Food has always been central to Simrat Ghuman and Ayla Buyuran Akbulut’s lives. Coming from cultures where flavour, texture and freshness are held in the highest regard, Simrat and Ayla bring their Punjabi and Turkish heritages to their baking, using the best ingredients to make incredible organic sourdough bread and treats. Born out of the UK’s lockdown in Summer 2020, Simrat and Ayla decided to take the plunge and launch Little Nest Bakery, sharing their love of baking with their local London neighbourhood, Brockley. Building a business based on passion and commitment, to their products, each other and their mother Dolores, we found out how the business started and what’s next for the amazing duo.
How would you describe the Little Nest Bakery?
Fresh bread and treats, baked to a very high standard, delivered to your door if you’re lucky enough to be in our neighbourhood! It’s a passion project born out of our love of food. We bonded over food, we love eating and feeding others. We bake everything we sell, and to a standard that we would spend money on.
Can you tell us a little about your journey and how you met?
Simrat: Ours is the classic meeting at the school gates story. Our sons were in the same class in 2019, so that’s how we met. Our children got along, we got along, which was a good start. Playdates became a norm, along with hanging out at the Brockley station.
Ayla: We were at similar points in our life. We had both had busy careers but had been off work since our second children. We were both looking for something to get us back into work that earned a wage, as opposed to looking after our families, which is hard work, but unpaid! We discovered our mutual devotion to food and that sealed the deal.
Simrat: We’d exchange food gifts. Ayla used to critique my food and I loved her honesty. No smoke and mirrors there. Ayla was experimenting with sourdough baking and she started giving me loaves. At that time, I wasn’t into sourdough much but my husband and children fell in love with her bread. Whatever Ayla baked, she’d encourage me to try it, answer any questions, try to suss out what might have gone wrong and how to fix it. So we did lots of cake, scones, biscuits, cinnamon buns — it took us a long time to agree on the shape of those.
What inspired you to take the plunge and start your own business?
Simrat: I think the crucial thing was our decision to isolate together in the first lockdown in March 2020. We met at Hilly Fields everyday with our children and talked homeschooling, baking, cooking, and how we could start having an income. We wanted a solution that would enable us to earn but could fit around the demands of our families; small children, full-time working partners.
Ayla: I read a lot of culinary books, and one of the authors I read was Sarah Owens who set up a subscription service for sourdough bread. I thought we could do something like that. I was very conscious of the parameters that have to be met to get a good food hygiene rating and had checked out some council buildings but nothing met all the criteria till we thought of Sim’s extension which due to the lockdown was being used for storage. Most importantly, it had the basic kitchen facilities.
Simrat: We were excited to see how far we could go with our baking and we had nothing to lose. Lockdown meant even with homeschooling we had time on our hands to do everything slowly and properly. We registered with the council, got the required food hygiene certificates, new home-business and public liability insurance which cost us a bomb. Our food was good, of course we knew that, but the 5 star food hygiene rating from the FSA’s inspector was a validation of all our effort. We want our customers to have full confidence in us and what we bake, so that was very important for us.
You’re both passionate about baking and organic ingredients. Can you tell us a little bit about your backgrounds and how this influences your baking?
Ayla: I love eating bread as much as baking it. I come from where wild einkorn wheat was first grown many thousand years ago and bread was and still is the king of every meal. When I was a child we used to have big bakeries in Istanbul where we could buy warm bread fresh from wood fired clay ovens. It smelled divine and tasted wonderful. While travelling in Turkey, I visited a traditional village where women use decades old sourdough starter to make bread in communal bakeries with flour ground from the wheat they grow. I made several attempts to start my own sourdough starter over the years, sometimes successful, sometimes not. In these attempts, I learnt that sourdough is alive and it changes over time, changes with temperature, so I try to understand the chemistry and biology of it. I started reading, researching and experimenting. These experiments resulted in some excess bread loaves which I started giving to my friends. They liked what I baked and encouraged me to take baking more seriously. I try baking with different flours, different hydration, different combinations, and I’m still learning every day.
Simrat: I can’t compete with Ayla’s passion for bread but we both come from cultures where food was made from scratch at every meal, with vegetables bought the same day, peas shelled by hand. Which sometimes chains women to the kitchen, but the food was sublime and the tables always had variety. Unsurprisingly, we both have ridiculously high standards for the food we eat every day and similarly for the food we bake or buy. What we put on our own tables is what we bake for our customers. We assume our customers are as fussy as us, which is borne out by our many conversations we have with them.
Little Nest bakery is a very new business, only starting in 2020. How has Covid-19 affected your business? Has it been a positive or negative experience?
Ayla: We decided we would try and set up a home bakery to be operational when the first lockdown lifted. Neither of us was in active employment at that time so it was a slow and easy start in July followed by summer holidays: read very few orders for us! Business started picking up in September, and when the second lockdown was announced, people were ready to shop locally for things they would normally buy in central London bakeries.
Simrat: Our USP is freshness. Our goods are delivered to your door within hours of being out of the oven. We bake to order, which minimises waste. Covid-19 directly has had little bearing on our business model because except it has encouraged people to be more aware of and support local entrepreneurs. For us, the custom of and engagement with our local community is life blood.
How do you find working as business partners? Do you always agree, or do you have different ways of thinking and working?
Simrat: Like all partnerships we are very similar in some ways and very different in others. We are very direct, and don’t take offense easily when discussing business, or rather, we recover quickly because at the end of the day, we genuinely like each other. When we disagree, we read the other, try and see the other’s point of view, and their reasons. For me personally, motherhood has made me more humble, patient and open to other viewpoints. The important thing is that we both recognise that the chemistry we have is rare, that we couldn’t have done this without each other.
Ayla: My background is in social care and Sim has worked in journalism, marketing and communication. Our work experiences and skill sets are very different and diverse, which is important in a team. We work to our strengths. As we planned the business, we instinctively assumed certain responsibilities. We are both very hard-working, our work ethic is similar. Communication is key. We argue, we come to an understanding and move on.
What lessons have you learnt along the way?
Simrat: I’ve learnt that I’m indefatigable when baking and a proper grump that afternoon due to the slump in adrenaline when the bags are out of the door! On a serious note, the lessons are: Trust your judgement, trust your product, trust each other. Go at your own pace. It’s your journey, so make sure you do it your way. Take advice but see what works for you.
Ayla: I have always had a tendency to get things done as quickly as possible and move on. if something goes wrong, I try to fix it along the way. However sourdough baking requires detailed advance planning, precision, being able to anticipate what could potentially go wrong. Baking with sourdough and running a bakery has taught me to slow down, to think before taking action.
Simrat: And while we always knew how important family is, we’ve learnt how integral their support has been when starting a business. Our husbands have helped with everything from insurance to IT, from deliveries to childcare. They are both very supportive, very proud and don’t mind when we sometimes ignore their advice.
What have you found to be the most effective way of marketing your business?
Simrat: Engaging with customers, current and potential is the best way of marketing for us. We are a digital business. Our shop front, and therefore our primary marketing channel is Instagram and Facebook. Our photos need to look good and we make a huge effort with our customers, be they regular or new. We are frank, honest and open as a team and as a company, which is reflected on our social media feed and appreciated by our customers. Having said that, we will also be looking at leaflet distribution when the time comes to increase our business volume.
Ayla: Instagram, local social networks are important and so is word of mouth. Our policy is to overcompensate if we make mistakes and to say thank you with cookies when someone refers us to their friends or leaves us a review. Happy customers mean good business.
What’s next for you?
Simrat: We want to expand, increase our capacity, but it has to be balanced by the needs of our families. They also have a claim to our time and we have to protect that. Our children are similar in age, and as they start school, we may be able to ramp up our production too, but we aren’t in a hurry.
Ayla: In June 2020, we gave ourselves a year to see if we could make a go of running a bakery. That we can run a business together is established, and now to grow it, increase capacity, find a sweet spot between working part time and also looking after our families.. We’ll see how we are going in July 2021, a year from when we started.
Helen Osgerby, Simple Shape and Little Nest Bakery