Sophia Handschuh on going from hobbyist to microbaker to high street bakery owner.
Sourdough Sophia was born in north London at the height – or depth – of the global pandemic. During the first lockdown of 2020 my husband Jesse and I decided that we had fallen out of love with our online business. Selling kitchenware and running an online blog we just felt anonymous and disconnected from our customers. The pandemic was – and is – a global catastrophe but also a perfect opportunity for a community to come together. We were suddenly drawn inwards and making connections with our Crouch End neighbours via WhatsApp groups. There were new reasons to reach out and support each other.
During this time Jesse and my mum reminded me of my childhood dream. My father was a professional baker for many years and, having been an avid home baker and sourdough nerd growing up in Germany, I had wanted to open my own bakery since I was little. We now had the perfect opportunity to dive in head-first and make some loaves for neighbours who were isolating. What could go wrong?!
From a few conversations over a couple of days, I’d purchased a mixer, fridges, a shaping table and racking from our dear, beloved Campbell Macfarlane (@campbell2664), founder of Rackmaster, plus a 40 litre mixer. Instagram became the most amazing fountain of knowledge with all sorts of microbakers and other makers generously sharing their knowledge and experience to help me make purchasing decisions. They included Tim Passmore (@sourdough_tim), Adam Pagor (@season_adam) and Michael James (@michaeljamesbakes) to name a few - thanks guys!
Whilst waiting for our equipment to arrive, we quickly set up a website, made a production plan and ordered some flour. Then there was the small matter of hoisting a 100kg mixer, fridges and a huge oak shaping table up several flights of stairs into our first-floor flat dining room. Don’t ask how we managed it!
I baked my first batch of 12 loaves in April 2020 and gave them away to neighbours and friends - Sourdough Sophia the microbakery was born! The next day we had 24 people asking for bread, which of course we charged them for! Only a couple of weeks later we were baking two batches of 90 loaves a week, plus cheesecakes, brownies, croissants, doughnuts and more. We had a queue down the street and my husband delivered breads to 50 or more households per bake day on his little Brompton electric bike with trailer in tow.
Within a few months, we’d completely outgrown our dining room. All this time we were also still running our online shop and we realised that we had to make a decision: either we scale up and open a bakery, or stop baking and revert to being full-time virtual shopkeepers. Doing both wasn’t working for us financially and the working hours were impossible to manage, especially with our baby to look after as well.
We decided to take the plunge. We’d never run a full-on bakery production before but knew we could figure it out as we went along. We set up a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter to help us acquire a lease for a retail premises on Middle Lane in Crouch End, a full fit out, and brand spanking new baking equipment. In August we set a target of £25,000 and started to promote like crazy. The response was amazing: We hit our target with nine days to spare and eventually raised more than £33,000 from 576 backers.
I have made plenty painful of mistakes along the way. For example, we had planned to open three days before Christmas 2020 and we wanted to have a good week of testing before opening. Unfortunately the build-out of the shop got delayed and it ended up cutting into our practice sessions. In the end we didn’t practice at all and risked it. Everything went wrong that day, we forgot the salt in most of the dough, the fridges weren’t set properly and the sourdough starter wasn’t ready at the right time. Nothing turned out! We decided to delay opening by a day, refocus and try again. If I did this again, I think I would probably be a little less optimistic with my timings! Luckily things worked the second time around and we’ve been open ever since.
Fundamentally what is important to me is to treat people right and run the business with compassion. Our staff get paid above the London Living Wage, our customers get snacks whilst waiting our queue and we remember their names. We never compromise on ingredients, either: Our flour and other ingredients mostly come from the UK and are the best quality possible. We care about everything we do and never settle for the easy way out.
At the time of writing (late May 2021) we’re about six months into this part of our journey. From having never had staff members before, we now have a wonderful team of 15 talented people. We have a growing base of regular customers, fabulously long queues down the street and often sell out before we close. I couldn’t be more proud! That’s not to say that it’s been easy. In fact it’s definitely been the most challenging thing I’ve ever done. It’s been an exhilarating exercise in problem solving, designing systems, hiring a team, developing people and trying to adapt to turbulent customer demand. You never rest, you never switch off and every day you have to strive to get better. It’s an amazing rollercoaster ride!