Should you find yourself at Bristol Temple Meads railway station and in need of a hand laminated pastry and coffee fix, take a clamber down the narrow steel staircase to the arches beneath and you’ll be well rewarded by the bounty of Hart’s Bakery.
Harts Bakery is a well loved, artisan bakery-cafe which sprang up eight years ago, just as the bakery revival here in the UK was finding its stride. Founded by chef Laura Hart, the inspiration for its unusual location was the peppercorn rent and regular footfall. Hart began her endeavour on a shoestring, and nearly ten years on, now employs a large team which serves Bristol with artisan baked goods from a business bearing her name over the front door.
Hart’s trajectory is testimony to a modern day success story: work hard, build a business, share the parenting – it is possible to have it all, maybe just not all at the same time. Adding another ball to her juggling arc, Hart recently become a mother for the first time. Enter Lily, Hart’s buoyant daughter of two years. Having spent over 15 years building up her career and business, Hart is now able to concentrate on being a mum, whilst still keeping a hand on the tiller at the bakery. Her partner and husband of 15 years, Pete Young plays a considerable role in making this possible as the couple pull together and share both work and home life duties.
Hart came to food relatively late. Aged 21, she wrote a letter from her home in Ireland to Bristol based chef, Barney Haughton to see if he had any openings at his restaurant, Quartier Vert. Despite having no formal training, Haughton recognised something in Hart and invited her to join his brigade. “I’ve never forgotten the opportunity Barney gave me,” says Hart, who describes the restaurant as family run with good food at the heart of everything they did. Clearly this is an ethos which Hart has carried with her and is apparent in the bakery today. As is the norm in the catering world, Hart worked long days with 6am starts and late finishes. She found her feet in the bakery, making bread and pastries for the restaurant and regularly supplying the Queen and Prince Charles when in residency at High Grove.
Who could wear the dirtiest apron.
Via Haughton, Hart’s career took her to Bordeaux Quay, a vast restaurant on Bristol waterfront and a massive leap of scale. “Bordeaux Quay was a great experience but a long way from the small family restaurant I was used to,” says Hart. A stint in a tapas restaurant and a deli followed before Hart was part of the opening team at the Clifton Lido. “I learnt so much here including baking in a wood oven and totally fell in love with Middle Eastern cooking which are probably the flavours I turn to most often when cooking at home.” However it was an extremely busy kitchen and after 10 years in the industry, the buzz of restaurant life began to wear off. “It was the physicality of it, the long hours and in an incredibly macho environment, best described as who can work the longest, be the toughest and wear the dirtiest apron.” When the opportunity of redundancy came around, Hart was ready for change and decided to branch out on her own.
“I wanted to start a bakery,” recalls Hart, “Bread and cakes are an easy sell and can make people’s day a bit brighter.” Beginning in a small, rented kitchen, Hart rapidly built up a following and needed to expand. A new premises proved elusive and it was not until Hart was about to abandon the search and accept an offer for a new job, that she came across the railway arches of Temple Meads. “It’s a bit like that old adage,” says Hart, “When you stop looking, you find love.”
Hart began her new venture on a tight budget and invested in just an oven, a mixer and a couple of fridges. “Everything else, we cobbled together,” says Hart, “It was a very functional space with next to nothing: a few plastic bowls, some scales and the right attitude.” Hart took advice from Ben MacKinnon, founder of London based E5 bakery, “He said, stop worrying and make some bread – as long as you’re producing something, the other stuff is less important. And he was right,” says Hart.
Real food connection
There are no walls between production area and public cafe space at the bakery. “I wanted an open kitchen where the customers could see the chefs and bakers at work throughout the day, rather than the team working through the night behind closed doors,” says Hart, “I can show the reality of food production so that customers can connect with it. The process takes time and we offer something personal with food at the heart of our social interactions.”
Eight years in and the bakery now employs 22 people. “It’s bit of a shock to be this size,” says Hart, “The original business plan called for just three or four staff.” The people who work at the bakery have enabled Hart’s business to fly and she talks clearly with admiration for her team, “There is nothing better than to employ people who I feel are better than me,” says Hart, “I’ve started the fire and with that one idea, my team have given it a life of its own.”
Hart has opened up opportunities for others: through her hard work and vision, she has created a positive space for both her team and her community. In turn, new openings roll out for Hart. Having lit the fire for others to run with, Hart is now able to focus on another project – parenthood, to which she commits herself with as much verve as she did building up her bakery.
Modern parenting and a joint venture.
Of her husband, Hart says, “Pete left his career in engineering and put his energy into the bakery – he’s been amazing.” Together, the couple have been able to share the work load and become parents for the first time. “By working together, we have more flexibility,” says Hart who is still hands on at the bakery two days a week and remains involved with the overview of the business.
Opportunities are limitless.
Reflecting on advice for newcomers to food, Hart says, “Look for opportunity and consider less traditional routes. Mainstreams into cheffing are not as necessary any more as kitchens these days look for experience and attitude counts for a lot.” Hart urges ambitious novices to “Have a go and don’t be afraid to ask for help.” Of her experience, Hart says, “I’ve found other women in the industry to be really generous with their time and advice. When people come to me for help or work experience, I always remember being back at that same point and try to accommodate them. I remember the few lucky opportunities that I had at the start of my career. Food is amazing like that, if you’re willing to work hard, the opportunities are limitless.”
Who inspired you to become a chef?
I’ve never really considered myself a chef, more of a cook and particularly now as a parent I take inspiration from my mother who was an amazing home cook and I’m quickly realising just what a task feeding a family is and what an amazing job she did
What did you have for dinner last night?
My best meals usually start with a few leftovers – a little bit of roast chicken and vegetables from a weekend roast made into a pie.
Favourite sports team
Favourite what? Sport has never featured very highly for me
Best cook book you’ve ever read
I’ve got shelves full of cook books but rarely follow a recipe. The Moro books are the ones I dip into most for ideas and inspiration
Favourite chef ever
Barny Haughton. Will every year that passes running my own food business the more gratitude and respect I have for him. He managed to guide and inspire while giving me the freedom to find my own path – I only hope I can do that for some of the people who work for us.
Ever dated a chef? How did it end or are you still together?
Favourite meal to cook for yourself
Turkish eggs – poached eggs with yoghurt, LOTS of brown butter, chilli flakes and salt. Mopped up with flatbread
How many hours sleep do you get?
As many as our toddler will allow
Best meal ever
A ‘Berber omelette’ cooked in a refuge in Morocco. The first year the bakery was open we closed over Christmas and did a long trek in the Atlas mountains – a much needed break and everything tasted amazing after a days hike
Favourite clothes to cook in
Whatever I’m wearing – I usually don’t bother with an apron but then wonder why all my clothes are covered in flour, grease and tomato sauce
Most treasured kitchen tool
A wooden spoon Pete made for me. It’s the perfect shape and I use it for stirring everything
What would your superpower be?
Never ending patience – that would probably solve most of my stresses of a juggling a bakery and small child!