“It feels unfair that there should be so much wealth and so much poverty in one city”

Categories: Features

Alice Williams, founder of Luminary Bakery, on how her business helps vulnerable women find employment and renewed hope by training as bakers

Interview: Ellie Costigan
Images: Orlando Gili, Giles Smith Photography & Anna Stathaki

Borough Market has for many years been an active supporter of social enterprises that attempt to make a positive impact on society through the production of food and drink. The latest to arrive is Luminary Bakery, whose stall you can find in the Green Market every Thursday. Its mission is to provide vulnerable unemployed women with the skills, experience and confidence they need to build careers as bakers.

How did Luminary Bakery come to be?
I am trained in community work and have always had a passion for social justice. I got a job at Kahaila, a charitable community cafe on Brick Lane. At the end of the road, there’s a big women’s homeless hostel. The situation of these women really got to me: it feels unequal and unfair that there should be so much wealth and so much poverty in one city. Getting to know the women at the hostel, we realised that while housing and mental health issues were being addressed to some extent, opportunities for employment and training just weren’t available. With Luminary Bakery, we’re trying to address that gap.

Some team members at the cafe were keen bakers, so we started running baking workshops with the women from the hostel. We wanted to see if they liked it and whether the resulting products were of a standard we could sell. We got a grant from the Evening Standard Dispossessed Fund, which provided us with enough money to develop a curriculum, then we began teaching these women how to bake, while selling the products they made in the cafe. That was back in 2014. We opened our first retail-site-come-workshop here in Stoke Newington in 2017, and we now have the stall at Borough Market, too.

What does the training programme entail?
It’s a six-month programme, developed to provide women with the skills and knowledge required to be employed as bakers. It’s a three-part course: baking, food hygiene and life skills, which is about developing them as people—things like building resilience, getting on with colleagues, how to apply for jobs, how to give a good interview. We want to make a difference to their lives and enable them to build their own future. Often this is the first thing they’ve done that they can put on their CV, which has huge emotional benefits. Many are single mums, so getting work and having a career enables them not only to provide for their children, but to act as a role model.

One of our key aims is to get the women into paid work. They may end up being employed here, or we now have a good little network of other businesses that come to us looking to hire. We’ve also developed a mentoring programme, through which the women are paired with a volunteer once they’ve finished training. We’re now on cohort seven, and we’ve got a high success rate—88 per cent of our graduates have gone on to work, further training or have started their own business, which is really exciting.

How do you go about recruiting your trainees?
Most come from referral agencies. We’ve built up partnerships with places like St Mungo’s and Look Ahead, as well as charities that support women who fit the criteria. There are four types of life experience that qualify you to do our training: homelessness, sexual exploitation (so that can include sex trafficking or prostitution), domestic abuse, or criminal activity. Often these issues crossover—when you come out of prison, you’re much more likely to be homeless and if you’re homeless, you’re much more likely to be exploited.

Benjamina and apprentice baker making a cake

What is it about baking you think particularly resonates with these women?
It’s really common for women to arrive here with really low self-esteem and confidence levels—they often have no belief in themselves and what they’re capable of, and I think baking is great for shifting that mindset. Creativity is a luxury; often our trainees have never had the opportunity to create anything, so to be able to do that and be pleased with the results—something they can share with friends and family—is really powerful. I think the repetitive nature of baking is quite therapeutic, too. You have to be precise and patient, but when you do it right, it’s so rewarding.

There’s a story I always tell about a woman from our first-ever cohort. She had made some bread in a loaf tin, but she wasn’t the one to take it out of the oven. When someone brought it in to her, she said: “That’s not mine.” And we said, yes it is, you made that, it’s got your name on it—and she burst into tears. She said: “But I would buy that in a shop, it looks so good!” She was so overwhelmed by what she’d made. How beautiful is that?

How valuable is the sense of community that comes from sharing that kind of experience?
It’s absolutely vital. A lot of these women start off being a bit shy and not very open. It takes time for them to get to know one another and build trust—particularly if they’ve had their trust broken a lot—but we do a lot of targeted activities to help them bond as a group. The course is six months long, which means they go through life’s ups and downs together, and most of them become firm friends. I love when they start swapping numbers, looking after each other’s kids. We did a big Christmas dinner where graduates from all different cohorts came together and cooked, then got a chance to sit down and eat together. That is a significant part of it: if you’re trying to make big changes in your life, it’s really hard to do it on your own. It’s all part of making a lasting change.

Last year, you set up a stall at Borough Market. Are markets particularly conducive to this sort of social enterprise?
It’s a really low-risk way of trying out a new product or business. Though having your own location is wonderful, the overheads of running a cafe are just extortionate—markets offer a middle ground. A job on a market stall is also a really great thing to be able to offer. The stall is run by some of our graduates, and it provides another element of skills-building: they have to know what the day’s targets are, they have to run the till system, and there’s a bit of healthy competition between them to see who can make the most money! Lots of the women are people-orientated, so they’re great with customers. As soon as we were accepted at Borough, I had three women in mind straight away who I knew would just be perfect for it.

Having a stall also means we get direct feedback from customers. Not only is that useful for the business, but the women often get compliments on how the products look, and get to physically hand over something they’ve made themselves. It’s a real confidence boost. We’d love to do lots more all over London, but Borough is an amazing place to start—it’s so well-known and respected, which is a great stamp of approval for our products.

How important is the quality of your products?
The word ‘charity’ sometimes makes people think ‘substandard’, but it’s so important—for all social enterprises—that your products stand alone. That’s hard to deliver because you’re trying to do so much, but it is absolutely essential that people want to buy your goods on their own merits. The social enterprise aspect should be a bonus; it shouldn’t be why they’re buying it—they should be choosing a product because it’s delicious. That’s great for the women, too.

Luminary cakes

What sort of thing do you offer on the stall?
We sell whole cakes, a lot of tray bakes and cookies, some of which are vegan or gluten-free. After training, each apprentice who works with us gets the opportunity to create their own product—they usually start with our seasonal crumble cake as a guide, then experiment with different flavours and textures. The most recent one was chai and blueberry; before that was peanut butter and raspberry jam—very American, but delicious. In the future, we’re hoping to do more bespoke cakes as well, so that will be a great chance to be creative.

What challenges are there in running a business with a social focus?
There are a lot of challenges. We try as much as possible to use local and ethically-sourced ingredients but often they are very expensive. Luckily, we have been able to say to our wholesale provider that we’re not going to use anything but free-range eggs, for example—we stick to our ethical standards and our suppliers have to work around that, but it is always a bit of a balancing act.

We’re still in the start-up phase, so the big challenge is to break even and then start making a profit. It’s a struggle doing everything on such a shoe-string—I think that’s probably a common issue with social enterprises. It’s a bit of a weird space to be in: not completely commercial and not completely charitable. We’re a registered charity, so we have to provide evidence as to what the money that’s donated to us is being spent on. From the get-go, we’ve internally separated all of the charitable expenditure and income from the business side of things, and that can be really quite complex.

There’s been a lot in the press recently surrounding misguided acts of charity. What’s the best way for people to help?
People are sometimes criticised for their motivation—I don’t mind what their motivation is, as long as they’re helping! I think a lot of the time the instinct to help comes from a good place, but sometimes it can be misplaced. For example, businesses often offer to send their teams down to help out for a day, but facilitating that takes up a lot of our time and resources. For most charities, it’s much more useful to have people doing shorter spurts of volunteering over a longer period of time. A really helpful thing to do would be to contact them and say, these are my skills, is there anything I can do to be useful? And then be willing to fit around them. We had somebody get in touch with us to say, I’m an employment advisor, I live nearby, if there’s anything you ever need, just let me know. That’s brilliant. I know if I have any questions or if we want to run a workshop on employment, we can contact them.

But the easiest way to make social enterprises thrive is to buy from them. If it’s more volunteering you’re looking to do, things like running marathons to raise money can be a really good way of supporting a charity—it is so significant, but without taking up much of their time. That’s a win-win.

What are your hopes for Luminary Bakery in the future?
We’re hoping to be at two or three more markets by the end of the year—the more we do, the more opportunities there are for graduates, and for income. We’re working towards having more retail sites and, longer term, other training sites. We’re set up for women in east London, but the need is all over London and the UK. We’re getting there, but we’ve still not had a full year at the cafe and we’ve just re-jigged our wholesale structure and strategy—it still feels like we’re starting out, and we’re not quite making a profit. Hopefully, this year will be the year!