Why it’s important to shop small, local and independent

If you’ve bought one of our cakes and had time to read the inside of the pack you may have noticed the message we pop on each one, “Thank you for supporting our small, independent business”.

In commercial bakery terms we are tiny. We are currently a team of 25 which is dwarfed by our competitors who are typically at least 10 times our size (based on turnover and team size). Visitors to our Dorset gluten free bakery are amazed by how modest and compact our operation actually is. Our award winning bakery is housed in an old cow byre and the cakes are packed in what was the milking parlour.

We are ever conscious that we are just one of many cake bakers in a somewhat crowded market. The upside of having stiff competition is that it drives us onward and upward on a quest to improve continuously. As a team, we understand that we cannot use our diminutive size and cute brand appearance as an excuse for not striving for excellence in all areas.

We never take orders for granted and recognise that the health of the business depends on us working hard to continue to delight our customers and encourage them to remain loyal.

Small is beautiful

What small businesses lack in scale, they more than make up with their nimbleness. To use the analogy of sea faring boats, bijou enterprises are like speedy little dinghies – highly manoeuvrable and able to keep one step ahead of changing weather conditions. In contrast, larger companies are more like lumbering oil tankers which can take miles to change course.

For example, during Covid and the lockdowns, businesses like ours who were primarily supplying to wholesalers (rather than direct to the public) saw their orders drop off a cliff. With no one going out, the entire hospitality industry was mothballed. There is nothing like an empty order book and pending wage bills to focus the mind on looking for new sources of income!

Online trading was the obvious solution. Hence the UK saw an explosion in subscription schemes and letterbox deliveries, selling anything from hand poured soy candles to vegan pet food. Some of these companies were start ups but a significant portion had diversified, like us to start selling online. Put bluntly we had to get creative to stay in business.

Taster boxAs well as this ability to react quickly to changing circumstances, additional benefits to not growing too large include:

1. Being close to our customers.

Happily we lack the layers of management and accompanying bureaucracy of larger concerns. Being a small team, we all share the office and cannot but help eavesdropping whenever a customer phones up. The result is that we jump straight onto any issues raised by them. Things get sorted quickly with “customer delight remaining at the heart of what we do”.

We deliberately stay close to our very humble roots. Honeybuns started with cakes being delivered by bicycle and then we got involved in farmers markets back in the late 1990s. Face to face interactions with customers helped us improve our offering. By still running monthly pop up shops now, we get to chat to customers face to face and take a note of their comments and feedback. We can then action things quickly. This ability benefits us as a business and it provides a great, personalised service to our customers too.

Pop up shop customers, by asking us where they could go after visiting us (some folk travel from afar) prompted us to devise a mini food safari trail. Namely, they can come and stock up on cakes from us first, then go and visit Dorset Blue Vinny down the lane for award winning cheese, have lunch at Thyme after Time Café and then walk it all off by strolling along the trail way to visit the Big Yellow Bus Garden Project. Each of the participating food safari companies give a really warm welcome to these visitors. Our customers love this added benefit of shopping with us. They tell us they view pop up shop days as a real treat and an excuse to explore and indulge. It is the antithesis of your routine supermarket shop.

2. Accountability for our actions

Being such a small organisation means there is no hiding from mistakes. We all have to take responsibility for our actions and decisions. The net benefit of this is that we tend to focus hard on not being wasteful or rash.

As part of our culture we actively attempt to turn any negative into a positive. Each mistake made offers an opportunity to learn and frees up space for better, more workable ideas. Mistakes are, after all, a natural by product of creativity. We just need to manage them correctly.

For instance, our first version of vegan range of wrapped cakes was an epic failure. We had tried to be a bit too clever. As well as making these cake slices dairy free, vegan and gluten free we also removed all the sugar. This was done with the best of intentions but our customers didn’t hold back with their criticism. They quickly reminded us that they came to Honeybuns for delicious treats. If they wanted a healthy option they’d choose an apple or crackers. That was us told.

We responded by going back to the test kitchen and reminding ourselves that all of our cakes needed to taste every bit as good as regular, “non free from” counterparts.

Our current vegan range is really popular. We use store cupboard ingredients including sugar and in no way do we market them as healthy. They are intended as little indulgent treats to be eaten in moderation.

3. A state of independence

To this day Honeybuns remains wholly owned by my husband Matt and I. We treasure the fact we have no shareholders to answer to. We moved to Naish Farm in the tiny Dorset village of Holwell (population 350) 20 years ago. We had a crazy dream to convert an old dairy farm into an artisan, gluten free bakery. From punishing 4am starts to chasing escapee goats (Margot and Hilary) down the drive, life here has been quite the adventure.

Alongside setting up the bakery we wanted to plant trees, reinstate hedgerows, restore old bee hives and invest in solar as well as support local causes. I’m not sure investors would have reacted favourably to us running a music festival on the farm for 5 years straight in order to raise funds for the Holwell Church roof. Or whether they would have supported our decision to run a pop up community café in a restored chicken shed….?

We have been lucky enough to be free from board room meetings. If we meet folk we like doing great things, like Paul at the Big Yellow Bus Garden Project we can reach out, link up and help each other. We do not have to build a case in order to convince anyone else.

We adhere to a “reduce, re use and recycle”, softly sustainable approach to business. Our aim is to work happily together as a close knit team, to step lightly on our environment and to cherish our customers. We need to remain profitable in order to afford to operate in this more holistic way but to focus solely on commercial success doesn’t’ sit right with us.

4. Small businesses are great for “ecoversity”

OK, I’ve just made that term up. Just as biodiversity is instrumental in supporting ecosystems in the natural world, so “ecoversity” or commercial diversity helps support a plethora of freelancers, start ups and small teams.

To give you a sense of the ecoversity that helps support us:

Our gluten free bakery is based on an old dairy farm in the heart of the Blackmore Vale in Dorset. During the week the place hums with constant activity, just like a human bee hive. We have a fantastic supporting cast of small local businesses who help us out with a huge variety of tasks including: sign writing, carpentry, electrical work, plumbing, equipment maintenance, air conditioning, ingredients, packaging and more. Each and every one is an independent business.

Once we’ve found someone brilliant we hang onto them and a lovely bonus is that we get to really know them. We look out for each other. For example, the husband and wife team who maintain our (somewhat temperamental) packaging machine have been helping us for nearly 20 years. They go out of their way to sort problems and have been known to drive through the night to ensure we can continue with production in the morning. In turn we keep Dave and Annie topped up with delicious cakes and bottomless pots of tea.

I’m extremely proud of our team and of this wider ecosystem of independent companies who help to create the very special community that is Honeybuns.

Each and every order from our customers helps sustain a plethora of similar minded business who are quietly working away and helping to keep communities alive and thriving. Thank you for your continued support. I strongly believe life would be duller without this rich and varied tapestry of business life.

Comment and share what you thought of this blog. Be sure to share this with a friend too. Thanks for reading!

– Emma Goss Custard

If you have any questions, do get in touch via this blog in the comments section, or via facebook, email or telephone.

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