Setting Up Shop: The Dusty Knuckle Bakery

The Dusty Knuckle Bakery is a social enterprise; employing disadvantaged young people to help produce artisan loaves. Co-founder Max Tobias talks business, charity and fatherhood with The Early Hour… 

This article was originally published in October 2015

Where and when did it all begin?
We’ve been running Dusty Knuckle full time for a year. Prior to that, there was two years of funding, while selling bread once a week.

I had four different part time jobs. I was programme-managing a gang prevention project in Walthamstow, conflict mediating, and working for Kids Company as a behaviour management consultant.

Becca [Oliver – co-founder] and I have known each other since we were 11 and food is a big part of our friendship. A few years ago, we both reached a similar point: she used to work as a chef, 60 hours a week in a kitchen, went on maternity then knew she couldn’t go back to that – and I was getting frustrated working for charity.

I was obsessed with cooking from a really young age. I made bread for my grandad’s funeral, aged 13, and it was horrible. I remember feeling pissed off that all these adults were saying it was nice. So I got obsessed with baking.

I told Becca I might sack off the charity work and start a bakery – it started off as a pie in the sky thing – and she said she was really up for being involved. But then she moved to Italy for six months so the early stages of the business planning was us talking on email and Skype.

I’m not ashamed to say that business is the priority – we want to make profit as a company and compete commercially with other bread wholesalers

Becca told me to go to a pizza restaurant we know the owner of and ask to use the pizza oven really early in the morning. In exchange, I’d offer him sourdough loaves for the weekend.

I then approached Ben – the owner of E5 Bakehouse – and said I wanted to set a business up, with young people. So he offered me an internship, two days a week. I learned about making bread at scale and started doing a bake every week.

Since then, I’ve been in contact with different bakers around the country – done little stints, shifts here and there, with another couple of bakeries.

What makes it a social enterprise?
While working for charity, with young people, I got fed up with all the bureaucracy. I’d been working in kids’ homes and schools, then as the role progressed I became more of a fundraiser – making money, measuring outcomes – but working with fewer children.

It was shit. So I started to think of a new model of working that was self-sustaining. I also thought young people involved in violence as a way of establishing prestige in impoverished environments need to be taught to make money legitimately.

I wanted to work with these young people over a longer period of time. Even if it was just four kids a year – to take them from zero skills and prospects to understand what it is to be responsible, have people rely on you, swap labour for money.

Where did you set up shop?
We won a container in a competition. It was owned by a charity who asked for socially driven businesses to propose ideas for how it should be used. We were looking for a premises and someone said there was a bakery in South Africa in a container so we whipped up a proposal and won.

I then went to beg equipment from restaurants and shops that were closing down. We got loads of free stuff: catering tables, flooring, shelving units. We built up all the kit, put up funding applications and they were successful so we used that money to buy the oven.

It was freezing cold; we didn’t have a door. We were starting work at 5am, making 10 quid’s worth of bread. We’re still not really making a proper living but we’re talking to investors now and hopefully we’ll get some proper support for the company.

We’ve had two young people come and work with us in paid positions. They’ve both been personal connections from my network. There’s no formalised access route for young people yet, we just jump in and do it.

I’m not ashamed to say that business is the priority – we want to make profit as a company and compete commercially with other bread wholesalers. Because if we can’t do that, there’s no conversation about teaching kids responsibility in a workplace. It’s not charity; it’s a workplace.

Max DK working

How was it, setting up a business while you each had young children?
It’s been really hard. We’re lucky that our partners have been supportive but it’s taken its toll. I’m probably worse than Becca – I’m naturally anxious, and I have a tendency to dwell on things and talk things over, so my missus has definitely taken more than her fair share of the angst of everything.

My daughter, Lily, is three. There have been weeks when I’ve barely seen her. But then there are other professions you’d say the same thing about. Ultimately, we’re trying to build something that will last – that will provide us with a good living, and that we care about.

It’s been difficult, but it’s been amazing. I’m not questioning what I’m doing, as I might if I were an accountant working 60 hours a week for a big firm. But it’s hard to work weekends when you’ve been at work all week.

We didn’t pay for any childcare until Lily was two. Becca has a son, so we would do a day each week with both of our kids – one would work and the other would do childcare. That was before Lily started nursery, when she was two.

I’m indecisive and in business you have to make lots of decisions all the time

She does three days a week at nursery now, then grandma has her for two days. I wanted to spend time with Lily when she was small; it was important to me to get time with her.

What does an average day look like for you?
Once or twice a week I start work at 5am. I plan it that those days are Lily’s nursery days, so that Jessie (my partner) can take her. Her nursery is on the same sight where Jessie teaches.

The other two mornings I take her to grandma before going in. She wakes around 7am, we leave the house at 7.45. Pick up is a combo of me, Jess, granny and my dad’s wife – often scrabbling at last minute.

One nice thing about running my own business is that if me or Becca need to be somewhere to be with our kids – we find a way to make that work.

So I get to the container and bake sourdough loaves, focaccias, sweet apple and custard pastries and Chelsea buns – and as of six weeks ago, we’re selling coffee and sandwiches.

We make wholesale bread for local delis, coffee shops, restaurants, an organic grocery in Green Lanes, Mother Earth health food shops. We’re trying to get ourselves in a position to supply seven days a week and approach bigger places, like the OXO Tower Restaurant.

In theory, I finish at 6.30pm. But running a bakery means there’s no computer time – the only spare time is after 8pm, when Lily’s in bed. So I get home, hang out with Lily, eat some dinner, then do two hours of emailing.

We’re recruiting more people at the moment, trying to outsource some of the work: a bookkeeper, an accountant. We’ll lose some money but can focus on growing the business and getting our lives back a bit.

I try to make sure I’m in bed by 9.30pm if I’m baking. I used to get really anxious; I’d wake up every hour until the alarm went off. Now I read for an hour or so then sleep through.

Do you still enjoy baking?
I do if I can give it my full attention. Often, a day shift in the bakery means I’ll have someone coming in to talk to me about fridges, 10 phone calls to make – bitty things. So it can be stressful.

Bread production doesn’t wait for you – when the dough’s ready, you’ve gotta go; to stay on top of the doughs, sanitation cycles. It’s really hard to do that if you’re distracted by other tasks you’ve got to complete. And if you don’t get it done by 6 you won’t see your kid that night.

But if there’s not too much other stuff to do, we hang out baking; listening to music and it’s wicked.

Hardest thing about setting up a business?
My state of mind. It’s so full on, there’s so much to think about. I’m a bad decision maker, it’s my biggest weakness. I’m indecisive and in business you have to make lots of decisions all the time. I’ve found that fucking hard.

Also, not feeling competent. I’ve never worked for a company, let alone run one – I worked for charity and schools. So it’s hard to feel confident, you have to remind yourself that you’re doing a good job. And it’s hard to see all your friends being paid 6/7 times more than you are.

In the short-term, there’s no immediate payoff – working really long hours and getting fuck all money, plus dealing with the stress of it all. It’s difficult to see my mates, be a dad, exercise.

Then day-to-day: it’s difficult to write a marketing strategy and sales strategy when you don’t really know what that is. But I’ve lost count of how many people have generously given their time to advise us – it’s generally about just finding someone who’s willing to spend a few hours with you.

Advice for budding entrepreneurs?
The key trait of any entrepreneur is endurance. Because it’s fucking hard. And quite miserable at times. But if you can handle that – and you’ve got half a brain for maths – you’ll be fine. Make more money than you can spend and you’ve a business. Oh yeah – and remember to drink water.

The Dusty Knuckle
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Twitter: @thedustyknuckle