It's taken me some time to get around to actually writing this blog post and in all honesty, I was starting to think I wouldn't ever write it.
It is 2.50 am and I've just baked some profiteroles, I'm not ready for bed yet so I started the now nightly ritual of deciding which pointless time wasting activity to absorb myself in for the next couple of hours. I was going to do some cross stitching but I decided that actually, I'm ready to start putting some of my thoughts and feelings down in to words. So, I'm here writing this blog and hoping that I can some how bring everything together in a way that people will understand. I'll try not to blabber on, and I'll try really hard not to cry because I actually haven't done that yet. Surprisingly! I'm an incredibly emotional person, I'm not scared or ashamed to admit that because whilst it has often been a curse and a bit of a character flaw, it is also one of the things that makes me good at what I do. My customers, particularly my wedding couples, often say in reviews that I am approachable, friendly and, above all else, I am passionate. I think that's part of my struggle right now, I need something to drive me and ordinarily that would come from creating orders and meeting with brides and grooms, right now I don't have that. I've sought other areas to give me that same drive and to extract something from to keep my passion ignited but it is so hard. I do a weekly Live Bake Along on my Facebook page which helps enormously. It keeps me occupied and almost feels like socialising as I have interaction with others and I know it's helpful to those who join in every week, (I love seeing all of your bakes and there will definitely be more blog posts about what we've been up to each week!) I've also been baking loads just for fun which I haven't done in years! And I haven't baked cakes, other than for my children's birthdays earlier this month. In stead I've been doing biscuits and cookies and duffins and profiteroles, I've revisited some much loved recipe books by Mary Berry and Eric Lanlard and it has definitely fully relighted the flame in me for baking! I'm also planning a wedding but that is a story for another day.
April was set to be my busiest month of the year with five weddings, two big birthday cake orders plus my own children's birthdays too. All of that disappeared the week lock-down came in.
Throughout January I was overwhelmed with inquiries for wedding cakes, my first two consultation days of the year were fully booked and I some how ended up with double the number of weddings for 2020 compared to previous years. I was elated with how busy I was and excited to get creating all of the amazing cake designs I had ahead. By March the virus was dominating the press more with each passing day. One of my grooms contacted me to say there may be some issues with their Summer wedding due to the Bride working abroad. I still believed weddings would not be impacted. When social distancing came in I started to think that we were most likely heading towards a lock-down situation. I implemented strategies for coping with operating during social distancing and I had two orders collected the week before lock-down which were done without contact.
Then Boris Johnson announced lock-down.
There was a grey area, as a food business I could continue to operate offering collection or delivery with no contact but the non essential travel part of the restrictions posed more than a few questions. What it eventually boiled down to was quite simple; cake is not essential for life. By continuing to sell cakes and baked goods, I would either have to make a non essential journey to deliver orders or I would be encouraging and condoning non essential journeys by my customers for them to collect their order. I didn't feel comfortable with that. My decision was helped by the fact that my insurance company does not cover me during lock-down as they say we should not be operating. Some cake companies have made a different choice and continued to sell, some have adapted and switched to online orders. That was an option I was looking in to before lock-down came in and I'm working on it ready for when I open again. But, for now I am closed for orders. I have had a few inquiries and I've taken bookings beyond the lock-down in the hope that it is lifted by then. I'm missing that creative outlet, I'm missing meeting with brides and grooms and designing cakes for my customers, I'm missing my business. And I sincerely hope I still have one when this is over. I believe I have made the right decision in closing, I feel guilty every time I leave the house to drive to Tesco for our essential shop, I'm also helping to care for my Mum who is disabled and vulnerable and I seriously worry every time I drive to her home in case I'm stopped by the police. There is no way I could handle doing multiple deliveries even once a week, my nerves just couldn't handle it. There is also the issue of sourcing ingredients. This week I have struggled to buy eggs ready for my bake along on Friday, I eventually got some (during my daily exercise!) but if I hadn't been able to then I would have changed what we were baking on Friday or cancelled this weeks Bake Along. It isn't that easy when you have orders to fulfil.
Obviously the main problem with closing any business is that you lose your income. My situation is made harder by the fact that my husband is also full time self employed and as what he does is event based, he has no work right now and therefore no income. We also have two children who are now home 24/7 and they both had birthdays this month. It is an incredibly difficult situation and for the first two weeks I felt this immense weight on my chest. I was constantly on the verge of having an anxiety attack. I suffered with panic attacks when I was younger, they plagued me for about three years but I haven't had one since I was a teenager despite the fact that I have faced many very difficult periods over the last 16 years. That alone drove home to me how serious this situation was. Not once in my adult life have I really, properly worried about being able to feed my family or pay the bills. In March life in our household changed in a rather severe way, we found ourselves having to carefully budget every penny we had. Suddenly, paying the rent became something that would have to wait rather than an absolute above-all-else priority to be paid before any other bills. Our essentials came down to ensuring we had enough food, keeping the gas and electric going and having fuel in the car to get to Tesco and take supplies to my Mum and my vulnerable in-laws who are all having to self isolate for 12 weeks. Everything else would have to wait. We have adjusted quite quickly, we managed to buy birthday presents for our son Jenson, who turned 9 on the 5th of April and for our daughter Kallie, who turned 7 on the 11th (what awesome timing huh!) and the kids haven't really noticed anything different within our household. In fact, I actually think that for the most part they might be happier! They suddenly have us both home every day, we're going on walks together, watching films a few times a week, playing board games and sitting with them to do school work. Don't get me wrong, there's been shouting and tears from them both because they miss school and their teachers and friends and they were meant to have parties which they missed out on, (first year they haven't had one) and they do grow tired of each others company every now and again and start to long for some space but overall, I am so proud of how they're handling everything. They miss their grand parents and cousins, video calls help but they really want to be able to hug them. And I understand that, I might be 34 but I want to hug my Mum so badly that some times I think I could cry thinking about how long it could be before I get a hug from her again. And I haven't seen my Dad and his wife since November as they moved to Manchester and were due to visit in March but had to cancel because of all of this. By the time I do see them it will be the best part of a year since I last got a hug from my Dad and there were tears over missing him before all of this happened.
So, we have adjusted to making do with video calls to loved ones, I've even managed to Facetime friends and take part in a quiz and a Sugarcraft Guild committee meeting using Zoom. The kids celebrated their birthdays and actually had really great days, they still had a birthday cake they loved and we spent the whole of their special days together as a family which we don't normally get to do. I'm doing a Live Bake Along each week and baking for fun as and when I have the ingredients to do so. I am indulging in a few pointless time wasting activities to keep myself occupied, mostly colouring books and serial killer documentaries because, why not? I've also started the couch to 5k. We've just about got use to the financial impact although falling behind on bills isn't something I am comfortable with but we have learnt to accept that for now, we need to have fewer priorities than usual. The bills can be paid back once this is over and we're back on our feet again.
IF we get back on our feet.
Because that's the thing I have lost the most sleep over.
I have spent four years building my business from nothing except a name and a love for cake. That name now means so much more than I ever believed it would and my love for cake has only grown. I have achieved so much, accomplished things I never thought possible, I didn't know that I had it in me to aim as high as I have and to actually reach for goals let alone hit them. I've become a different person in so many ways over the last four years and that is completely down to my business and the people I have met. Without my business I almost don't know who I am.
Within a week of lock-down coming in, I knew that what my husband had been telling me for so long was 100% true. I work too much. Every waking moment is spent on my business, whether that's baking and decorating cakes or buying supplies, sourcing ribbon and toppers for orders or messaging customers, attending wedding fairs, updating my website, doing consultations, going to networking events, arranging classes, teaching, designing competition entries or watching tutorials...every minute that I'm not asleep I am working on Bake To The Future. Every. Single. Minute. On the walk to pick the kids up I'm on my phone reading messages, while I eat dinner I'm watching tutorials or speaking to other suppliers about photo shoots. I am forever multi tasking. For four years that has been my life, feeling guilty when ever I take even a single day off because of the backlog of messages and inquiries or fearing that without interaction on my social media, my pages will disappear. Constantly thinking of new ideas and planning ways to push harder and further towards where I want to be. I never stop. In four years, even during holidays, I have not allowed myself to truly rest and take a break, I never felt like I really needed a break. I didn't feel like I was struggling with the workload I force on myself. My husband knew though. He could see it in my face after yet another all nighter, he could hear it in my voice when I was talking about my next photo shoot and he could feel it when I said I didn't have time to watch TV or play a game with him and the kids.
I would love to say that this situation has taught me that I need to slow down but I'd be lying. I know I need to slow down but I won't because it scares me. My absolute biggest fear is failing, I don't want to let anyone down, I don't want my children to see me give up or give in. So I will keep on keeping on for as long as I have to and as much as I have to. Aside from that, I LOVE what I do and when you truly love what you do, it isn't really work. I mean, obviously it is work (my often aching back and the bags under my eyes can attest to that!) but it doesn't feel arduous. I love my business, I love designing and creating cakes, I love meeting my customers and I love the creative outlet that it gives me. I have bad days, even days where I want to give up but I always get over it. I know I won't take it easy when this is over in fact, I know that I will be working even harder than I ever have before. I can't afford to take it easy. Every day that I'm closed is a day that I'm losing business, every inquiry I have to turn away is a lost customer. Every day that passes is a day more for people to forget I exist. The strong customer base I've managed to build over the last four years could easily forget I'm here and not come back to me when this ends.
When you start a business the most difficult thing is ensuring people know you're there - visibility. It is vital for the success of all businesses. Once you have word of mouth it gets easier but people can forget about you if you aren't consistent. I've tried to be consistent over the last two years, I had a full time job before that so it was incredibly difficult and I couldn't dedicate as much time to the business as I wanted to. That consistency helped to get me to where I was at the start of this year, now I'm having to transfer 2020 wedding bookings over to 2021 which loses me a 2021 date that could have gone to a brand new booking. It has to be done and it can't be avoided, I am dedicated to the couples who have entrusted their wedding cake to me and my heart breaks for all of them as they've spent years piecing together their special day only to have it snatched away at the 11th hour and now many of them have another year to wait for their wedding day. But, it is hard to not think about the couples who should be planning their wedding now or those who are using this time in lock-down to find the perfect suppliers and because I'm not as visible as I usually would be, because I'm closed right now, these couples could easily overlook me or maybe not see me at all. The wedding fairs I would be attending are all cancelled or postponed which is a lost opportunity. My website is being posted to less often because I don't have photos of completed orders to upload. I'm not doing any photo shoots which would ordinarily boost my social media presence. I'm not attending the networking events I usually go to. My Facebook page is actually bucking the trend, I've got dozens of new likes and people are getting involved with my Bake Along every week. But my website visits have plummeted and my Instagram views are down too. Obviously with gatherings banned, people aren't planning parties so cake inquiries are going to decrease.
I just have to keep trying to maintain a presence in the World, make myself visible and ensure I'm not forgotten. I've worked too hard, for too long to let go of my business without a fight. I know that I have a bit of an uphill marathon to run when this is over and I'm preparing myself so that I can be first out the gate, so to speak. I'm keeping myself busy and focusing on tasks that I haven't had time to get to before. But, I'm also enjoying this time with my family, enjoying the extended lie in every morning, going to bed when ever I want to and having some time for me. I'm reading the books that I started years ago but didn't finish, I'm watching the shows that I hadn't had time for until now, I'm returning to hobbies that I use to spend time on before cake dominated everything, I'm learning new things and taking enjoyment from small things, I'm spending more time outside (how ironic is that!) and spending time actually looking after myself. I'm making the most of this time now, being able to do all of that while I can because I know that when lock-down is lifted and life starts to return to normal, I will need to work harder than I ever have before. And honestly, I can't wait but for now I am happy to spend some time just being Lou - mum, wife, friend, daughter, sister. The business owner and cake designer parts of me deserve a little time off. (Just not too much please!)
Take care everyone, stay safe and when this is all over you can celebrate with CAKE!!!!