This week’s Food Artisan Friday interview takes us outside my usual artisan-sphere of the Bay Area to the U.K. Kelly Pender Lahy is a friend of mine that I’ve known for nearly 20 years. Kelly and I first met through her former husband, who I worked with when we were all living in Boston in the mid- to late 90s. Throughout the period when we both lived in Boston, Kelly and I shared many a recipe and meal together—at dinner parties each of us hosted, at restaurants and, some years, even over the holidays. We have always both shared a love of good food and cooking.
A testament to how social media can keep us in tune with far-flung friends long after you’ve both moved to different parts of the world, I recently noticed that Kelly changed her LinkedIn profile and had opened her own gluten-free baking business, La Doyenne, in the U.K. I knew I wanted to talk with her to both catch up and learn about her new venture. It’s funny how we are both now pursuing things related to food 20 years hence, but it ultimately comes as no surprise given our history of exchanging enchilada and margarita recipes, among other things. I’m thrilled to see her apply all the work and study she’s done over the past 15 years to become the doyenne of her own food business.
In the early 2000s, Kelly left Boston to pursue a dream of living in France. She later did an MBA program at the Rotterdam School of Management in the Netherlands. Over the years she has worked for tech companies throughout Europe in various product and customer development roles, living in France, the Czech Republic and Spain before she and her new husband decided to settle in a small village in the Cotswolds, approximately an hour and a half west of London.
Approximately five years ago, Kelly discovered that she had celiac disease and was gluten-intolerant. Living in Spain at the time, Kelly says the options for gluten-free foods left much to be desired.
“What you found in the supermarket was awful,” she said.
A lover of baked goods, Kelly began converting old family recipes, making them gluten-free. When she shared them at dinner parties or with friends, the reaction was overwhelming.
“They would say ‘This is the best cake I’ve ever eaten. You have to give me the recipe.’ No one suspected they were gluten-free,” she said.
Kelly had actually thought about starting a food business after she’d lived in France, but at the time, she couldn’t find something that fit with what she thought she wanted to do. Moving to the Cotswolds helped push her to think about food again, she said, because there aren’t any tech jobs in the country.
According to Kelly, gluten-free specialty bakers are a new concept in the U.K. Although most major grocers have sections for people with food allergies and there are now food expos that feature products catering to people with food sensitivities, there are not really any businesses that offer fresh baked goods, she said. After employing some business students on a freelance basis to do some market research into how feasible it would be to start an online, gluten-free business, she found there was virtually nothing else in the marketplace in the U.K. There were other incentives to start a business, as well.
“There were a couple interesting points that made it seem like a no-brainer,” she said.
One was the statistics around the increase in diagnoses of celiac disease in the U.K. The other was the retail price that could be charged for the food versus the cost of making it since the ingredients necessary for baked goods are quite inexpensive. To help begin the business, Kelly is also having a commercial kitchen put in her home—she says business regulations in the U.K. are quite friendly toward cottage businesses.
La Doyenne officially launched just prior to the holiday season. Featured items include cookies, bars and cakes. Sales are primarily via online order and at local outlets in the Gloucestershire area.
Note: I modified my usual 10 Questions format this week to be more appropriate to Kelly’s situation and what’s going on in the food scene in the U.K.
What’s the food scene like in the U.K. right now?
There are some similarities—organic, non-GMO foods, push for local foods, knowing the source of your food, minimizing food miles, growing your own food, seasonal food, fruits and veg, lots of chefs that have gone on to be on TV. It’s a good time to be in food in the U.K. In the countryside, I get lamb from the guy down the street. I can open the fridge and see I grew it or that I know the person who did.
Is there a strong artisanal food movement in the U.K.?
Oh, definitely. There’s tons of farmer’s markets, local food fairs, stuff like that. That’s been on the increase even since I’ve been there in the last few years. I don’t think it would keep popping up if people didn’t want to buy it.
What differences do you see in the artisan movement in the U.K. vs. the U.S.?
I’m really not in touch with it at all. This is the first time in three year’s I’ve been in the U.S. and, of course, we don’t get U.S. television so, no, not really. I’d know more about what’s going on in France. It’s the same things—increased awareness of small scale, local food. What brought it out was the horse meat crisis [in France], putting horse meat in frozen foods and saying it was beef. It made people want to know what was in the stuff…
Where I really learned about heritage varieties of fruits and veg was in France. The U.K. has also adopted this. To call something a Cornish pasty, it has to be made in Cornwall. The white wine and sparkling wine industry in England is based on French production and French heritage varieties. I see echoes of things here I saw probably six years ago in France.
How widespread are gluten-free foods in the U.K.?
Personally, in the U.K., I never found a gluten-free bakery making fresh stuff from scratch. There are some big gluten-free manufacturers—some are awful and some are very good, there’s a range. Some of the best gluten-free food I’ve bought in the grocery store has been in Italy. It’s amazing—great pasta. I haven’t found anything like it in the U.K.
Where does your baking inspiration come from?
It comes from a lot of different places. Mostly family recipes passed down from generations, recipes I’ve had from cookbooks or sharing with people. I’ve adapted those. I get good ideas if I travel or go out to restaurants or watching chefs. Often it’s because I really like to eat, and I crave something and find something that is not on the shelf in the supermarket.
I’ve always baked, since I was a little kid, I helped my mom. With celiac disease, one of the biggest hurdles is baked goods, so I started with this, with baked goods and bread. You’re extremely limited—from a business perspective it’s different—if you’re going to butcher something. The laws are less restrictive around bakers. Its much easier to start a baking business than if you wanted to become a butcher.
How does your MBA relate to working in the food industry?
It’s hard to say because I suppose everybody goes into their own business with their own background and expertise. I have enough knowledge starting up the business to do everything on my own without having specialists do things. The only time was with branding and graphic design where I didn’t think that I could do it. It’s been useful in determining how to do things—target market, basic things that someone with no business experience might really struggle with.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve gotten along the way in building your business? What advice would you have for others?
I wouldn’t say I’ve necessarily gotten advice. I’ve gotten a lot of encouragement. Other people with gluten intolerance have been really encouraging.
I saw this study in Harvard Business Review. Successful entrepreneurs don’t minimize all the risks, they minimize what they can and then move forward. If you wait, the business opportunity might pass. I’ve tried to keep that in mind.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced thus far?
That’s pretty easy—it’s time. I think because I set myself a very aggressive launch timeline even though I’ve been thinking about it and doing bits for years. But I basically decided ‘I’m going to launch in eight weeks and that’s that.’
I wanted to hit the Christmas season. It’s a good time to launch, there’s a lot of food fairs. It’s a good time to build publicity and marketing. I’ve had some health issues and I found a point where I can actually physically do it. This was it—if I didn’t set a hard deadline, I might not do it so I just booked a food fair. I knew if I had the commitment, I’d do anything I had to do meet the deadline.
What is the best thing about what you’re doing for a living?
It sounds a bit corny or sentimental, but I just really love it. I love creating things, something new. I love being in charge of my own business. I can work as much or as little as I want, at the end of the day, it’s my business. I love when someone bites into their first gluten-free peanut butter cookie and turns around and orders another dozen—you know it’s good.
What’s your favorite item on your menu?
I mean I like and eat all of them, so I wouldn’t say I had a favorite because I’d never sell something that I didn’t like and eat over and over again. Sometimes you want a cookie with tea, sometimes you want a big chocolate cake for a dinner party. All my recipes are my standbys—things that have lasted over the years.