From the oven to a Dragons’ Den

Catherine Scott talks to a former dinner lady with big business ambitions.

FIVE years ago mother-of-two Allison Whitmarsh was a school dinner lady. Now she is getting ready to appear in front of some of the country’s top entrepreneurs in BBC2’s Dragon’s Den with her cake-baking business ProperMaid and in particular her Christmas Dinner Cake.

“I can’t believe how far we’ve come as a business and how popular our ‘traditional cakes with a twist’ are becoming,” says Allison, who started out by baking from home and now employs 13 people.

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“Last year, we were unveiling our Christmas Dinner Cake to Harrogate foodies, this Christmas the cake has got us on to a prime-time television show. Fingers crossed that we get a big slice of investment too.”

The Christmas Dinner Cake, which caught the eye of the programme’s planners, contains all the festive trimmings (minus the turkey) including carrots, parsnips, cranberries, Christmas spices, chestnuts – and even sprouts.

After 20 years in the food manufacturing industry and working as a school dinner lady, Allison decided she wanted to move her career forward. At the age of 40 she decided to become a cookery teacher.

But while studying hospitality management as Huddersfield University she became inspired by a module in the course which required her to come up with a business idea, resulting in the birth of ProperMaid.

She also took advantage of grant aid and business mentoring offered by the university Business Mine initiative.

“I had a 16-year-old son at the time and the thought of teaching 30 of them put me off a bit and so I decided to give ProperMaid a go.”

In July 2008 she started baking from home with just one customer.

Within 18 months the business was turning over £80,000 following the takeover and refit of a former carpet shop in Marsh, Huddersfield, and had employed six local women on flexible working patterns who shared a passion for baking and the aspirations of the ProperMaid brand.

“Offering flexible working was important to me as I really struggled when my children were young.”

In October 2011 the business moved into a newly refurbished 1,700 m2 unit at Heritage Mills.

ProperMaid make “proper” cakes from “proper” traditional recipes using innovative added twists. Their branding slogan, “Posh cakes make in Yorkshire by ladies who bake!” reflects their originality with a down-to-earth local focus and base.

“We use locally sourced fresh ingredients and a local business supply chain to manufacture and package our products, using traditional artisan production methods with no artificial ingredients or preservatives,” explains Allison.

“We always retain the ‘home made’ origins and values of our brand as we continue to grow. Our signature, award winning ‘dandelion and burdock’ cake was developed to a tribute to our town, and source of our inspiration.”

Allison learned to bake from her friend’s mother.

“My mum didn’t bake although my gran did but it was when I went round to my friend’s that I would bombard her mum with questions.”

For Allison baking is a way of life and she is looking forward to expanding the ProperMaid brand both nationally and internationally.