In this series, City A.M. looks at the financial and economic impact of the ongoing pandemic on a range of small and medium-sized businesses across London. Today: The East London bakery which went entirely digital as the pandemic storm picked up.
Before the pandemic, Steph Giordano, the founder of Bethnal Green bakery Baked by Steph, had been baking batches of cookies at home, from her own kitchen.
A couple of years into juggling orders alongside her full-time job in digital design, Giordano made the decision to quit her day job and dedicate all her time to the bakery business. But not a traditional bakery; one that was to be purely led by digital.
Basically, it was out with the old, in with the new, and not by choice, Giordano told City A.M.
It was largely the continuing popularity of baking and baked goods, with the 2020 series of Channel 4’s Great British Bake Off delivering the station’s highest audience share of the year, that helped Belfast-born Giordano to turn her hobby into a successful startup business; her ‘baketech’ firm was born.
“I grew up in a very food orientated household – my mum could bake anything without having to look at a recipe! It was natural for me to take up baking as a hobby,” she said.
Giordano never intended for it to become a business, but with the help of Instagram, she got an order from a big brand wanting 600 cookies for an event.
“I had to turn-it down because I couldn’t fulfil the order as a one-woman band. That’s when I knew there was something there and that I’d need to scale up to make a success of it,” she explained.
This was in August of last year, shortly after the first lockdown, when Giordano moved her business into a converted industrial railway arch in East London.
“It was definitely a giant leap of faith to scale up in the middle of a global pandemic, especially since we had to close completely for four months, but we took the risk and it’s fuelled our expansion and won us some huge orders”, she said.
The move put her at the heart of a vibrant food and drink community on Paradise Row, curated by arches landlord The Arch Company. Her main aim was to grow her young bakery business with an order book featuring a host of big-name brands.
Despite the cliff-edge nature of footfall, which has dropped by 40 per cent in central London, primarily due to the on-again, off-again lockdowns and Tier changes, the bakery business is not going through the worst of times. While retailers and traditional bakers have struggled to respond Giordano decided to embrace all things tech.
“I designed the business to be digitally led, with e-commerce driving our sales and technology at the forefront of our creative and operational processes. We’re quite removed from the traditional concept of a bakery with a physical high street storefront, which has really helped to insulate us from some of the fallout from Coronavirus,” she said.
“We’re quite well suited to a world where footfall is low-to-non-existent,” Giordano added.
Moving into the railway arch allowed Baked by Steph to expand to a team of nine and install larger, more innovative machinery into its production methods.
“We’ve got specialist design software, stencilling machines, 3D printers and we launched our own YouTube channel. It’s been a hectic year and we’ve grown faster than I ever anticipated, but we’re much better equipped now to be able to take on larger orders,” Giordano said.
In recent months, her company has delivered custom designs for Benefit Cosmetics, Facebook, Disney and Marc Jacobs, among others.
“Just before Christmas we secured a huge order for 10,000 cookies from the jewellery brand Tiffany and Co,” she added.
Ineligible for government support
Like many other small businesses caught up in the pandemic, Giordano applied for government and local authority grant and loan schemes but was ineligible for the support.
“We fell through every loophole you can imagine, so we didn’t qualify for any help at all, which was tough. But it spurred us on to set up new sales opportunities,” she said.
“We started offering international shipping much earlier than we originally planned so that we could capture the market for sending a little love in the post over the festive period.”
Despite the challenges of operating during a pandemic, Giordano is convinced she is set up for growth.
“What we do is very different to anyone else in the UK market. It’s very visually driven and we can deliver more custom design elements because of our use of technology,” she said.
“We can make anything into an edible element of our bakes, so we can have much more fun with what we do and really deliver the customers’ vision,” Giordano concluded.
Baked by Steph founder Steph Giordano in her bakery on Paradise Row