Food: Meet the local men carving a career in cake
If you’ve got a soft spot for the sweet stuff, you’re living in the right place. Velvet’s Alice Ryan meets three local men making their name in cakes
Hailed “the pastry chef most stirred by the season’s harvest. . . A gem” by Observer Food Monthly, Tom Dolby is the baking brains behind Tom’s Cakes, the brand which started with a market stall and now has cafes in St Ives, Ely and Cambridge
To rewind right to the beginning: did you grow up with a love of cakes and baking?
Yes, I did. My family have been bakers since 1803 so I guess it’s in the blood. When I left school I went to college to study patisserie and also worked part-time in my uncle’s bakery. I was keen to keep learning, so decided to get some experience in other bakeries further afield.
It was travelling which, in part, inspired you to start Tom's Cakes, wasn't it? Remind us how the business began.
I worked in bakeries in New Zealand and Australia in the early 90s, ranging from baking bread in the Outback to feed the sheep station workers to creating wedding cake couture in Sydney! It was the baking in New Zealand though that really opened my eyes to the idea of seasonality in baking, as that just wasn’t something that was really happening in commercial bakeries in the UK. When I got back home I thought that could be my niche in the market and decided to start up on my own, baking and selling my cakes at craft fairs and farmers’ markets.
You’ve now got the bakery in Somersham and cafes in St Ives, Cambridge and, the most recent addition, Ely. Was that always your vision for Tom’s?
I don’t think I ever had a vision as such, the business has just grown organically. My partner Ian came on board when we opened our first shop in St Ives and when we saw it starting to take off we decided to move away from markets and focus on developing a retail and café business to sell what we produced. We already had a really strong customer base from our market days, so we followed the trail back to those places when we looked at new sites for our shops, first in Cambridge and then most recently in Ely. It’s really great to be back in Ely and we’re blessed with a brilliant spot right opposite the Cathedral gates on the High Street.
Do you still spend much of your time in the kitchen? And do you still get a buzz from baking?
My bakery colleagues would say I spend too much time in the kitchen! Ian looks after the operations side of the business so I can focus exclusively on production. If I’m not baking myself then I’m probably poring over a recipe book or developing and trialling a new idea for our range. I am still very much a baker!
Some of your signature bakes have been on the Tom's menu almost since day one, haven't they? Which are the most popular?
Absolutely. Our chocolate cake has been the same recipe since day one; “borrowed” and adapted from a bakery in New Zealand, we use beetroot to give it moisture and depth. We bake a lot of them! Another more recent favourite with our customers is our lime, elderflower and blueberry cake – a really light, fragrant, citrus sponge topped with a cream cheese frosting, lime zest and blueberries.
What's the secret to the success - and longevity - of Tom's Cakes, do you think?
A passion for what we do and a lot of hard work. We make sure we use really good quality ingredients, focus on the consistency in our baking, and on keeping a range of the classics whilst constantly introducing new lines to give our customers a wide variety to choose from. One of our store managers was chatting to me the other day and was talking about being part of the “Tom’s Family” – I think that sums up who we are and how we work together as a team. Our customers can feel that when they shop with us.
Showing our mutual ages: it's (far) more than a decade since I first interviewed you. Back then you were baking in your mum's garage! How do you feel when you look back?
Lucky! Incredibly lucky to have been able to turn my passion and interest into a business that has been going for nearly 25 years. Fortunate to have worked with some amazing colleagues along the way who have helped shape the business into what it is today - and above all grateful to our amazing customers who support us year in, year out.
BROWNIE & THE BEAN
Better known to his followers as Bean Daddy, Luke Giddings is the baking half of Suffolk’s Brownie & The Bean. Pivoting from a coffee and cake van to a boutique brownie gifting service last year, he runs the home-based business with wife Charlotte, Mama Bean
"I spend pretty much every waking minute in the kitchen! It’s always been my happy place. When I was a little kid, Mum would prop me up on the worktop and I just used to sit and watch everything. She loves baking. The core brownie recipe I use now is actually a family one, which came about because Mum was obsessed with perfecting it and spent a lot of time tweaking things.
"I took the recipe and worked really hard on putting my own stamp on it with the flavours. Unlike a lot of other brownie companies, I make all of the individual elements myself by hand - the salted caramel, meringues, fudge, candied oranges, honeycomb, shortbread, lemon curd. . .
"Brownie & the Bean started back in 2019. I used to work in the artisan cheese world and I'd have to attend a lot of festivals. One time I saw a family running a coffee stall and they were absolutely cleaning up. I thought: why not combine coffee with amazing brownies? We ended up converting a horse trailer into a coffee van, I dug out our old family brownie recipe. . . and Brownie & The Bean was born,
"We traded on the festival and event scene before landing ourselves a permanent spot at Bury St Edmunds station at the end of January 2020. It soon became clear that something quite life changing was afoot and Charlotte thought it might be an idea to do doorstep deliveries as people were starting to self-isolate. To be honest, I didn't think much would come of it but not long after, we ended up closing down at the station to become full-time brownie retailers.
"Fast-forward to now and we deliver across the whole of the UK via courier and sell wholesale to a number of businesses across East Anglia. Our best selling flavour is Triple Chocolate, which is our original flavour. It's our classic brownie recipe but with added milk and white chunks. I guess it's the recipe that's most in line with a traditional brownie and that's what people love most about it.
"Another flavour that has been a big hit is Peanut Butter. We use a really wonderful peanut butter called Manilife and people absolutely love that when it's our monthly special. We love changing things up for our customers each month; we've done absolutely everything from recreating vintage Christmas drinks to our take on a Millionaire’s Shortbread.
"The subscription boxes are fantastic because not only are you saving money on the price of a normal box, you also get to try different flavours each time. We change at least one flavour every month and over the summer we're going to be really changing up things to reflect the season.
"The tools that we started off using have gradually got bigger and bigger and now we're able to bake a lot more in a shorter space of time. We're in the process of building a second commercial kitchen within our house, which will be used solely for the bakery. This will enable us to upscale things even further, but we'll still stay true to our artisan, small-batch roots because that's what defines us as a brand.
"Working together is actually very good because we have very defined roles. I focus solely on the baking whilst Charlotte works on the sales and marketing side of things - and everything else in between.
"It's nice to be working together as a family and we both pick the kids up together from school every day, which I think is great for all of us. I just feel really fortunate that we're able to make a business out of something that enables us to have a really good work/life balance.
"I love having my own business having spent the majority of my adult life managing businesses for other people. I've really enjoyed having complete control over my time and my creativity. To be able to put all of my efforts into growing our family business is wonderful.
"It sometimes takes a long time to realise what it is you want to do in life and I've realised I'm a creative person. It makes me feel truly at home to be in the kitchen baking and innovating."
I AM THE BEARDED BAKER
He’s loved baking since he was a boy, but it wasn’t until last spring’s lockdown that Jason Morris turned his hobby into a business. The result is I Am The Bearded Baker, a celebration cake, traybake and cookie service in Newmarket
When Jason Morris’s girlfriend started posting pictures of his cakes on Instagram, he thought only friends and family would be interested. But, with their flawless icing, piping and drips, his work soon started attracting attention - and order requests - from cake-lovers across the area. A year on, I Am The Bearded Baker has almost 4,000 social media followers and can take up to 20 celebration cake orders in a single weekend.
“It’s honestly been humbling, and heartwarming too, to see people’s reactions to my cakes,” says Jason. “The thought that you’ve done a good job and genuinely made someone smile? That’s the reward for me.”
It was during last spring’s lockdown that Amy, Jason’s girlfriend, suggested he start sharing his bakes on social media. With some time off his day job - he still works part time as a pool builder - he began by making free treats for key workers, from NHS staff to firefighters and the police force, “because I wanted to give something back: it was a tough time for everyone, but especially for those people in frontline jobs”.
The response, both from the recipients and his growing online audience, spurred Jason on: kitting out the utility room of his Newmarket home with racking and refrigeration, extra tins and icing equipment, he officially launched I Am The Bearded Baker and started taking orders.
Design-wise, Jason likes a challenge. His brother is a big art fan, so he decorated his birthday cake with a Takashi Murakami-inspired smiling flower, made up of hundreds of multicoloured buttercream swirls. He’s also made Sesame Street’s Cookie Monster out of cake and a children's party favourite has a dinosaur theme.
“The most popular design of all has to be a classic drip cake with smooth buttercream icing, though,” says Jason, “but I try never to decorate in exactly the same way twice; the creativity is a big part of it for me. I’m also a bit anal about it! I like the decoration, especially the piping, to be perfect. If I’m not quite happy, I’ll scrape it off and pipe again. That’s what people are paying me for, at the end of the day - a cake that looks as well as tastes special.”
Jason started baking in his grandma’s kitchen when he was growing up: “First of all it was jam tarts and mince pies, then butterfly cakes - all the things kids like to do.” Helping a family friend, Eve, was the next step; a carer for her disabled husband, she ran a baking business from home and asked Jason to help her out on Saturdays. Eventually Eve tasked him with covering her regular orders, supplying Ramsey cafe Wild Frost for a few months while she returned to her native Texas. “She taught me all the classic cakes - carrot, coffee and walnut, Victoria sponge,” he recalls.
“In terms of flavours, the classics are still top-sellers,” Jason continues. “Vanilla sponge is an all-time favourite, but biscoff has been a huge seller recently. Now if I was choosing, it would have to be a carrot cake with cream cheese frosting. . .”
As well as his showstopping celebration cakes, Jason has got a reputation for his brownies, blondies and cookies, which can be ordered by box or slab. The brownies, in particular, are ever-evolving, with recent iterations layered with caramelised cornflake and toffee crisp.
When Jason and Amy welcomed their first child, Arlo, six weeks early last month, “I had 18 cakes to bake that weekend and I only cancelled one," he says. "To be honest, while Amy and Arlo were still in hospital, the baking really helped me. I can get totally lost in it, especially the decorating.”
With recent commissions including unicorn, leopard print and ombre-iced cakes, demand for Jason’s work is such that he’s planning to extend the house to create both a bigger kitchen and a shop front for I Am A Bearded Baker. “At the moment, I’m still doing the ‘day job’ a couple of days a week, but the dream is to bake full time,” he says. “There’s honestly no other job I’d rather do.”
Follow @iamthebeardedbaker on Instagram and Facebook
Read moreFood and Drink
More by this authorAlice Ryan