Meet Michelle Stratford, the founder of Planet Leicester Bakers; a micro-bakery with the Leicestershire community at its very heart. Planet Leicester Bakers harnesses the magic of making handmade bread to bring local communities closer together.
After over 20 years working in the charity and community sectors Michelle decided to change tact, launching her own business in 2014, from the very doorstep of her own home in North Leicestershire. Running an array of different Bread Clubs in partnership with charities, local care homes and the NHS, Michelle’s work has literally won awards.
To date, Michelle has been shortlisted in the ‘Heart of Gold’ category for The Small Awards, awarded second place in the Small Food Awards pastry category and came forth the bread category in 2018. Proving that when we shop small, independent the benefits can be far-reaching #ShoppingSmallHelpsUsAll.
We chatted with Michelle to find out more about Planet Leicester Bakers and the work they’re doing with charities:
What’s the story behind Planet Leicester Bakers?
I wanted to work for myself and use a skill I had already to bring change in and between communities. Bread is a great leveller as well as brilliant for creating relaxed, safe spaces for people to gather in. I have yet to experience any tensions in groups I work with. People visibly relax and focus on the process and absolutely love what they produce.
Amazing, so where exactly did your love for baking come from?
I was taught to bake bread by my mum and I’m a fourth generation bread baker. I’ve baked bread all my life off and on, but just starting up my own business has widened my knowledge and awareness of how our food generally has become ultra-processed.
I have always cooked from scratch (my dad is also a great cook) but now more than ever I avoid what I term ‘rubbish bread’, which often gives people stomach ache due to the fast process and unnecessary ingredients. I love to bake a really simple good windmill wholemeal loaf for everyday bread at home, but I do enjoy making ciabatta for customers – the very wet dough is lovely to handle!
What is your business doing to give back to the community?
As I mentioned before, funded community projects are a core part of the business, not an ‘add on’. We ran the NHS Leicester Bread Clubs project from last year, and the pilot for the Baking a Difference project.
We are members of the Slow Food Campaign and support where possible local and/or small producers of food, particularly less well-known produce, in order to keep it going. It also means we are mindful of the purity of products and impact on the environment (important for example in something like honey).
At the moment, I have a big care home community project, Baking a Difference, which we’re running with a partner charity, funded by the Big Lottery. We also have another project in the pipeline, but I can’t give details at the moment – suffice to say it has a very different focus!
Here are just a couple of the responses from those who attended the NHS Leicester Bread Clubs:
‘A great day! I intend to bake with my young son and to aim for healthy eating, making bread at home.’
‘Excellent training, get together to share ideas and bake bread, and have a conversation re mental health. Looking forward to sharing the knowledge with family and friends!’
’Enjoyed this very much, such an easy project to do. Had such fun!’
Sounds like the response has been really positive! What would be your advice to any other small businesses considering getting involved within the community?
Have a clear idea and purpose of why and how. Talk to local community groups who can help you to access communities and learn from them as to how to go about things. Be committed to true partnership working – don’t see it purely in marketing or image terms but truly want to have a positive impact. It is incredibly rewarding.
I also read that you use locally milled stoneground organic wheat flour. Was the decision to use locally sourced ingredients an intentional decision?
I do use Whissendine Windmill flour in my bakery (much of it is locally produced grain, but some is imported as the strength of the wheat isn’t always enough in the country). I also use flour from Shipton Mill in Gloucestershire as they have a range of lovely flours.
I use local raw honey from The Bee Farmer (David McDowell) in some breads and to sell on stalls etc and also, I purchase in season Amalfi lemons imported by the wonderful team at Gelato Village in Leicester.
I try to shop locally as much as possible, but to keep stock fresh (I only buy in small quantities) I have to be realistic. For community projects I use supermarket flour, partly because it’s important to prove to people that they can easily purchase the ingredients. I constantly weigh up the benefits of using organic from overseas (and therefore clocking up air miles) versus UK grains. In the end, where possible, I go for UK. These decisions are not easy. A perfect scenario is organic UK flour milled just right for each bread – but that is not easy to find always.
Finally, in line with the campaign, why do you think supporting small businesses is so important?
Small businesses are much closer to the communities they serve. They can ‘pivot’ more easily, responding to need and changing circumstances (if they are willing to do so).
Big business employs local people, which is vital, but small businesses bring great variety and vibrancy to the local area. And often they buy from other small businesses which support other small economies. They are crucial in bringing variety to our neighbourhoods and helping to build and nourish networks that care for our people and environments.