This week JN Business meets Natalie Allen, founder and director of Sweet Things Ltd.
Natalie Allen always knew she would end up in the food industry – she was just biding her time. The proud owner of Sweet Things in Primrose Hill, which she describes as a boutique cupcake café that has supplied the likes of Fortnum and Mason and Selfridges, Allen chose a degree and a path that would prove beneficial longer-term.
Studying business studies with French at Birmingham University, the 41-year-old spent her third year in Paris, working in a bank in the Champs Elysées. It was while there that she decided to work in the food industry. At her leaving party, she told her French colleagues she was going to make them a tea party with English cakes.
“I didn’t think they’d like it as I was telling them: ‘I’ll make you carrot cake, cheesecake’ and to the French, 20 years ago, this was the most ridiculous thing they’d heard of. I thought nothing was going to get eaten, but they ate everything and were asking me for recipes.”
From her shop and through wholesale, online and telephone orders, Allen sells about 400 or so cupcakes a day, not to mention other treats, such as chocolate chip cookies, red velvet cheesecake brownies, lemon drizzle cake, carrot cake and salted caramel flapjacks, as well as gluten free goodies.
Cooking has always been a passion – Allen, who is from Cheshire, appeared on MasterChef, getting to the last stage in 2005 – losing out to Thomasina Miers, who later founded the Wahaca chain – and earlier on Ready Steady Cook.
After university, Allen got a job in retail management at Sainsbury’s in Birmingham, later working in sales for Coca Cola for four years, selling vending machines to universities. “I really enjoyed it – I was top sales person one year. It was hard work as a manager but it gave me a really good feel for management.”
She moved to London and “fell into” IT recruitment. “The money was very appealing,” she admits. “It was really interesting but it wasn’t something that was for me forever.”
After being headhunted internally to work for Monster recruitment and later working in project management, Allen asked if she could take redundancy.
Her decision to pursue her dream had been cemented a few weeks earlier, after a friend asked her to cater for a party of 100, making savoury and sweet items. “It went really well. The things that people were raving about were the desserts … sticky toffee pudding, carrot cake, lemon tart … and I realised I enjoyed it more,” she admits.
Marrying soon after, in 2005 – her husband is an insurance underwriter – Allen set up her business three months later from home. She started selling to local delis, and individuals through word of mouth. “I did everything myself – the baking, invoices, deliveries and money collection. Looking back, it was crazy,” she laughs.
She then moved the business to a bakery in Primrose Hill, moving it again in 2011 to her current location.
The customers – who include celebrities such as Helena Bonham Carter and Ed Miliband – are quite partial to her cakes, with one even throwing a tantrum when her favourite, the peanut butter and jam cupcake, was no longer sold (Allen’s team rustled up a batch when she next time came in).She supplies cakes and desserts to the Selfridges cafés and supplied Fortnum’s for five years. Sweet Things’ bestselling cupcakes are Oreo cookies and Red Velvet and it has won 10 Great Taste Awards, including for its hot chocolate, salted caramel and dark chocolate millionaire shortbread and scones.
The mother-of-two researches for ideas online. “When I developed my chocolate brownies 10 years ago, I printed off eight different recipes, took a little bit from one, a little from another and kept testing from there,” she says. “It’s rare that you pick up a recipe from a book or the internet and love it.”
Spurred on by a fairly high rent hike, Allen recently diversified from only making sweet things to offering a small savoury menu, particularly for during the week when the area is less busy. She buys in bagels raw from “a well-known Jewish bakery and we boil and bake them ourselves”, selling a “good smoked salmon and cream cheese bagel,” along with quiches, home-made soup and salads.
“Our main USP is that everything is baked fresh daily. I’d rather run out of stock and know it’s fresh instead of having stock that has been there a week,” says Allen, who lives in West Hampstead, and says she is very particular about the ingredients she uses.
“We use real butter and try to use British ingredients. Everything is taste tested, down to the icing sugar. I think having that passion for quality really shows in the end product. And all the staff [there are 10] we take on are genuinely passionate about what they do. If something isn’t right, they won’t send it into the shop.”
The next step for her, she thinks, is a recipe book. But she says: “It has to have a slight edge, to take it to the next level.” She would also like to open another shop, which she says would be “very small”, with no bakery onsite (the current one is under her shop). “I wouldn’t want to become a chain or to franchise – that’s when you lose control and lose the quality, and that’s what we’re known for – but I would like to reach more people.”
She recommends gaining experience of the business world before going it alone. “It amazes me how many people will contemplate starting a business with no business plan,” she says. “If you are not commercially astute, you can have the passion but you can’t turn it into a reality that’s going to bring in the profit. Don’t go into it lightly – you need to do a lot of research before going ahead – and run the business from home for as long as you can.”
She likes the cookery writers Mary Berry, Delia Smith and Evelyn Rose. “Some of my recipes are still based on some of Evelyn’s, such as the millionaire’s shortbread,” Allen says. “My mum adored her recipes – that was really where I first learnt to bake.”