'I realised that something was missing in the British confectionery market'

From a crumbling Paris apartment to the shelves of Harvey Nichols: how one entrepreneur turned a passion for sweet treats into a thriving web businesss

When I finished my A levels I moved to Paris. I wanted to train as a pâtissier and chocolatier, which I did, eventually, but not before indulging in a lot of typically Parisian nonsense such as getting sacked from French bistros, crashing scooters and moving into the top floor of a crumbling apartment block.

I finally enrolled at the L’ecole Médéric (a Parisian cooking school), just me and a dozen 18-year-old lads. It was there that I learned the art of buttery croissants, glossy chocolate tartes and filthy French swear words.

After qualifying top of the class I moved to London and began working for a luxury chocolate company. It was then that I realised something was missing in the British confectionery market. In Paris I would make four different types of marshmallow a week. They were used in the famous gateaux royal, brought along to dinner parties or served as a petit four. But in England they were just pink and white puffs. I started experimenting after work with different flavour combinations, using fresh fruits and herbs and spices. Some were successful, some less so, but after a while I found the right combinations and realised I had created a product that tasted unlike anything else.

I never set out to be an entrepreneur. I just learnt a craft. Eventually I managed to blag a Saturday market stall on Portobello Road and started to sell the marshmallows I had developed. I would make them at night and work on the stall on a Saturday.

That was four years ago and a lot has changed since then. My Marshmallowist marshmallows are now stocked by Selfridges and Harvey Nichols, I have my own bakery and have taken on fantastic staff to work alongside me. I’ve just finished my first recipe book, which comes out early next year, have some really exciting collaborations and I’m finally starting to feel as though I might just be getting there.

For years, when I worked in bakeries and kitchens, I had to be up at the crack of dawn. Thankfully I don’t have to do that anymore. I wake up at 7.30 and I’m in the bakery by 9. Being a “marshmallowist” sounds quite soft and fluffy but I seem to spend most of my day carrying out extremely heavy lifting: attaching large mixer bowls to a one-tonne Hobart (food preparation machine), fixing broken strings on my ganache cutter or lifting 25 kilo bags of sugar from my van.

The marshmallow process takes three days, from chopping fruit to make the fresh puree, to whipping up the sugar, pouring , setting, cutting, conditioning and then packing.

Our online shop sends alerts to my phone so as soon as someone places an order. It comes straight through to the kitchen. Making sure that customers come to our online store and are happy enough to order again is really important. Seventy percent of my business is through our web shop, so I’ve had to quickly get out of the chef mindset and think about the design and creative aspects of the company.

I take all the photographs for our Instagram account and and other social media, so I always have to remind myself to stop what I’m doing and take a picture of it. It isn’t something that I gave much thought to before, but over the last year it’s become increasingly important. It’s also a great way of connecting with food lovers, food producers and chefs. Being in a kitchen all day can be quite isolating, so being part of an online community makes it a lot more satisfying.

Events take over a lot of my evenings. I offer pop-up stands and “s’more stations” for corporate parties, weddings and street food markets. If I’m not setting up at one of these then I’m catching up on emails, invoicing and accounting. This side of the business has really crept up on me. At first it was easy enough to manage, but as the business has grown I had to get my head around spreadsheets a lot faster than I would have liked.

The perks of the job are incredible. I get to decide who I want to work with and how I want things to look, sound and, of course, taste. I also realised that I couldn’t do it all by myself, so last year my sister Jenny came to work with me. Being able to do this together means that the downsides (the lack of money and social life) aren’t quite so hard.

It seems like there are a lot of entrepreneurs who are moving into the food business. That’s great for growing the industry, but it’s very different from being a chef, creating your own products and growing a company for the love of food rather than the love of success.

A lot of people assume that they can get someone else to make their product for them, make it for a cheaper price using poor-quality ingredients and underpaid staff. I would rather work an extra five hours a day myself than not pay someone working alongside me a living wage.

I think it’s becoming harder for artisan producers to get a break in the food industry when there are so many former city workers making cynical attempts to cash in on their craft and creativity.

Oonagh Simms

The GuardianTramp

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