Jane Mason reflects on the Bread Angels network she founded in 2010.
Bread Angels are microbakers dedicated to effecting positive social change through good food. By July 2021, the international network comprised around 350 entrepreneurs committed to helping develop diverse, inclusive, and healthy communities. At the heart of this mission is making and selling Real Bread in our neighbourhoods, teaching people how to bake, and passing knowledge onto other food entrepreneurs. Many of us offer free baking classes at prisons, schools or care homes, educating and enabling people where we can.
During the pandemic, Bread Angels have been shining examples of how something as simple as good bread has become a source of hope and comfort in a time of crisis. Entrepreneurial and problem-solving by nature, they have devised safe ways to deposit bread in pick-up locations, offered deliveries via bike, increased their baking capacities to meet increased demand, and moved training courses online.
Sara Ward of Hen Corner, an urban smallholding in West London, trained as a Bread Angel in 2015. She had no intention of opening a microbakery and couldn’t see how it would work with her other commitments. She and a friend decided instead to set aside a day a month to bake together, keep up their skills, share each other’s bread and offer anything spare to friends via social media. “That first bake day, after a few posts online offering bread, honey and eggs, 30 people turned up, spent £380 and said ‘monthly? We want this every week!’ We gulped and said ‘alright then…’ and have baked for our community every Friday since,” explains Sara.
Five years on, the Covid pandemic found Hen Corner fully-equipped to bring Real Bread to their local community in the most tangible way. Microbakery orders increased tenfold, Sara began teaching bread skills online to people around the world and she also trained nine new Bread Angels to open their own microbakeries.
“As lockdown restrictions lift and our face-to-face bread courses open up again, we’re looking forward to training more new Bread Angels. Our Friday bakery will continue, as will online classes supporting guests as they bake in their own kitchens. However, the new project that we are most looking forward to is getting a wood-fired bread oven built in the garden!” she says.
In Wakefield, Alexandra Vaughan promoted The Crow’s Rest Bakehouse from side hustle to a full-time occupation just five months before the pandemic hit. “The changes thrust upon all of us meant that the I had to adapt very quickly and work out ways to continue to service the community and generate enough income to support myself” she told me. “Bread making workshops were cancelled and I focused instead on growing the retail side of the business by creating more awareness of my products and expanding my customer base. For this my husband and I went out to distribute flyers, and I had a pop-up at a local takeaway for a few weeks.”
Alexandra’s retail business grew by almost 40% in the first few months of the pandemic but… “when summer came, this growth went away and again I had to readjust the business. I looked at getting some cafés involved as collection points, and throughout the winter my business has again consistently grown to a point where I now bake 300 or more units a week in my Rofco B40 oven. In 2021 my focus is on grain provenance and developing awareness among my customers and local community of Real Bread and the importance of how our food is produced.”
There are hundreds of inspiring stories to tell. Michelle Stratford of Planet Leicester Bakers does incredible work in her local community. Liz Wilson of Ma Baker bakes extra loaves for people in need. Di Holba of Aston Parish Bakery donates all of her spare bread to a food bank…
My own response to the crisis has involved setting up a series of classes, including the microbakery course, on the Thinkific e-learning platform. I have been busy coaching Bread Angels and other businesses owners through the last 12 months, encouraging them to see the challenges as opportunities. I have also run around 30 free, weekly, live bake-along sessions via Zoom to give people the chance to try out new bread recipes and feel part of a community.
When I founded Virtuous Bread with the purpose of changing the world through bread, most people thought I was crazy. How wrong they were! Although the quality sold in some places is not always as high as we would like, the fact is that there is so much more awareness of what constitutes Real Bread, how and where it is made. Bread Angels around the world have made a significant contribution to this. Together, we have baked tens of thousands of loaves for happy customers, run thousands of classes, volunteered as bakers and trainers for a wide variety of different organisations. We have written books, spoken and shouted about Real Bread.
I am so proud to have watched their journeys from baking students and fledgling entrepreneurs, to successful business owners. Every year, Bread Angels scoop numerous prizes at the World Bread Awards, the Great Taste Awards and at a variety of small business awards. My aims for the future are to continue teaching, learning, baking and writing about Real Bread. I have new books in the pipeline and will continue to provide accessible training to anyone interested in baking via my website.
Jane Mason was a speaker at Microbakery 101 on 6 July 2021.
Originally published in True Loaf magazine issue 47, July 2021