and I am not even going to be allowed in it.
But they are coming to protect and do a service for you. Often, they are dealing with people who have much bigger problems than a domestic kitchen.
I told them what I was planning to do with a domestic kitchen setup and domestic oven. We did not have many allergens in our house anyway, but I kept the doughnut ingredients separate from other elements. They would only come out when I had orders to make.
That was all I needed to do.
Because it is an allergen-friendly business, you did not have to worry about things like the temperatures of meat or dairy products’ temperatures.
You didn’t have to worry about so many things that other people would have to worry about if they’re operating a standard food business. It made it very easy.
The only problem I had was a cat.
We rarely see him; he is like a teenager, treating the house like a hotel. But we let him in the kitchen, so I had to get him out of the kitchen.
He has never forgiven us.
I think he loved it there, as he had his spot. That was the only real change I had to make.
Five stars from them, and it is, away you go. It is such a basic recipe, dry and wet ingredients mixed to have a chemical reaction. Then, you bake it, top it, and box it.
As the business grew, I bought a mixer a couple of years in to try and do a lot of the hard work.
But orders coming in were getting bigger, and we were in more and more shops, so we needed to buy bigger equipment.
I purchased a commercial freezer that I bought that hums away nicely at night. I did not know it sounded that loud on the internet, admittedly, but if I close the kitchen and bedroom door, it is OK.
Some of that stuff happened while I was still in full-time employment. Instead of spending all your bonus money at the end of the year on a sale, you buy ingredients in bulk, or you would buy a large piece of equipment.
I bought the most basic commercial oven on the market, a commercial mixer and small equipment like trays and spatulas. I also had mixing bowls, which were getting larger and larger.
They grew as the business grew.
I would have been in new premises right now if it were not for my wife. But she said no, you do not need to do that. Just hold fire, take a deep breath, think about it. You’ve got no overheads in your house. So, let us try and stay here as much as possible.
We were looking to build something in our garden, which was a goal for several years. But, as the business has developed, we had a chat earlier this month, and I think I am going to stay in the kitchen for the next couple of years, at least, as there is no reason for me to move.
It works so well just working in between everyone while the kids are at school, although they have been homeschooled now, which is slightly different.
But, while they’re at school, the kitchen’s relatively accessible. Everyone makes a packed lunch in the morning, so they do not have to come in, and we can get on and work. It is only three days a week. Before, it was maybe five days a week.
My family has been very forgiving, even when you drop a metal bowl in the middle of the night.
It was not about rushing out and buying everything, like new premises. It is just being cautious about every step of the way and trying to keep the cost down wherever I can.
Food businesses need to keep premises spotless
Do you have to keep the kitchen spotless all the time? And, how do you do that when you’ve got kids?
I have trained and drilled them – they are like military soldiers.
No, I am joking. They work around the business and are very allergen aware. But you do have to keep the kitchen spotless.
But there are set times so when I do the work.
I have made changes recently, but even before, when I was working through the middle of the night, they would have dinner. Everything was cleaned, and you would start work.
That process would not stop until everything is packed up, cleaned, and I was away doing deliveries or mail orders
The kids come and have their breakfast, and everybody is out of the kitchen by 9am. Work starts at nine, runs through till three, and everything is packed up, cleaned down for dinner. So, you are just getting into that routine and habit.
My kitchen is probably no cleaner than your kitchen, to be fair. But it is just making sure that you get into the habit and process of applying a bit of common sense. It is not that much of an issue for me.
Why ecommerce is my new business model
What are your ambitions for the business? Because you mentioned that you are part-time now, while you were more full time before.
What do you want from Borough 22, and what are the things you are trying to balance alongside your business ambitions?
I am trying to balance my time. That has always been the goal from the onset.
If I am going to work for myself, then I am my boss. I decide what I do and what I do not do. But there have been things that have happened along the way, which have thrown me, of course. For example, getting made redundant.
You must continue to pay your mortgage and provide for your family without that regular income coming in. With Covid-19 and the way the business has changed. It tilted on its axis, and we are doing things differently with balancing wholesale and online orders.
Going forward, the business model that I have got is around building up online sales. We have capped the number of orders that we do every day as we are maxed out.
But when things open, maybe, we will get in a couple of extra people and build it up even more. I would maybe make a kitchen in the garden. I want to purchase something rather than rent because I feel the business should be on a solid foundation.
There is a need to grow that business model, shown through the number of orders that we are getting through now.
I do not think that too far in advance, but maybe we would have the same operation in the North or the Midlands, so people in these areas get a better accessible service.
I think that is what I want going forward, for the future.
I’ve taken a step back from actual baking now, which has been a long-term goal. I am slowly readjusting to having more time, trying to fit activities in a structured way, striving towards specific goals, and focusing on getting certain things done to grow the business.
It was (Gordon) Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares where he said that he did not get his second restaurant until everything in the first restaurant was shipshape. He wanted it to be consistent for a few months, or maybe a year or two until he opened his second one.
That is stuck in the back of my mind.
I want everything to work perfectly here. And it is starting to, which is exciting. I do not know if it would necessarily be a franchise, but just to recreate Borough 22 elsewhere.
Bake, admin, prep, bake. To grow the business, refocus on strategy
Do you have staff? Do they come to your house and bake in your kitchen? And, how did that all change during the pandemic?
Yes, I do. I have got two ladies that work with me now, who have completely taken over the baking. They are much better than me and produce unique and beautiful creations. That was how it worked before the pandemic.
The pandemic did stop everything. Before, I would work with one other person, and when the pandemic hit, it was just me for most of 2020.
After we got out of the first lockdown, I was desperate to get this employee back in, which I ended up doing.
It has been tricky, but it has been just about manageable. But I did not want to continue in 2021 as I did in 2020. I was not looking forward to continuing in that same vein, so I knew something had to change.
It is why I decided to take a step back for my staff to continue baking and me to continue with growing the business.
Because you just felt you were too much in the weeds. You were doing all the baking, stuck with your hands in the bowl and not thinking about the vision and the strategy.
Yeah, exactly. It was bake, admin, prep, bake and it was just that continuous cycle. If I went to bed and set my alarm on my phone for when I was going to get up, if it were anything over five, five hours or less, I would be good.
If it were anything beneath that, it would have a real psychological and physical impact on how I started my day. I thought I did not want to be going to bed being happy or grateful that I have got five hours of sleep. I cannot continue that.
I have taken a step back, allowing my staff to get on. They joke with me now because I will still go into the kitchen every morning to have a look and see and maybe glaze a doughnut. They say no, please, leave this to us. It’s become this running joke now.
I do not know why I do that. Part of it is me needing to be in the trenches, getting stuff done and doing the physical.
Whereas now, slowly, I am starting to appreciate this is something that they enjoy doing. They’re making something beautiful every day that they’re working here.
And they want that and own it completely.
It is just learning or retraining yourself to detach yourself from that element, which you need to. If your business is going to grow, you cannot be technical, you must step back and be managerial, as you have that vision and drive.
It has been challenging to make that transition, but I have to say it is working well.
How to plan logistics for supplying a perishable product
I want to find out about how you figured out the logistics for the business because you said, in the beginning, it was you delivering around London.
How did you put an end to that model? Because you are getting doughnuts all over the UK, so how are you getting them from your kitchen to where they need to go?
That was an absolute nightmare.
Because there are several things that you are dealing with. You are dealing with the fact that you are putting something out there for people to judge you against, good or bad.
It is your reputation. I have never been that person to step into the limelight like that. Step forward, and I will be the one to do that. I have always been quite reluctant.
When I started selling to people outside my family, I did what I thought was the easiest thing to do (which was) go out and deliver them to all these customers.
It took all day, and I was exhausted at the end.
I wouldn’t eat because I’d be trying to get to people in a decent amount of time. You would have these toppings that were not vegan at the time, at the height of summer, and the sun would completely melt them, which I had to apologise for. I could not do that anymore.
I asked myself, how do I supply this product? They have a short shelf life. What are my options? That is when I started looking into couriers.
At that time, many couriers would not take anything perishable because they could not guarantee that they were getting there on time.
So, the first courier I went with. I remember I was at work in a meeting room, and the doughnuts had gone out the day before for what I thought was next day delivery.
I started getting all these emails on my Gmail asking what is happening to the doughnuts and that customers had not received them. I looked, and it turns out there was a three to four-day delivery on them.
I think it was about 15 orders.
But still, it is the time that has gone into making that and the anxiety once you give them to the guy who looks like a box thrower and would sling them in the back. The way he would bang down my door like the police – it looked like he was not going to take care of them.
You try and get that across to people, but this is just one cog in the machine. He is going to give it to the depot. Then it is going to get transferred to another depot. So, there was that anxiety as well. It was a lot of trial and error.
I think what made it easier is that I would keep people informed. Communicating is what I am trying to do.
Great if it works, but if it does not, this is what has happened where I explain the reasons why. And, this is what I’m going to do to try and fix it.
With that incident, I just refunded everyone and went back to the drawing board. I needed to find someone who can deliver overnight.
I found one company and stuck with them for around four years, and now I am with DHL. My postman looks like the Incredible Hulk by the end of Christmas. His postal sack is just getting so much big every day. They have done well through that period.
If you are putting your neck on the line, you need to keep people informed. Because I genuinely did not know that this was going to work. On paper, it should work. It is about helping people to understand that and manage their expectations.
But as the business has grown, it has opened me up to more options because it is not just one or two deliveries a week. This is a serious business now, where you will take in 100-plus orders a week.
That is good for them, and it is good for me. I get a better service and a lower price as well.
Another obstacle was getting the doughnuts to people in decent condition, as they are a perishable and photogenic boxed item. That has probably been the biggest challenge – sending them out and having them arrive in a pristine condition.
When my courier from DHL came to pick them up, I took him into the house, opened the box, and showed him what was inside. I said, “Look, this is what we’re sending.” I told him a bit of my story and took him on that journey.
He had his own story about why he had become a DHL driver. He used to be a stockbroker and was travelling the world, but with Covid, he had to come back.
I would advise business owners to have a conversation with people and get to know them a little bit. He takes excellent care with them now until he leaves.
I do not know what he does round the corner, but I like to think he takes excellent care of them till he gets to the depot. He understands what is in them as well, and I label them up as much as possible.
Last year, I invested in inserts to put inside the box. I changed the ordering method as well, in the way I sold some of the doughnuts online.
Having these inserts has been a complete game changer. I can send them out now, and I am not worried at all. I know they will get there in reasonably decent condition every time.
There may be an odd problem, which you must expect and allow that. It’s not going to be 100% all the time.
But then, there are means we do to resolve that, whether it is a refund or sending out another box. That is not for customers to worry about, we will take care of that.
Those inserts cost as much as the actual doughnut box themselves. So, for me, from a cost perspective, that is a big deal as it eats away at the profit margin.
But I share that with people.
I say, look, we bought these basic inserts (which are) three bits of card that slot together. I pulled together this cheap video around it, put it on social media, and got so much response.
I said it costs this much, but that is what I am willing to do. I want you to be satisfied with it. These cheap doughnuts are not cheap to make, and I want you to be happy with what you are getting, especially in Covid times.
People are losing their jobs or uncertain about their future. They have had a lot to deal with – maybe even a loss in their family.
For everyone from a mental health point of view, it is a tough time. The last thing I want them to worry about is ordering a box of doughnuts, and it ends up all mashed by the time it gets to the house.
So, those were game-changers in getting those inserts in and getting a courier that understands what we are dealing with, what we’re selling, and providing a decent service as well.
I have thankfully ticked those two things off the list.
When you lose a buyer, pivot creatively to find another
You mentioned that 2020 was a challenging year because you were so busy. And that is because you were working on your own for a lot of it. Was there a significant uptick in orders?
Because you hear about the lipstick effect when there is a recession. People cut back on all their luxuries, but they still want to buy lipstick.
Do they still want to buy a doughnut?
Yeah. I was close to burning out at the start of 2020. When Boris (Johnson) came with his March 23 announcement, finally, I am going to get some downtime and be able to chill.
The lipstick effect has come in through word of mouth and social media. People were on their social media more because they are not at work. People are at home, and they cannot leave their house. They have got more time and are willing to accept deliveries.
Orders just snowballed. It is a niche product that appeals to vegans, coeliac people, gluten intolerant, and people who cannot have dairy and eggs. It is still quite a niche market, but they talk. They all know and follow one another on social media.
Because I have had that social media presence, it has helped amplify the fact that the doughnuts were available, and you could get them delivered to your house in lockdown.
I was just shocked when the orders just kept coming in.
It got to a stage where I had a backlog of about 200. I was still delivering through my old business model, where I would bake every Thursday and deliver on Friday. It was just the one day that I could offer it a week, which was all that I could manage.
I had to change it.
I remember having this massive order from Selfridges. Then someone DM’d me. “I’m so sorry to hear about Selfridges.” What are you talking about? I looked at BBC News, and Selfridges had closed its doors because of lockdown.
I said, “I’ve got this order. Do you still want it?” They said, “No, hold on to any orders.” I thought to myself, “What am I going to do with all these doughnuts? I should sell them.”
So, I did a lucky dip.
You just order this box, which was cheaper than all the rest. I choose the flavour, and you must tell me if you have a nut allergy or not, and I send the doughnuts out.
They just flew and sold out in less than an hour, which was just crazy.
In a lockdown, people wanted something to perk themselves up, treat themselves, or have something to bribe their kids to do their schoolwork or send as gifts.
How (and if) you should respond to cultural moments on social media
Things happened with the Black Lives Matter movement. The awful circumstances around George Floyd, his death, and people recognised its impact on the black community and others.
At that time, I had never been a focus. You can see through my feed that occasionally; I will step out from behind the camera. But it was purely doughnuts or maybe a bit of behind the scenes.
There is another coffee maker called Allie, who is a black man and very similar to me.
He runs Balance Café in Brixton, as well as Perception Coffee. I remember meeting him for the first time to give him doughnuts, as he wanted to sell them in his coffee shop.
We were chatting, and his story was almost identical to mine, but just in coffee.
It was all about us wanting to be professional, with high standards and a certain level we maintained and getting recognition for that. The fact that he was another black man was the icing on the cake.
When that happened, I decided to step out from behind the camera. I have had many new followers because many people were talking and knew we were a black-owned business. I showed how I run it and what I did.
It was a little glimpse of the person behind Borough 22, which helped to promote the business. I think those things combined kept those orders coming in. And it almost killed me. I am not going to lie.
How did it feel to be more of a focus for the brand?
It is a big step to let yourself be the face of the company you have created. You are a lot more vulnerable when you do that. Even though you have had fantastic communication with your customers who know who you are, being the face is different.
Yeah. As I said, I have always been conscious that I wanted the products to speak for themselves.
I thought and dreamt about (getting in front of the camera) the night before. When I got up in the morning, I was still deciding whether I should or should not post about myself.
I did not want it to be capitalising on something awful that happened to someone at all. But people wanted to know, support and buy from black businesses.
It is information that people wanted to have.
People have recognised me from social media. I have got a neighbour, who is a baker and around the corner. I thought she was going to kidnap me.
She just came towards me in her car, pulled her window down and said, “Are you Borough 22?”
I did not know whether to drop everything and run without looking back, like Terminator 2! It has happened where people who follow me on social media would recognise me. I have got many more followers from it – it went up a few thousand around that time.
But I think it has been an opportunity for me to just engage with more people in the same vein that I had always been doing. So, even though more people have come on board, I am still personable and approachable with people.
I have got on my Instagram examples of me replying to people’s questions and comments. And I was then taking that information and allowing it to shape the business.
I do not think there have been any disadvantages with social media. You are always going to get people who perhaps do not like the product for whatever reason, or it just does not sit well with them.
But the way you deal with them is not taking it personally, and that they have some vendetta against you.
You recognise that someone does not like it, and I handle that situation in a way that makes me walk away and feel good about things. I am trying to be conscious of that.
I feel we are just speaking at the beginning. It feels like we are going to hear about Borough, and in five years, there is going to be a global franchise. You’re going to be selling them in Vegas.
It is funny, this October it will be seven years. But it does not feel like that. With this year and the changes that we have made, it just feels like now we are starting and taking off. It is strange, but it is nice.
I am excited again about the business, which is good. I am glad I have got that feeling and buzz, as well as the drive.
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