Mother and daughter team Rachel and Janet Billington have always loved baking and launched an online food diversification last year. Danusia Osiowy find out more about the pair, from Macclesfield, Cheshire, who are fulfilling a lifelong dream.
A ‘have a go’ attitude has led Rachel Billington to fulfil her dream of starting a culinary diversification business with her mother, Janet.
Operating from their farmhouse kitchen on their working dairy farm in Macclesfield, Cheshire, Bowl and Whisk might still be very much in its growth phase, but one which is successfully tapping into the ‘gifts by post’ market.
The online bakery sells artisan food gifts in the form of homemade chocolate brownies, rocky road and flapjack tray bakes.
“I’ve been baking with mum since I was a little girl,” explains Rachel. “It was always the plan to start our own business and we knew there has been a surge of popularity in baking and appreciation for artisan produce.
“Our home-baked treat boxes are an easy gift solution for any occasion, whether that be to congratulate new parents, wish someone a happy birthday, or to simply let someone know that you are thinking of them.”
After graduating from Harper Adams University in 2011 with a degree in agri-food marketing with business studies, Rachel worked in product development for Arla Foods, Bakkavor and Goodlife Foods.
In 2014 she applied for, and was awarded, £2,000 through the John Platt Travel Scholarship to support her request to upskill and investigate opportunities for on-farm diversification. Awarded by the Cheshire Agricultural Society and Reaseheath College, she visited Morwick Ice Cream in Northumberland, Newlyns Farm in Hampshire and local Cheshire producer Burt’s Cheese. She also attended the Farm Business Innovation Show and business start-up seminars.
“I learnt more about the practical areas you need think to about when diversifying,” she says. “By spending time with them I understand how they connect their food product and farming story with the public and how they work to promote it.”
She then attended an intensive four-week Leith’s Cookery Course in London, where she learnt the maximum number of cookery skills for a professional environment in the shortest period of time.
Many of the students who gain the Leiths Essential Cooking Certificate go on to plan their own food businesses, run B&Bs, delis and cake shops or work in other food-related industries.
“Other course members were really interested to learn more about my dairy farming background, which reaffirmed the need to connect the public closer to food producers,” Rachel adds.
The pair started experimenting with recipes and flavours and cooking endless of batches, before offering them to family and friends in exchange for feedback. They also spent time sampling their competitors’ products.
“We were drawn to handmade products and the use of local and British ingredients,” Rachel says. “Additional factors we felt were important included attractive packaging and an easy-to-use website. We also liked the feel-good factor about the various businesses and enjoyed buying into their story.”
Working with a marketing agency, the pair defined their branding, logo and website.
“It was exciting seeing our new business come to life and seeing the logo and later the website for the first time,” she adds.
Alongside this, decisions were made about the product range, packaging, business development, marketing and food safety.
To further strengthen their brand, they worked with a local food photographer and food stylist Jane Birkinshaw to capture the images of their products for the website.
Having obtained a licence to operate as a commercial business from their kitchen, Bowl and Whisk launched last June, a week before Father’s Day.
Rachel and Janet have attended a number of training courses funded by EDRF and co-ordinated by Reaseheath College to learn about digital marketing, sales, product development and accountancy.
It was always the intention for the business to run as an online enterprise, as Rachel and Janet both believed a digital platform had the biggest audience reach.
Customers can choose from a range of products before they are given the option to add a personalised message, which they handwrite and include with the gift.
“Essentially we are providing a service for people and the opportunity to send a gift,” says Janet.
“We initially thought the majority of orders placed would be to mark birthdays or special occasions, which they are, but the ‘thinking of you’ option is also popular, too.
140g butter, softened
120g light brown soft sugar
100g caster sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 large egg
150g plain flour
100g strong plain flour
1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1/2 tsp baking powder
75g rolled oats
100g hard toffee, chopped into small pieces
Pinch of sea salt
“We have been delighted at how kind our customers are. It’s a really nice feeling we can help them create and send a gift.”
The business is also affected by key calendar events, which sees the recipes being tweaked.
“We are seeing seasonality peaks and we now theme our products. For Valentine’s Day we created a raspberry and white chocolate chunk brownie and wrapped it in red tissue, and for Mother’s Day we have developed a giant chocolate button brownie,” Janet adds.
Supplying nationwide, advertisement is currently though social media platforms and is further boosted with the introduction of competition giveaways.
“We are still finding our feet with it,” says Janet. “We need to take care how we pitch our products and we are learning all the time.”
When asked how they find working together every day, it’s clear their mother/daughter bond is one of the strengths of the business.
“It’s a joy,” says Janet. “We can tell one another things with honesty. Rachel enjoys developing new recipes and I would say I am more business focused.”
Looking ahead, the pair will continue to promote their business and have recently launched a dessert table service which can cater for large numbers at events. They also provide modern style wedding cakes and wedding favours within Cheshire.
Normally many food businesses have developed to such an extent they have surpassed a farmhouse kitchen, so to visit a diversification in such early stages is unusual.
The ultimate dream is to secure their own commercial bakery outside of the farmhouse kitchen, and demand for new sweet products shows no signs of slowing down.
In just a few clicks you can make yourself happy knowing you can do something to show somebody else you care,” Rachel says.
“And it’s gender neutral – everyone loves cake. It’s the ultimate comfort food.”