It’s been a year of profound change. Britain voted for Brexit. Theresa May became Prime Minister. And Donald Trump trumped Hilary Clinton to become President of the United States. Yet perhaps the most profound change of all came in the autumn, when the BBC lost The Great British Bake-off to Channel 4. With presenters Mel and Sue and judge Mary Berry deciding not to make the switch, the news sent shockwaves through the baking community.
When they gathered at Killearn in Stirlingshire for their photo-shoot for BQ Scotland magazine, it was the first chance that Gillian, Nichola and Linsey Reith – the trio of siblings behind Three Sisters Bake – had to discuss the Bake-off controversy. But these aren’t three ordinary bakers.
They opened their first café at Quarriers Village near Bridge of Weir in Renfrewshire in 2011 and added a second outlet at Killearn village hall in 2014. Turnover for their cafés and catering business has grown from £600,000 to £800,000 over the past year and its headcount peaked at around 50 staff over the summer – it’s a world away from 12 contestants standing in a tent with a pair of comediennes shouting “Bake” at them.
After school and university, each of the sisters had begun climbing the career ladder, with Gillian working in public relations (PR), Nichola in the pharmaceuticals industry and Linsey in recruitment. One by one, they gave up their jobs and returned to the hospitality industry, in which each of them had worked at different stages during school, university and between jobs.
“Since we were at university, we’d made noises about working together and potentially something to do with food and eventually baking,” explains Linsey, 32. “It felt quite natural rather than planned – Nichola was working as a pastry chef, Gillian was managing front-of-house for restaurants and I was working as a chef – so it made sense to combine those forces and come together in a café environment.”
Sometimes inspiration can strike like a bolt out of the blue and trigger that eureka moment, but other times it’s the slow drip, drip, drip of ideas that leads to the decision to start a business. For the Reiths, the journey was more evolution than revolution.
Nichola, 35, takes up the story: “I don’t remember there being one particular moment when we suddenly went ‘This is what we want to do’. It’s been something that’s developed from such a tiny seed of an idea and that we’ve talked about for so long that I don’t think any of us could pinpoint a certain moment.
“We all got on very well – not as little kids, but as teenagers – when most other siblings were tearing each other’s hair out, we quite liked each other and all worked together in jobs. I don’t think all three of us worked together at the same time in a job but we worked together in combinations – me and Linsey worked together in a pub when we were both finishing school, and then Gill and I worked together in a sandwich bar in America.
“It just grew from something that was very much just a pipedream – like saying ‘Oh, wouldn’t it be nice to have a house in the Bahamas?’ – to gradually over the years being something that we talked about more and more and more and went from being a wish to asking ‘OK, how are we going to make this happen?’.”
“We all spent a lot of time travelling during university and after graduating and all spent time in different parts of the world, each of which had unique and very interesting food influences,” adds Gillian, 37. “When Nichola and I both lived and worked in Australia, we were both hugely inspired by the café culture over there and the brunch culture.
“We had all started our working lives in a coffee shop down the road from where we grew up in Bridge of Weir and the cappuccino that was served in there was a real 1980s pile of froth – so going to Australia and seeing flat-whites for the first time was an eye-opener. I got a job in a coffee shop and got fired after half a shift because my Scottish coffee skills were so appalling in comparison.
“This was 10 to 15 years ago, so things have definitely improved in Scotland since then.
The travelling we did allowed us to see different parts of the world and how it could be done. We really wanted to bring that back to Glasgow.”
All three sisters were living in Glasgow’s West End at the time and began scouring the streets for a suitable location for their first venture. “We looked at Finnieston before it was cool,” laughs Nichola. “If we’d ended up there then we would have been trend setters,” chips in Gillian with a grin.
But they kept coming up against the same problem – whenever they found premises with the class-three planning designation they needed, the landlord wasn’t prepared to take a chance on a start-up business. Their Dad, Harry, a surveyor, suggested they should look at the former restaurant in Quarriers Village, which had recently closed.
Quarriers is a social care charity founded in Glasgow in the 1870s. Its village near Bridge of Weir was opened as an orphanage and cared for more than 30,000 children over the course of a century.
“Dad is the sensible mind in the family and we trust his judgement so much that we went to take a look,” says Linsey. “It was so much bigger than anything we were seeing in Glasgow for the same money. Instead of being one of the hip cafes in the West End we started to think about becoming a destination café that people would want to travel to from the city for a day trip.
“The scenery is amazing so people would want to make a day of it and have lunch and relax without the hustle and bustle of the city. We came around to that way of thinking and had our hearts set on Quarriers Village.”
The café was an instant hit – but proved to be a lot of hard work. The sisters were working 100-hour weeks to keep up with demand and, with only two other part-time members of staff, their Mum was drafted in as a ‘helper’ too.
“One of the biggest challenges was trying to start with an absolute shoestring budget,” remembers Gillian. “Our kitchen was fitted with domestic cooking equipment; we had an Ikea induction hob, which didn’t work at all in a commercial setting.”
Despite the hard work, the siblings stuck to their founding principles of using local produce and making all their food by hand, as opposed to buying-in ready-made stock. Linked with their talent for marketing their business through social media, Three Sisters Bake flourished.
As well as running the café, the business branched out into catering for weddings. After the sisters provided the feast for nuptials in Killearn in 2013, the village hall committee invited them to take over the running of its café and to become the in-house caterer for its venue.
“The offer came in about a week after a directors meeting at which we’d agreed not to take on any new projects for the next year,” laughs Nicola. “We’d just finished running our food truck at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow and our first cookbook had just been published.
“We’d wanted to have an events space like this, but we thought it would be in five or even ten years’ time. But we all realised that this isn’t the kind of opportunity that comes around that often so we went for it.”
“It’s such a nice community, really similar to our one in Renfrewshire,” says Linsey. “It’s about the same distance from Glasgow.”
“We have another one in the pipeline – but it’s top secret at the moment,” adds Gillian mischievously.
Nichola points out: “Having three directors, we’ve always known that we can’t just have one café – the business was always going to be bigger than that. The business has grown to a point where it’s a nice comfortable size and so what we can do now is be choosy about what we do.”
Also in the pipeline is a central kitchen, from which the growing chain of cafés can be supplied with food. Gillian says it is “very likely” to be in either Inverclyde or Renfrewshire. “At the moment, all of our baking and savoury prep is done at the cafes,” adds Nichola. “Without losing any of the artisan quality to it and still producing everything by hand, we want to do it in a centralised place. We can then continue to have the best quality, but in a number of places.
“If we continued to open cafés and had a separate team in each place making the cakes and savouries then the worry would be that standards might slip. But if it’s centralised then it means we can keep control over processes.”
The Scottish Manufacturing Advisory Service (SMAS) and Business Gateway have been giving Three Sisters Bake advice on scaling-up and even arranged for the siblings to visit Finsbury Foods factories.
“We were like three little kids in a chocolate factory,” smiles Nichola. “Even though we’re unlikely to ever grow to that scale, there were plenty of lessons we learned that we could use in our own business.”
The sisters have become the poster girls for Business Gateway – literally. Having taken advice from the service since day one, they were invited to star in a television commercial and accompanying print advertising campaign.
“The TV advert was an amazing opportunity,” nods Gillian. “It’s nice sometimes to be asked to do these things and it does feel a bit glamorous and exciting for a day and you get to escape the day-to-day fire-fighting.
“The feeling of being asked is hugely exciting and flattering and flabbergasting because in many ways we still feel like we’re those three girls who started the business five years ago, wet behind the ears and naïve, with no idea of what we were doing apart from having this burning desire to create amazing food.”
When it came to setting up their own business, the siblings had some inspiration from other members of their family. Their Granny and Grandpa ran a newsagent and sweet shop at Kirriemuir in Angus. “Granny used to make tablet and millionaire’s shortbread and her tablet was legendary,” explains Nichola. “People would drive there to buy her tablet. Any money that she made from those wee things was her own to keep. Nowadays it doesn’t sound like much, but 50 or 60 years ago the fact that she wanted to find a way of making her own portion of money was quite a big thing.
“Granny was very into baking in general and our Mum was a home economics teacher. I don’t think we realised when we were growing up that it was unusual to have a Mum who didn’t buy biscuits and cakes but who would make them herself. Every meal we ate was cooked from scratch. We thought that was normal. There was no Mr Kipling or Dolmio allowed in our house,” giggles Gillian.
Following the recession in the early 1990s, their Dad and his colleagues also set up their own surveying firm, providing another role model for his daughters as they began their business.
Looking to the future, a second cookbook is being written and, over the summer, the sisters became brand ambassadors for Graham’s, the family-run dairy based in Bridge of Allan in Stirlingshire. The siblings have created 26 recipes using Graham’s products and have starred in a series of videos for its website and social media channels. We still have a vision of what we want – we called it ‘Three Sisters Bake World’ as a joke,” laughs Gillian. “The big all-singing all-dancing version of what we do. That was the vision that we started with when we opened our first café and it’s still what we aim towards.
“Now it’s about trying to work out how to get the capital funding and the location. We realise the realities of achieving that are much more difficult – the blinkers are off and we’re not a naïve start-up anymore.”
“We want a bigger and better version of what we do at each of our cafes – so bigger café space, with more space to display our food so people can see what they’re ordering,” explains Nichola. “More space for the retail and craft side of the business too. Our Mum works with us on the craft boutiques – she makes a lot of the baby gifts and products.”
Linsey adds: “We want to have our own-brand deli produce as well and develop our own lines of packaged produce that we can sell. A couple of years ago, I went and studied ice cream making for a week at the University of Reading and since then we’ve always wanted space to have our own ice cream making plant. It would be nice for people to be able to come and see ice cream being made from start to finish.
“We have these notions and it would be amazing to have the space and time and money to let the public come and share all of that with us.”
Sitting with the sisters in the light and airy café at Killearn, it’s clear they all get along really well together, with the laughter and jokes flowing as they recount the adventures they’ve had along the way. But has working together as colleagues changed their relationship as sisters?
“We’ve just come back from a family holiday on Arran and our Dad put a ban on us talking about work,” smiles Gillian. “It forces you back into ‘sister’ mode, so you don’t lapse back into work chat.”
“Which is almost impossible when you see each other every day and the place you see each other is work,” adds Linsey.
Nichola says: “It’s forced us to have a more honest relationship with each other – not that we didn’t have that before. We had a friendship before – which we still have now – but we’ve realised brutal honesty is what you need in order to have a good working relationship.”
“We’re more up-front with each other,” nods Gillian. “We tend to agree on the bigger picture and the overall direction of the business, like taking on an industrial space and building ‘Three Sisters Bake World’. The disagreements tend to be more about the small things, like changing the layout of a café, because we all have passionate views about where the sink should go.”