KITCHEN TABLE TALENT
THIS MONTH: THE GOWER BROWNIE BAKER
We celebrate home-grown entrepreneurs who have turned their hobby into a thriving business. This month: Gower Cottage Brownies
We celebrate home-grown entrepreneurs who have turned their hobby into a thriving business
aside from the distant bleat of newborn lambs, all is quiet in the village of Reynoldston, home to Gower Cottage and its eponymous brownie brand, which is steadily gathering fans up and down the country. But all is not as it seems. Step inside the unassuming stone cottage on the corner of the green and you’ll be greeted by a flurry of activity as local ‘elves’ busily bake chocolatey delights in preparation for the Easter rush.
“This is the epitome of a cottage industry,” laughs founder Kate Jenkins, surveying her kitchen, where stacks of neatly labelled cardboard boxes await delivery to customers nationwide. Remarkably, when Kate and her husband Rob bought the cottage 13 years ago, they would never have dreamt they would set up a business named after it, or any business at all for that matter. At that point, Kate, originally from Scotland, and Rob, who had grown up surrounded by the hills, valleys and broad sandy beaches of the Gower Peninsula in south Wales, had just returned from a five-year stint in Sweden, having moved there for Rob’s job. While abroad, Kate had focused on raising their two sons, Ioan and Angus, now aged 14 and 16.
It was only after they returned to Rob’s home country that Kate’s in-laws, who lived nearby, suggested that she start selling her devilishly good chocolate brownies in the community-run village shop. These deliciously gooey, crispy creations – the secret recipe for which she’d developed when using up storecupboard ingredients – were already a big hit with her sons, so she thought she would give it a go: “I felt that if I could just get £10 to buy my own wine, I’d feel a real sense of achievement.” Despite her humble intentions, her brownies were a huge hit, proving popular with tourists, their reputation spreading quickly via word of mouth.
One of the charms of living in a Gower village is its remoteness, but this isn’t always conducive to growing a business. So, to get around this, Kate realised she would have to post her creations to potential customers. Not sure whether this would even be possible, she fashioned a parcel of brownies and sent them to herself, waiting with bated breath to see whether they would survive the journey: “We were expecting to open a box of crumbs but they arrived back in perfect condition.” It turns out that, unlike crumbly cupcakes, a brownie’s denseness lends itself to long-distance travel, another benefit of its simple appeal – something that Kate is keen to stay true to: “I don’t do a lot of flavours – all the ones available now such as Oreo or Rolo drive me nuts. This is a true brownie: crunchy on top with a squidgy centre.”
With no prior experience, Kate approached running a business the same way she approaches life in general – with a healthy dose of common sense. Keeping things straightforward, the only initial costs were ingredients: “Then I’d sell the product and have enough to buy more,” she explains. A local woman created a website (the same one she uses today) and Kate typed a press release before popping copies inside boxes of brownies and sending them to the editors of major magazines – one of whom claimed hers were ‘the best he’d ever tasted’.
It seems somewhat improbable that during the recession a baking business should flourish, but Kate feels the economic downturn may actually have contributed to her success: “People were really thinking about where to spend their money and in uncertain times it’s nice to know who you’re buying from.” Pristinely packaged in crisp tissue paper and tied with a signature brown bow, the bakes have proven a popular present. “Our motto is: ‘Instead of sending flowers, say it with brownies.’ I love flowers, but when I had the boys, they were all I got – no one has that many vases. Plus, all I wanted to do was eat,” she laughs. “It’s lovely because giving our brownies has become a tradition. I know people who’ve been getting them since they were children and have since eaten them at their weddings.”
Today, Kate has sold brownies to more than 20,000 happy customers. “They’re the perfect product because each time they’re ordered as a gift, they’re re-marketed to a new person, who will order them for someone else.” The rise of social media has also
been instrumental in growing the business’s profile – and Kate’s enthusiasm and charm have seen her attract a significant following. “One of my customers told me: ‘There’s this thing called Twitter – you need to be on it.’ I’m not very technical, but I took to it like a duck to water.” Whether on the internet or in real life, Kate’s wit and warmth have helped Gower Cottage Brownies fall into the hands of some seriously well-heeled buyers – including film director Richard Curtis and his wife Emma Freud (who she met via Twitter), the cast of the BBC drama Merlin and the entire Welsh rugby team (rumour has it their pre-match snack is always a brownie – and Kate likes to think she assisted in the Grand Slam win in 2012).
“I’m lucky because a lot of producers create fantastic things but don’t like to talk about themselves, but you’ve got to be able to sell yourself. One of the reasons my venture has done so well is because I always put myself out there and tell everyone what I’m doing. I don’t see it as selling, I see it as talking,” she says.
The long list of accolades keeps on growing and last year, as well as being flown to Japan to sell her products in the country’s equivalent of Harrods, Kate received a call from Wimbledon. Now, each June, bundles of Gower Cottage Brownies grace the white-clothed tables of the centre court lounge: “I’m in a little cottage in Wales and now I’m supplying Wimbledon! I pinch myself daily about how far we’ve come!”
But while business is booming, Kate is adamant she doesn’t want to run a factory: “People ask if I want to stock supermarkets, but I absolutely don’t as we’d lose our authenticity.” It’s been over a decade since she sold that first brownie in the village shop, and now Kate’s running a small empire. While she has outgrown her original oven, it’s heartening to know that, despite huge popularity, Gower Cottage Brownies are still being made in Gower Cottage – a true cottage industry if ever there was one.
Find out more at gowercottagebrownies.co.uk.
ABOVE Kate’s brownies, made using her own secret recipe, are still being made in Gower Cottage, the home she moved to 13 years ago
ABOVE Kate also sells a range of brownie butters; she posts her beautifully packaged brownies out to customers across the country BELOW Originally from the Gower area, to which the couple returned after a spell in Sweden, husband Rob helps to manage the business