At a time of mass layoffs and economic pain caused by a global pandemic, few would consider launching a new business.
But British entrepreneur Rosy Benson says conditions are ripe for the baking classes she started over the summer to support local farmers and the environment.
“I think it’s actually the perfect time to start a business because there’s been this sudden reflection on where our food comes from,” she said.
Images of empty shop shelves in the early stages of the pandemic highlighted the dangers of long supply chains and encouraged consumers to buy fresh and sustainable food directly from farmers.
Closures of restaurants and cafes and restrictions on movement also saw many Brits take up home baking for the first time leading to flour shortages in some supermarkets.
Big pandemic-induced rethinks about the future of work, cities, travel and food are what Benson hopes to capitalize on.
Her company, Field Bakery, teaches bread enthusiasts how to make sourdough using a blend of flour, water and bacteria known as a “starter”.
The ethical value? Benson uses locally-sourced flour and leads the classes on Gothelney Farm, a family-run business which practises regenerative agriculture among the verdant fields of Somerset in southwest England.
“It’s about getting people to think in terms of the ingredients and where they come from and supporting a farmer long-term,” said the soft-spoken 32-year-old.
Dozens of amateur and professional bakers have so far attended her 120 pound ($156) day-long workshops which involve lots of eating: hot scones in the morning and freshly-made pasta using Emmer wheat grown on the farm for lunch.
Benson used her savings and a grant from Feeding the City, an incubation programme by not-for-profit Impact Hub and Bank of America, to launch the business but now faces challenges.
Sanitisation stations, antibacterial wipes and social distancing have made her classes viable during the pandemic but a cap on gatherings of six people imposed on Sept. 14 after parts of Britain saw a resurgence of infections is denting her income.
“That really does limit my ability to make the model work financially,” said Benson.
She isn’t alone. One in three businesses in the United Kingdom, whose official death toll of more than 45,000 from COVID-19 is the highest in Europe, is struggling with operating costs.
Wheat provides nearly a fifth of calories consumed by humans globally but the grain is threatened by rising temperatures and rapidly-evolving pests and diseases.
Benson wants consumers to support local varieties that are grown using environmentally-friendly practices and the workshop, which includes a walk around Gothelney Farm, and the breads, are vehicles for that message.
“We’re really disconnected from our own farming system,” she said. “Importing wheat from thousands of miles away is not sustainable because it’s at the whim of a volatile market.”
Before setting up Field Bakery, Benson ran a crowd-funded project that provided subsidised loaves of nutritious sourdough to vulnerable people around the city of Bristol, where she lives, through a community kitchen.
It ran from the height of a coronavirus lockdown in March till September after the funding – 5,000 pounds ($6,543.00) – ran out.
THE MORE SOURDOUGH, THE BETTER
Yet the need is still there, Benson said, and she hopes the income from Field Bakery would allow her to continue the project in future.
She hopes to expand the workshops at Gothelney to include children and those who cannot afford to pay the full fee but that will depend on her generating enough profit from the business.
Being a first-time business owner is an added challenge and on top of maintaining her website and doing admin she supplements her income by doing freelance work at bakeries.
“I don’t need a lot. I don’t have a big family to support. I have relatively low rent at the moment but obviously that comes from privilege to not even have a high rent. I’ve got this skill of baking so I can make money from that.”
Benson discovered her passion for baking as a child, when her father made bread on the weekends.
“He was so busy with work the rest of the week that I hardly ever saw him so maybe it was that moment of warm bread coming out of the oven slathered with melting butter. It was exciting to do something together.”
So she is all for the recent frenzy in bread making in homes across Britain, particularly sourdough bread.
“I thought it was great. I think it makes them appreciate the time and the care that goes into sourdough. It was beautiful that more people got their hands in the dough,” she said.