My path towards becoming Miss Macaroon began with a bit of stereotype busting.
I grew up in Coventry, and my first job was as a waitress. The city had a large homeless population and, after my shifts, I’d stop by and chat to them. In the media, these individuals had been demonised as wasteful and feckless people who deserved to be on the streets – but getting to know them turned that image completely on its head.
For example, one young man had gone away to university, but his mother had passed away in a house fire – he’d lost everything, and had ended up sleeping rough. Those sorts of personal stories had a huge impact on me. Then I found out that one of my close family members had been in care when he was young, which explained why he struggled with certain aspects of life.
In my mind, I felt things clicking into place and the essence of a drive began to take shape. I wanted to do something for people who had been in similar situations that was far more sustainable than handing out tips and staff food.
During a spell of teaching English in Taiwan, I set up my first business: a vegan and vegetarian restaurant-cum-arts space that I founded with a Canadian friend. It was a huge confidence booster – and I decided that the way forward was to create amazing food while training up young people in key culinary skills.
Back on home turf, I picked up my chef qualifications at University College Birmingham, then went to work in the city at the Michelin-starred Purnell’s Restaurant. That led me to another role at the Hyatt Hotel, where I redesigned their afternoon tea menu – a task that gave me a flash of inspiration: I’d set up a single-product business and take out the customer-facing part, so I could just focus on training people while making great food.
Or, more specifically, great macaroons.
The thing about macaroons is that they’re very process-based – but getting a top-quality shell is actually quite an exacting task. That makes them an ideal focus for training and skills development. I started Miss Macaroon in 2011 and we acquired our own kitchen in 2013. We now have two shops and our products appear in a variety of retail outlets, including our own Miss Macaroon stores.
In the summer of our first year, I worked with three young care leavers to develop the Macaroons That Make a Difference training course – so, we started out with the skeleton of a skills plan and evaluated its effectiveness as we went along. The feedback from the care leavers was invaluable in those early stages, and really helped us to refine the programme.
That September, we launched a more evolved version of the scheme, and that set the tone for what followed: every time we run a programme, we pick up feedback from our trainees on what has worked and what hasn’t, and use it to hone the content. In more recent years, we have bolstered that process through interviews, surveys, focus groups and annual social impact reporting.
Our trainees are constantly helping us to develop our programme – we have gone from a two-days-per-week, four-week course to four days per week across eight weeks, including a mandatory work experience period. Over the past four to five years, we have fleshed out the programme to encompass Wellbeing at Work sessions with a counsellor, plus content on personal safety, ensuring that it’s truly holistic. The programme was always designed to build skills and confidence – but in light of an increase in young people’s mental health needs, we have responded to that in our training.
Within that mix, leadership skills are key. One of the main things we get each trainee to do is lead a team. For an individual who has struggled at school, has probably been told that they’ll never amount to anything and has never worked in a kitchen before, being put in a position of leadership can be quite overwhelming. But we talk them through the entire process, and it can be absolutely transformative. It’s essentially a hand-holding exercise to develop skills – sometimes overtly, sometimes by stealth – in ways that enable our trainees to overcome self-limiting beliefs.
If we can help people excavate these incredible, untapped skills and then encourage growth to a point where they can share their capabilities with other people on their team, that’s a huge breakthrough – because for many of them, being in that position of a leader and mentor may not feel natural at all.
Our current cohort of trainees includes single parents, people on the autistic spectrum, others with issues around mental health, alcohol or drug addiction, individuals who have been either homeless or through the criminal justice system, and people who are struggling with their gender identity or sexuality.
A social enterprise like ours is a great context for providing these people with a supportive environment in which they can bring their whole selves to work and discover capabilities they didn’t know they had. I’m convinced that if all kinds of businesses committed to allocating just 1% of their time or procurement budgets to social enterprises, it would completely transform the UK.