Cupcakes, say the cognoscenti, have had their chocolate chips, been ousted by delectably dainty divas once known as monks’ navels. Yes, we’ve entered the ‘Macaroon Age’ now, where ground almonds, sugar and egg-whites are cooked to circlets a couple of sizes up on 50p pieces, then sandwiched with butter-cream.
Miss Macaroon, a small Birmingham firm at the top of a fire-escape in a pre-Victorian factory estate, sends forth trays and trays of its goodies daily to online fans and bakeries. These are currently guests-of-honour at high-end launch parties for brands like Adidas (in Pantone colours), have appeared embossed with the Karl Lagerfeld logo, and the orders are already in to beguile guests at future openings of Pandora luxury jewellery stores.
Rosie Ginday, a lissom and lovely 31-year-old Asian woman of Sikh background, runs Miss Macaroon as a Community Interest Company, one of about 168,000 undertakings in Britain which, in return for expert advice when starting up, pledge to help the 18-24 age group fallen on hard times by offering employment and training.
These are the young people most often overlooked. Some have been in care for years, others are the depressed youngsters from so-called ‘problem families’, weighed down by absentee baby-fathers, debt, homelessness, even criminal records.
Rosie’s small staff can turn out thousands of rainbow arrays of macaroon confections – but only after they’ve mastered the art and accepted work disciplines like punctuality. There’s no coercion used, no question of “do this or you’ll lose your benefits”.
Candidates who reach requirements must be desperate to succeed in whatever career they choose. Then their eyes will be open to the possibilities of learning afresh, of starting all over again. No recriminations and no lectures. But no clock-watchers and mini-shop stewards need apply. “I want to tell everyone the benefits of CICs,” Rosie says. “I’ve launched several training programmes for it, I’ve met brilliant people through it. Ten years ago I worried that the marginalised were offered few incentives. I went to the Third World to work and discovered a lot to be done both there and here.
After school in a Coventry comprehensive and then a Fine Arts degree from Leeds Metropolitan University, Rosie was left uncertain of her future. “I realised I’d spent so long learning other people’s theories of life that I’d had no time to experience it alone,” she says.
“That’s how I ended up in Taiwan, teaching English and failing to learn much Mandarin. If Miss Macaroon – her business, not Rosie – had a particular moment of conception, it probably came when she met her first Taiwanese beggar. “Of course I wanted to help them, but there was nothing long-term for them,” she says. “No education or training.
“I’m no longer religious in any way, but Sikhism had inevitably left its mark on me. As a little child, I’d go to the temple, copy all those praying, then rush down to the Langar, the temple kitchen that feeds all-comers of all faiths on prayer days, and I was astounded to see that men could make chapatis as quickly as women slapped them out.
“In most faiths, there’s a food tradition – Christians have their Eucharist. So there I was in Taiwan, flirting with Buddhism, and still a bit sad that I wasn’t in-putting to our planet. With the Buddhism that fired me for a time went a strict vegan and vegetarian regime, and I set up a small pop-up restaurant. It went well but I knew I was living in the dreamy bubble world of an ex-pat, wonderful but static, everything too self-centred. I had to get out.”
Then an illness in Indonesia sent Rosie scurrying back to Coventry, but by now she’d worked out a career-path. Our best experiences, she decided, sprang from eating with family, friends, the people we loved. What could be better than helping those who felt trapped by events earn their livings in the food industry?
Then reality bit. To start a Taiwanese cafe required just a tiny room, table and hot plate. To see the upmarket delicacies Rosie wanted to produce meant getting qualified. Off she went for an interview at the University of Birmingham’s College of Food, where she was told there was a two-year course, even a three-year course.
Too long for Rosie. She asked if the college would issue her a certificate if she completed the course by cramming for a year. They told her it couldn’t be done. Rosie did it.
Next stop was a training place at the Michelin-starred Purnell’s restaurant in Birmingham, where she fell under the Glynn Purnell spell, worked 60-hour weeks, found a new family and new foodie ideas.
“Your colleagues become family because you see more of them than your kith and kin,” she explains, “but that Purnell time made me understand the importance of perfection in cooking. Get something wrong and you must chuck it. Glynn doesn’t allow customer-offerings ‘to get by’. It’s either gorgeously right or scraped into the bin.”
Next stop was the Hyatt, in Broad Street, where she redesigned its tea menu, dropping traditional scones, Battenburgs, and eclairs for the utterly indulgent, totally frivolous, painstakingly beautiful that she knew those who take tea demand.
“They wanted fun,” she explains. And she gave it them with little cream-filled pastries that aped volcanic eruptions, raspberry-and-pistachio tarts, unctuous chocolate tortes and, guess what, macaroons. Back she went, while still at the Hyatt, to ask the School of Cookery to lend her table-top space to make macaroons on her afternoons off. They agreed and, as far as Rosie can remember, she sold her first macaroons at a Moseley Farmers’ Market after Birgit Kehrer, another foodie philanthropist who runs Change Kitchens to help the homeless, offered her a small table in Moseley Exchange.
By now, Rosie felt her macaroons were the way ahead. She was supplying wedding favours, even macaroon wedding cakes and macaroon towers. And a contract she landed to supply macaroons to almost two dozen luxury handbag companies convinced her that her ideas were on the right lines. The big break came at the end of 2010 when she took her business plan to employ, train and help the young who are often written-off as unemployable to a Birmingham Business in the Community’s version of Dragons’ Den.
She won, and is still using its prize – pro-bono support from Shoosmiths, KPMG, PwC and Danks Cockburn. Two years later, after she’d run workshops for the young unemployed and launched a mobile app for home bakers, she won a commended award at the Social Enterprise West Midlands Awards, then, in the same year, she scooped the Business in the Community Collaboration Award for her work with marginalised young.
With backing like this, she started her search for premises, discovering a deserted music studio, knowing a kitchen and storage space could be carved from its detritus. Birmingham City Council’s Enterprise Catalyst Fund gave her a match fund grant to move in. And now, Rosie’s kitchen, cool store-room, and the macaroon equivalent of a wine cellar (tall shelves full of trays in paint-chart colours) is rejuvenating the once-forgotten workplace in Hockley, Birmingham.
By now, marginalised young people were dropping into her charity-funded workshops, and were encouraged by her enormous interest in them. “This work has taught me so much I’d never even thought of,” she muses. “I’ve had youths and young women here who’ve been perpetually late, a pointer to laziness, I’d thought.
Not so. They’re late because poverty-stricken homes with no employment patterns never think in terms of buying an alarm clock. Get them to explain this, and everything falls into place.”
And Rosie’s future? “Macaroons for the moment, then new products in the same field. And absolutely no gluten in anything I sell.”
She has another search on her hands. Soon, she hopes, she’ll be opening a city centre French macaroon and luxury hot chocolate shop, staffed by the youthful seeking new beginnings.
Four years on from becoming a fully-fledged company, Miss Macaroon’s CIC-status means it’s regulated by the Community Interest Company Regulator, as well as Companies House. She says: “This makes sure we’re not committing fraud and are, in fact, sticking to the social aims as we promised.”
Meanwhile, arms as big as cured hams are flashing to and fro as ‘D’, a former London gang-member once sentenced to more than four years for violence-related crimes, squeezes the palest mauve butter-cream into matching macaroons.
“My mum tore her hair out over me,” he says ruefully, almost lovingly paternal as he ministers to the morning’s produce. “She had visions of my early death because I’d mucked round at school and made the wrong sort of friends.
“I came to Birmingham for a fresh start. I’ve my own small flat and I’m learning every day. It won’t be macaroons for me, I’m more the full English breakfast chef. A little place with loyal customers is what I really pray for. Rosie’s made everything a possibility.”