JUST two years ago Francesca Barker had her bag packed and was as ready as one can be to go to prison. With hard work and a little bit of luck, she is now the proud owner of The Barker Bakery and winner of The Super Achievers Award for Business Newcomer of the Year at the age of 27. Anna Georgieva found out how.
Politics graduate Francesca was found guilty of committing fraud and it was only bound to get worse for her, when her sentence got suspended. Instead of a prison cell she was sent to rehab and mental health therapy and, believe it or not, a baking course. After having a little experience as a chef’s apprentice, Francesca was sent on a three-day bread-making course by her probation officer. Going with no expectations at all, she found herself leaving with a new passion.
That was the turning point in the young businesswoman and ex-drug user’s life when she left cocaine behind and became addicted to flour.
Francesca loved making bread from scratch so much that she kept practising and experimenting after the course finished. Making more bread than she or her family could eat, she started driving up to markets across Manchester and selling her creations.
It was clear there was something good there when the Barker bread sold out in just an hour nearly every time she took it out. “I loved baking bread and I was good at it. My cake making skills were always interesting and not so good but bread is my true passion! I knew I could do more with it so I started looking for opportunities. I got a catering job with the University of Manchester which gave me a professional kitchen and now I’ve been fortunate enough to get my own.”
Francesca’s dreams and plans for her own bakery may have started while driving around markets but they certainly went further from there. After coming up with the idea for The Barker Bakery, still on probation and having a fine of £8,000 to pay, the ex-offender needed an investor to believe in her bread.
After hours of browsing online for ideas, she came across a page offering young entrepreneurs the option of ‘crowd funding.’ All she had to do is explain her idea and wait. Surprise is an understatement for her reaction when she found out she’d raised £437. “I was so overwhelmed and grateful! People were giving £5, £10, £50. It was amazing to get so much support from people who didn’t even know me. I find crowd funding revolutionary and it’s great that practically anyone can have their moment and get a chance to start over and make it,” says the young baker.
The money raised by crowd funding was indeed what turned The Barker Bakery into a “real business.” After spending every penny of it on bowls, flour and business cards, Francesca finally had it all together.
I actually had a brand for my bread and I was so lucky to be able to go professional from what I could call ‘cute’ before, I suppose.
Being an ex-offender, you would think it wouldn’t be easy for Francesca to built her reputation as a professional. However, she hasn’t yet received any negative attitude and is only getting good feedback for her work. “Sometimes people are a bit cautious at first because of my past and I get it. I wouldn’t trust an ex-drug user on probation straight away either. At the end I only get positive attitude because I only do good things and I think that is the natural outcome.”
Driving around markets in Manchester, Francesca has already built a reputation for her bread. The greatest reward for the young baker is people’s reaction when they try the loaves and “fall apart”. They always come back for more and now she is known as “the girl with the suitcase” on the market.
“People were selling their products in fancy wicker baskets and I wanted to have a good image for my bread and present it nicely. So I looked around shops and online but they were just too expensive for my limited budget at the time. I was at Longsight Market when I found this beautiful vintage suitcase that is now the image of my bread! It only cost me £3 and now people come to me at the market saying ‘You’re the girl with the suitcase! We have been looking for you.’ It’s amazing!”
Francesca may have gone off the rails for a bit, looking for solutions for her problems in drugs and bad choices but she is doing much better now. Having seen both sides of the same coin, the politics graduate and ex-drug addict has a whole new perspective on things now. “Politics was always a passion of mine and that is why I did it at university. However, I didn’t fully understand politics and life until all that happened to me. In a way it was a good thing because it made me open my eyes. I believed that it was all black and white and the system was quite straight forward. Now, after all that I’ve been through, I fully understand how it works.
My life has gone a full circle – before I was reading about budget costs, probation procedures and now I’ve experienced it all and use everything I have learnt on my business.
After being given a second chance, Francesca is eager to give back and give others the same help she received. With hosting a baking festival in help of mental issues charity Mind and managing the Sackville Gardens market in the summer under her belt, she is still doing charity work when not baking.
At the moment Francesca is working with the National Probation Service to teach prisoners and people on probation the joy of baking and give them a chance for a fresh start. With Wigan and Burnley on board, her ambitions only go bigger.
The main goal now is that in five years there is a system of ex-offenders working for her and learning the basics of baking, and then going back to prison and teaching others. “People might say it’s silly but I believe something as simple and little as a three-day baking course can change someone’s life. It did with mine and was one of the best things that have happened to me. I honestly could not be happier,” shared the Barker baker.
Being at the right place at the right time has a lot to do with Francesca’s success, she believes. She has recently won The Super Achievers Award for Business Newcomer of the Year after following someone on twitter. One day she came across a tweet by Hilary Devay advertising the award and encouraging people to apply.
A few months down the line she was the last one in the competition. “I applied expecting nothing, just took a chance. I was completely overwhelmed when I got short-listed to the final two. It was even more when I won, it was like something taken out of a dream! Amazing! I’ve been so fortunate!”, shared the lucky baker.
It’s all going to get more exciting for Francesca from now on. In the next 12 months she is hoping to open her own shop in Manchester where people will be able to buy some of her special focaccia, her signature orange and chocolate bread and many more. When asked if she’d do more than bread. the Barker baker said she will stick to it for now. “Baking is the best thing for me, I’d never get sick of it. I’m going to stick to what I do best and keep making bread for now and then we’ll see.”
By Anna Georgieva