Friday 14th June 2024

Cakes, lie ins and wheelbarrows: what lockdown has taught me about running a small business

Like most people, coronavirus caught Matthew Grossett, owner of South Norwood-based micro bakery Walnuts & Honey, by surprise. But it has taught him some valuable lessons about running a business.  

About two and a half years ago, I took perhaps the biggest and riskiest decision of my life.

I decided to pack in my well-paid, cushy job as a project manager for a life of uncertainty, eye-wateringly early starts and cake icing.

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That’s right, I decided to open my own micro bakery, called Walnuts & Honey.

At the time people thought I was mad. I had very little business experience and, while I had always enjoyed baking, I had never done it professionally.

It was a big risk. But while there have been some tough times, I can honestly say it has been one of the best decisions I have ever made.

Over the past couple of years, I have met some amazing people and have learnt things I would have never had learnt in my last job, namely that the people of South Norwood love a cupcake (who doesn’t?!).

However, when the government announced lockdown, I admit that I did worry about the future of my fledgling bakery.

Thankfully, the company was in a strong position before all of this hit, so we will make it through this crisis. My thoughts are with those who are not in such a fortunate position.

I feel also that, in a weird way, Covid-19 has taught me some valuable lessons about running a business – although I would have preferred to have learnt them in less painful circumstances, of course.


Try new things

The first few days of lockdown were great. As much as I love my business and my customers, it was nice to have a lie in on a Saturday morning for the first time in who knows how long.

But after a few days of lazing around, the novelty wore off and I just wanted to get back to work.

The government guidance said I could offer delivery – something I’d never done before – and I thought “why not”?

I’m glad I did, and I was surprised by the number of orders that came in. I had never seriously entertained the idea of delivery before but trying something new in this instance has made up for the fall in income due to the shop being closed.

Glad as I am that I tried delivery – which I will carry on doing when the shop opens again – it did also give birth to the dumbest idea I’ve ever had: delivering them on foot, marching up and down crazily steep hills using a kind of wheelbarrow-type contraption.

Thankfully, I’ve found Zip rental cars since then.

Don’t ignore the admin

I’m sure I’m not alone when I say I hate doing admin. Nobody likes it because, well, it’s just dull. I set up a bakery because I love baking, not because I love filling out forms.

But coronavirus has taught me how important it is to stay on top of the paperwork, no matter how boring it is.

Why? Well, to cut a long story short, there was an error on my company record with the council and it meant that, despite applying for the government grant to help small companies survive coronavirus, I’m still waiting for the money.

As I said before, we were in pretty good shape before the virus hit, so we don’t need it perhaps as much as other firms.

But it’s slightly annoying that the delay has been caused by an admin error. Just to flag, that’s not the council’s fault – they have done all they can to be honest.

Either way, the whole episode has taught me a valuable lesson: no matter how busy you are, stay on top of the paperwork.

Social media is more important than ever

Sorry if it sounds a little obvious, but social media is incredibly important for a business like mine.

In fact, social media has arguably never been more important. For a start, with shops closed, it has perhaps been one of the only way of letting your customers know that you still exist.

But more than that, it’s a great way of building a relationship with your customers that a large chain, which is controlled by the compliance department, can’t.

Be honest with your customers

Since I started delivering, I have been getting a lot more orders for bigger ticket items such as birthday and wedding cakes, which take a lot longer than a batch of cupcakes.

I run the shop on my own, meaning there is physically only so many orders I can fulfill unless of course I decided to give up sleeping altogether.

Unfortunately, that means disappointing people on occasion, which I hate doing. I don’t ever like telling people that want in the timeframe they are asking for it in isn’t possible.

But, actually, I was worrying for nothing. People genuinely appreciate it when you’re honest with them and I find it is better to be realistic and deliver a cake on time, than accept an unrealistic deadline that you end up missing anyway.


It’s all about relationships

I can’t stress how appreciative I am to the people of South Norwood, who have been incredibly welcoming since day one.

As a result, I have made some amazing relationships with my customers over the past few years.

However, a while ago my accountant told me I needed to charge 50p more per cup of coffee, as I was charging way less than my rivals.

I hated the idea as I was worried that putting up my prices would scare people off. I decided the best thing to do was to just ask my customers how they felt about it.

One of my customers told me that nobody comes into my bakery for cheap coffee. They come in because of the friendly atmosphere and a good chat.

That was such an eye-opener. Of course, the cakes and coffee need to be good as well, but I had completely underestimated how much the success of my firm was linked to the relationship I have with my customers.

And I am sure that the strength of that relationship is why many people have chosen to support me with their orders during lockdown.

Matthew Grossett

Mouthy Blogger

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