Biscuits couple turn bad luck into fortune cookies

Award-winning SK Biscuits from Ripon now supplies some of the country’s top hotels. But just two years ago it was a very different story. Catherine Scott meets Nicky and Robin Jaques.

Nicky and Robin Jaques the owners of SK Biscuits.

Two years ago Robin and Nicky Jaques found themselves out of work and with no roof over their heads.

Now they have a thriving business making biscuits for some of the country’s top hotels.

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“My parents decided to sell the Sawley Arms where we both lived and worked,” explains Robin,

“I never thought I would be looking for work again at the age of 55 after 30 years’ running pubs and in the midst of a recession.”

But this talented and resourceful couple were not likely to be down on their luck for long.

Chef Nicky had already started to sell many of the items she cooked at the Sawley Arms.

“People would ask where we got the biscuits and the chutneys from. Of course I made them all, and so we decided to start making them to sell in the pub.”

And so when they left the pub, the couple thought there was a gap in the market for handmade artisan biscuits.

“We’d always worked for ourselves. We didn’t have any money but we managed to get a unit on the Sycamore Business Park near Ripon and bought a van for a few hundred pounds,” says Nicky.

“We had two customers who came with us, G & T’s Ice Cream Parlour in Risplith and Olivers Pantry, Ripon. We did lots of markets as we really love interacting with people.”

Nicky would develop different flavoured biscuits, mainly shortbreads, and Robin was the salesman, van driver and office manager.

“We’d never thought about hotels,” admits Nicky.

“We were thinking mainly of delis and farm shops as well as the farmers’ markets.”

But fortune had different plans for the couple’s Sawley Kitchen business.

“We fell into it mainly by default,” continues Robin.

After someone working at Swinton Park bought some of their biscuits from a stall in the then Hand Picked Hall in Ripon they received an invitation to give a presentation at the prestigious Masham hotel.

“It was the most scary presentation we have ever done,” says Robin.

“There was an entire panel of staff judging our biscuits and giving their opinions.”

But they got the business and soon hotels across Yorkshire and the entire UK were queuing up to have SK Biscuits in their rooms.

They now boast more than 70 hotels among their regular customers, including one five star hotel in London which cannot be named.

“We never expected it,” says Nicky. “We still sometimes have to pinch ourselves.”

As a result in two years Sawley Kitchens has moved from one unit on the small after recently knocking through to the next door site.

They employ five full time staff and another three part-time and will be looking to recruit some more in the summer.

The expansion has meant the Jaques have been able to create a dedicated a pastry room and a development area where Nicky experiments with different flavours of biscuits.

“I really love the creative side of the business,” she says. “I love coming up with new ideas and trying them out.”

When I visit the SK Biscuit Bakery Nicky tests some of her new range on me.

“What do you think these are?” She asks excitedly of a delicious looking biscuit, but with nothing particularly distinctive to give me a clue.

I feel slightly under pressure to get it right. I have to think for a moment and then I get it.

“Mint!” I say triumphantly.

“Yes,” says Nicky.”It was a request from one of the hotels. It messes with your head doesn’t it?”

Her passion is infectious and her excitement is heightened as their daughter Laura who lives in Lanzarote is expecting their first grandchild any day now.

They also have a son Daniel in the armed forces.

“It’s bad timing, as we have never been busier,” says Nicky of the impending arrival.
She hands be one of her signature rhubarb and custard shortbreads.

“I wanted the tastes to come in three distinctive layers,” says this alchemist of the biscuit world.

“I wanted it to be like the sensation people get eating a rhubarb crumble, first the crunch, then the custard and then the rhubarb. Amazingly it works. And so it goes on. It seems there is nothing you can’t put in a biscuit including a peanut butter one, created for the Tour de France in Yorkshire last year.

And it’s not just biscuits, there are meringues of all shapes, sizes and flavours and Nicky reveals she has just a matter of days to come up with a savoury cheese biscuit for a customer.

But she seems excited rather than daunted by the prospect.

It is hard work and their never ending and infectious optimism which has seen this workaholic couple come back from the brink and have success. Nicky, however believes their success is down to their recipes which go back more than 200 years.

“I started out at King’s Bakery in Ripon which used to be owned by Bettys. When the King sisters died they left their recipes to Sheila Crossfield who is in her 80s now and she shared them with me.

“There are no preservatives and additives and we never compromise on quality and that is our secret to success,” says Nicky. “Sheila is still involved today and she helps us with the blind testing.”

They may have come a long way in two years and have more plans for the future, but Nicky and Robin are in no danger of getting carried away with their success.

“We will always do the markets,” says Robin showing me a wall chart with seemingly every farmers’ market in the country on it. “It keeps you grounded.

“We never take it for granted.

“We have lost everything before and we know it can happen again.”