'When you work from the heart, it's effortless': the lockdown bakers who turned professional

Elisabeth Mahoney
·7-min read

The past year will be remembered for many things, and the baking craze early in the pandemic will certainly be one of them. While some of us were nailing banana bread recipes – more than 45,000 pictures of these bakes were posted to Instagram in the first two months of lockdown – and naming sourdough starters in the hope that it would help keep them alive, others took their baking hobby to a whole new level.

Whether furloughed, experiencing redundancy, working from home or simply re-evaluating career choices, a number of home bakers decided this was the time to take the plunge. The Real Bread Campaign, whose annual Real Bread Week runs until Sunday, reports a surge in new microbakeries since last March, with keen home bakers launching a business at home and embarking on a life-changing floury adventure.

Flour & Soul Bakery, Manchester

Irina Ruseva in west Manchester, where she founded Flour & Soul.
Irina Ruseva in west Manchester, where she founded Flour & Soul. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Baking might be in Irina Ruseva’s blood, but it was never in her career plans: the 39-year-old went into lockdown on maternity leave from her job as a project manager at PricewaterhouseCoopers. Ruseva grew up in Bulgaria, where her grandfather ran the village bakery. “I remember him baking in wood-fired ovens and I loved the smell of the dough,” she says. “But in Bulgaria at that time, manual labour was never considered to be a well-paid career, and baking is definitely manual labour.”

She should know. In September, she launched Flour & Soul Bakery, delivering sourdough by bike across Urmston, south Manchester, where she lives with her family. In the early days of lockdown, at home with a three-year-old and a baby, Ruseva began baking sourdough, just a couple of loaves every few days.

“My three-year-old would be playing with flour, and the baby would be on my back, warm and asleep. I found that I absolutely loved it, and thought I’d make an extra couple of loaves and see if anyone would buy them.”

Those two extra loaves were immediately snapped up, and people kept asking her to bake more. Demand was so high that there were some challenging moments early on: “I pushed myself to make 16 loaves one day, mixing the dough in all the bowls I could find around the house. Then I realised I only had 10 proving baskets.”

Ruseva streamlined orders by switching to a subscription model and got some help with deliveries. She resigned from her job, and the fledgling bakery is clearly a stepping stone to a new career that works around family life. “It’s only making me the minimum wage at the moment, because I’m a full-time mum,” Ruseva says. “Although it’s hard work, when you work from the heart, it’s also effortless in a way.”

Yatu’s Bakery, London

Adiyatu Sambu-Balde had big plans for last year. The 30-year-old, who has worked in high-end restaurants (Jason Atherton’s Social Eating House, Skylon), resigned from one job at the end of last February so she could start a new one in March. Then Covid happened and the hospitality sector shut down.

“I was like, OK, I don’t really know what to do now,” she recalls. “I panicked, I sat at home, but then thought now’s a good time to launch my business. Lockdown actually helped me make the leap. I’d always planned to run my own business; I just didn’t expect it to happen during a pandemic.”

Sambu-Balde had sold cakes as a sideline for a few years, but the lockdown limbo gave her the time and motivation to launch Yatu’s Bakery, making show-stopping cakes in her kitchen at home and delivering them across central London. It’s a very different experience from the bustle of a Michelin-starred kitchen, especially as she is living back at home with her mother. “I have full control of the kitchen,” she says. “If I’ve got the door shut, she won’t come in.”

Running her own bakery business has brought opportunities and challenges. “The most difficult thing has been keeping up with social media,” she says. “As a chef, you just chef. You do your thing, your job. Now, I’m doing everything myself from home, but I’m learning as I go.”

The realities of trading during lockdown gave her some ideas for new lines to add to the business, too: postal boxes of baked treats and a bake-your-own box, including ingredients and recipes, have proved popular. “I’d never thought about sending stuff out by post, but it makes sense this year. People had been messaging me to say they wish they were in London so I could deliver, and now I can.”

Last October, Sambu-Balde was one of eight bakers in the London Bakers Against Racism virtual cake sale for Black History Month. “I’m going to continue working with Bakers Against Racism, and we’ve got plans to expand that.” Her aim is to open her own shop/cafe, with internships for BAME aspiring young bakers. “I hope things will keep building as they have been,” she says. “I don’t see myself going back full-time into my old line of work.”

Flat & Brown Bakehouse, Portrush, Northern Ireland

When I ask Karl Simmonds how his wife feels about him turning their home into the Flat & Brown Bakehouse during lockdown, he replies with a laugh. “I’m lucky we have a spare room we could dedicate to it,” he says, “and I think I’ve made the most of the space, but an outside observer might say, ‘Christ, what have you done to your kitchen?’”

Simmonds’ transformation from two-loaves-a-week to confidently tackling 25kg of dough at a time wasn’t planned. Furloughed part-time from his job as manager of Portrush Yacht Club, the 33-year old found himself expanding his baking repertoire and experimenting with sourdough. “It was very organic,” he says. “I’d bake two loaves instead of one, and give one to family and friends, leaving them on their doorstep. Then someone said: ‘Can I buy one?’”

Demand for his sourdough, yeasted loaves and pizza kits – all collected from his doorstep – grew quickly. “There’s always been a bit of talk about me doing something with baking, or going on Bake Off, but would I have done it without the pandemic? No, but I think it would have happened in the next five years. This year just gave me time.”

Inevitably, there are moments when the bakery business collides with other demands on his time, including his existing job and looking after his three-year-old son and one-year-old daughter on the days his wife works. On his baking days, though, he is doing something that had been a dream. “I love getting up early in the morning, putting the mixer and oven on, knowing my job for the day is to make something that people will enjoy.”

Sean’s Loaf, Cricklewood

Sean Chambers decided to learn to play the piano during lockdown. “Four months later,” the 40-year-old chef-turned-baker says, “the piano had to go. I was so excited about it, but I needed space for more fridges for the bakery. It was either be a really good piano player or a really good baker.”

Sean’s Loaf, his home-based bakery – delivering sourdough, yeasted loaves and pastries by bike – has become an all-consuming pandemic project; there simply wasn’t time or space for another. It is a marked change of scene for Chambers, who worked for 22 years in three-star Michelin kitchens and luxury resorts in long-haul destinations. His oven lives in a converted outside loo, he does all the deliveries himself – cycling 100 miles a week – and nobody turns up at the end of a shift to clear up. “The amount of flour everywhere and the constant washing up! In a commercial environment, that’s all taken care of. I love everything else about it, though.”

Chambers had been toying with running his own business from home, and lockdown catapulted him into making this a reality. “It was a mix of things,” he reflects, “lockdown, being a bit older, having a family [his children are aged nine and six]. I didn’t want to do fine dining any more, I wanted to do simpler things. As a chef, you have a deadline every two minutes; baking takes a lot longer but it’s a lot less stressful.”