In her day job, digital marketing executive Lisa Shepherd speaks to journalists, heads up PR campaigns and works with influencers to get leading brands seen. Until this time five years ago, the mother of two had no idea she would be taking calls from the press about a hugely successful start-up of her own.
Lisa and her business partner, Saskia Roskam, also a mum of two, worked in the same marketing agency, but it was a love for all things sweet which eventually brought these baking buddies together: “Whenever it was someone’s birthday in the office, someone would make a cake for them and it always turned out to be either me or Saskia! We somehow got talking about sourdough starters and Saskia got so excited that someone else shared that passion. We soon became friends and experimented with recipes for fun. We each had a small child at that time, but we built those castles in the sky and thought we could take our bakes to Oakwood Farmers Market and see what people thought.
“But then we both had another baby and the can got kicked down the road until Christmas 2015. My daughter was eight months old and Saskia’s boy was 15 months, but she was like: ‘you know what, Lisa, let’s just do this, because the time will never be right’ – and Bloom Bakers was born”
By March, the pair had rocked up to their first market with a fully-fledged brand, armed with a range of Northern European-inspired bakes: “We did the packaging, the photographs and the web design ourselves – without that digital marketing experience, we wouldn’t be where we are now. Our social media campaigns have always been organic, without any paid promotion, and our main focus has always been to ensure our pages are optimised to rank highly for key search terms in Google. We’re so lucky to have those skills because we couldn’t afford an agency as a small business.”
The pair began touring regular weekend markets and trade shows, even enjoying a stint making cakes for Hessian in Oakwood, before deciding to take their business online: “We figured it suited our lifestyle better than sacrificing the weekend to prepare for markets just to have the rain and snow put people off, and having to eat all the bakes we’d made!”
Despite Lisa’s red wine cake going down a storm, the pair have leaned into their niche of personalised biscuits, which soon evolved to cater for the B2B market: “We took all the cakes down from the web shop because they’re just a different beast – the shelf life and the turnaround mean the margins simply aren’t there. It came to the point where we had to focus on corporate branded biscuit orders because that’s where the profit and longer lead times were, which suited us. We still had full-time day jobs, leaving just evenings and weekends to bake.”
Lisa still works part-time at the agency, but when COVID hit, Saskia took the plunge to concentrate on the business full-time. Their first corporate order was Penguin publishers, but the pair have since worked with the likes of the BBC, Amazon and Harvey Nichols. Asked how a fledgling business rapidly developed such a big-name client base, Lisa admits: “It’s a crazy list really! But if you look for us on Google, I think we rank number two. A lot of our competitors are in London so they’re a lot more expensive because of their overheads. We’re baking out of our home kitchens, so we can be very competitive. Plus other companies only do one style or take a certain amount of order volume, whereas we’re really flexible for smaller orders.”
Last Christmas, the business received its largest order yet: 3,000 gingerbread men for Amazon with the iconic yellow arrow for the smile: “We baked every night for four weeks. We needed a pallet courier, so I had this massive lorry pull up in my little street in Roundhay. The driver thought he’d made a wrong turn, so I had to run out shouting ‘this is the place!’ This year we were like: ‘should we contact Amazon?’ The answer was a resounding no – but it was amazing to add them to our portfolio.”
The pair have since upgraded their baking armoury, with an industrial mixer, 3D printer and second oven: “We realised we can actually print colourful logos and messages onto edible wafer topper and put them on fondant. Although the biscuits only bake for eight to 10 minutes, we actually aren’t quicker than two ovens, because you need time to roll them out. To be any more efficient, we’d need extra hands, but that’s a different business model.”
Neither Lisa nor Saskia hail from traditional baking backgrounds, but each have learned to play to their own strengths: “My mum hates baking, she doesn’t have a sweet tooth at all. I think it was because I was deprived of that, I used to bake so many recipes at my grandmas. I love the artistic side, the drawing and piping. At school, I was rubbish at art – my teacher always felt kind of sorry for me – but I have a steady hand, so I can copy a logo well enough. Saskia doesn’t have the patience – she’s the tech wizard and would rather build the website and set up the 3D printer. We are a really good match – we have very different skills and interests, but whenever we’ve had to adapt, we’ve always been 100% on the same page and that’s helped us move quickly. It’s great to have a good business partner that you can rely on, bounce ideas off and take reassurance from. I don’t think I could have done it without her.”
When COVID hit, the pair adapted their website to online delivery, where other local micro-business who relied on the market had no way to sell their produce. Mistakenly, Lisa believed they were in for a quiet few months: “With events cancelled and offices deserted, our B2B arm dried up completely, but private orders rocketed 400%. All of a sudden, people wanted to post gift boxes to loved ones they couldn’t see. There were so many people suffering from loneliness, we wanted to spread some kindness at this awful time. So we offered customers the chance to nominate someone to send a free biscuit. We had people writing in with messages saying: ‘this is for my granddad who I might not see again.’ It was really heavy stuff.
“Many customers wanted to buy a whole box rather than just the one free biscuit and that saw us through. It’s lucky we didn’t take on a premises, because I think COVID would have broken us.”
The daring duo made the recent decision to outsource the packaging side of the business, although they still dream of upscaling from Lisa’s kitchen to a dedicated bakery: “We think it would be nice to take it to that next level when the kids are older, but the fact we can put them down and five minutes later start baking suits our lifestyles right now.”
Asked how she manages to juggle working nine-to-five three days a week with childcare and the business, she replies: “I’m quite disciplined to be able to draw the line at 5pm. I think it’s easier when you have kids because you always have that excuse! Your time just becomes so much more precious.”
Looking to the future, Lisa and Saskia already have their little apprentices in the making, though it may be a few more years before they come aboard the family business: “When we ask the kids what they want to be when they’re older, they don’t want to be bakers, they want to be ‘Bloom bakers’. But what they really want to do is smack dough and eat biscuits. But seriously, I wouldn’t want to influence them – if they hate baking that’s totally fine!”
Rather than holding them back, Lisa believes if they didn’t have kids, they would never have started the business: “We feel like we have to be role models to them. Sometimes I feel guilty about working so much when we could be spending time with them. But I think it’s good for them to see that we’re businesswomen working on our dream.
“We love marketing, but when we had the little ones, we were like: ‘Is this really what we’re doing for the rest of our lives – why don’t we do what we love?’ It’s so funny when people with a dream of their own who don’t have kids tell us: ‘I don’t know how you do it!’
Lisa and Saskia’s efforts secured Bloom Bakery the Prestige award for Best Biscuit Bakery in Leeds and West Yorkshire: “Our story is quite unique, we’re not from the UK – we built our lives here with our families as mumpreneurs. So when the judges trawled through social media looking for inspiring stories – they loved how much passion we run the business with.” The pair also submitted their Eleedsen-Lebkuchen to The British Guild of Fine Food, earning their popular German gingerbread a Great Taste Award, an accolade that Lisa hopes will further increase the interest in classic northern European baking: “You can find them in Lidl at this time of year, but ours are better!”
“You’re not going to build anything if you’re not committed to working hard, but if you love what you do, it doesn’t even feel like work. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel, after all, all we did was make biscuits. I think more people should follow their passion and start their own business. What’s the worst that can happen – you fail and then you try again?”