ALICE WILLIAMS - Founder & CEO of Luminary Bakery

Meet the Member: Alice Williams

Introducing long standing Cultural Partner and Founder and CEO of Luminary Bakery – the supplier of the delicious bakes we’ve been serving at Tea at Three for five years!

  • Luminary Bakery has welcomed over 200 women on to their programmes
  • 83% of the women who graduated from their programmes last year are now in employment, education or further training
  • Cakes ordered from the bakery generated 6,820 hours of paid employment for women in 2022

Introduce yourself & your business

I’m Alice Williams, founder of Luminary Bakery – we’re a social enterprise supporting women who’ve experienced violence and multiple disadvantages. | @luminarybakery

Can you please tell me a bit about how you came about and how it started and why?

Luminary started with me and some friends meeting women locally who were experiencing all types of disadvantage, being street homeless or experiencing domestic abuse, and I started volunteering with an organisation who were providing outreach services to women who were selling sex. All of those women were getting frustrated that they were stuck in their circumstances and there weren’t opportunities for them to move forward.

What we wanted to do was provide a way for them to earn a living and to imagine a different future and then be able to create that for themselves.  We started really small doing some baking workshops in a local women’s hostel where they were housed. That went well so we started to sell those products to generate an income for the women.

How did you end up with baking (as the product) specifically – what was the lead to that? 

So the reason we chose baking was purely practical. I’m not a baker, confession time, but my friends that I started Luminary with were keen home bakers. One of them was actually volunteering to cook meals in the women’s homeless hostel so she was already catering for them. And we knew each other because we worked in a cafe together.

That café could then be our first customer buying the cake and selling it. So it was mostly because we had some of those skills in our little team and because we had a way to sell those products.

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"Seeing the entire place being run by women that we've trained and therefore women that wouldn't have had a job otherwise actually running the show and kind of passing on their skills and passing on the baton - that's the most rewarding bit for me."

It’s been ten years since their bakery started. Can you maybe talk about some of the biggest challenges since starting the business ten years ago?

We’ve had a lot of challenges over the entire decade that we’ve been doing this. I guess there’s challenges in women’s lives that they’re trying to overcome. Most of the women come to us when they’re at a point of relative safety, but they’re still often at risk of violence still so all sorts of protocols need to be in place to keep people safe on site and to make sure that they’re well looked after when they go home as well. So that’s a big focus. 

In terms of organisational challenges, we’ve obviously had a huge amount of world events to deal with that all small businesses that have been going for the last few years have been battling against. And so financially, it’s been tricky – to run our business costs more than a normal business because we have all those safeguarding costs. We have lots of people employed where it’s their first job, so they need lots of support. We provide work experience opportunities where they’re not necessarily generating income for the business, it’s kind of a cost to the business to run those. But obviously that’s why we exist to enable women to have that first experience of the world of work.

And so it is costly and also making sure that we keep standards high of our product. It’s really important to customers that they get good value and delicious baked goods. And so we do have to make sure that even if we’ve got people in training, we’ve still got a really skilled team there who can keep those standards high. All of those things just make it quite a challenging business to run, but also a really interesting one and a really purposeful one.

So that was the last ten years – what would be your hopes and aims for Luminary Bakery for the next ten?

Looking ahead to the next ten years. We know that there’s women all over the UK, all over the world, who experience the types of circumstances that require the kind of opportunities that Luminary generates. So we’re keen to grow, keen to expand our work. We’re often oversubscribed for the training programs that we run and lots and lots of women on waiting lists. And then we can’t employ all the women that we train either, so we’re really keen for the business to grow so that we’ve got more job opportunities. There’s loads of ways we can do that: our online store means that we can ship all over the UK so that if that grows then that creates jobs in the kind of baking, packaging and production side of things.

If we grow our cafés and that creates more front of house jobs. So a few different routes to growth that we’re figuring out the best way to do that – but we definitely want to expand.

What would you say is the most important thing about the work you do? And what would you say the most enjoyable aspect (or highlight) of it is?

I think the most important thing about what we do at Luminary is creating opportunities for women. So everything, every decision that I make comes back to that. And in terms of the most enjoyable, probably seeing the outcomes of that and seeing women thriving. I love when I walk in and it’s one of the women that we’ve trained that’s then serving me my coffee and then I walk into the bakery and I watch one of the women that we trained years ago teaching a new woman how to do something. And then we’ve now even got some of the women that we’ve trained in head office as well. So, yeah, just kind of seeing the entire place being run by women that we’ve trained and therefore women that wouldn’t have had a job otherwise actually running the show and kind of passing on their skills and passing on the baton. That’s like the most rewarding bit for me, so probably the most enjoyable bit! 

When you aren’t working (which it sounds like is all of the time) what do you get up to? 

When I’m not working, if I can remember what that feels like. I love music, I’m in a little band with some friends which is a nice way to wind down and that’s fun. I watch a lot of TV and films. Trying to catch up with friends, I’m quite sociable and so I just love catching up with people and hanging out.

So you say you’re in a band – what kind of band, how did that come about and how long have you been going for? 

OK – band might be a stretch, I mean I’m in a little group of friends who like music and play music together. The band came about from just a friend who worked in that cafe where Luminary started from, and we wrote songs together because she works in a women’s prison. So we both were kind of seeing a lot of difficult things and hearing a lot of horrible stories. And she uses music is a way to process that. So we wrote some songs together and then started playing them. So lots of like female empowerment kind of lyrics.

And do you only write or do you sing or play instruments?

I have a go at percussion and harmonica – that’s my job.

One of Luminary’s shops is in Stoke Newington and the other one is in Camden. Could you give me some of your favourite local spots to the bakeries?

Stoke Newington – there’s loads of good stuff going on, great food places, obviously excellent bakeries and you’re quite near Dalston so in terms of going out for a night out it’s a good area. I mean dinner wise, my favourite kind of food is Italian, so probably (slightly farther afield) Gloria in Shoreditch. Then in Camden obviously you’ve got the market, so all sorts of amazing food from around the world. There’s a really nice stall that does Mexican food! 

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"It is so good to have that regular order because, particularly in our type of work, it's often quite seasonal, so then in creating jobs for women it's a bit unpredictable. So to have regular orders coming in means that I know I can book her regularly."

Second Home has been partnered with Luminary Bakery for almost 5 years now – Luminary have been supplying the cakes for our ‘Tea at Three’ ritual every week. 

Could you maybe just tell us a little bit about the sort of partnership that you have with Second Home and how having a regular partner in that sense is beneficial to the business?

Yeah, we’ve been working with Second Home for at least four years, it might be five years now, which is fantastic to have a long standing arrangement. We provide the cake for the fantastic idea of Tea at Three every month and for us it is so good to have that regular order because, particularly in our type of work, it’s often quite seasonal, so then in creating jobs for women it’s a bit unpredictable. So to have regular orders coming in means that I know I can book her regularly. Also, it being a co-working space gives visibility to Luminary’s work to loads of different people that would never know about us otherwise.

Tell us about a book that has had a big impact on you. 

It’s a book called Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson and it’s been made into a film. He is a death row lawyer and the way he believes in people, and the way he talks about things like when you get close to suffering, you can’t then not do something about that. So, he’s quite good at challenging people to get out of their comfort zones and make sure that they are exposing themselves to lifestyles and things that they wouldn’t otherwise necessarily come across to have empathy and to therefore try and make a difference for people. And obviously what an extreme life he leads. He’s a great storyteller and it’s just a beautiful kind of way of looking at people in the world.

I know you said you’re not a baker, but I would imagine that having worked around cakes for ten years, you might be quite opinionated about cakes 

That’s a fair assumption.

If you had to snog, marry, avoid three types of Luminary Bakery cakes what would they be?

I think my snog would be the really decadent almond cherry chocolate plant based because it is fantastic, but I’m not sure I have it every day. 

Then marry carrot cake because it is such a staple. And I think if I’m assuming this means you have to have it every day, right? So get your carrots in. 

I’m going to be controversial and say I’m going to avoid the lemon and blueberry.

[shock from interviewer] 

I know it’s our best seller as well. And I don’t know what everyone’s playing at – get the carrot cake. I love the flavours but I think it’s maybe a bit sweet, I don’t know what it is – it’s not my fave.

You can find Luminary Bakery in Stoke Newington, Hackney and then in Camden, just opposite the market. They also sell online, so you can buy cakes to be delivered to your house or your office. They also stock a few little independent stores – have a look online to see where Luminary is near you!

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