“She was a customer and she came in to buy bread,” says Mina. “The first time she tried my sprouted buckwheat bread she cried because she never thought she would be able to eat another loaf of bread again.
“It’s quite overwhelming when you’re used to going to places and not being able to eat anything, to suddenly walk into a place where you can eat everything and you don’t need to be scared that your allergies or intolerances are going to flare up.”
Mina and Sam are both coeliacs and can’t eat anything with gluten in. After they got talking, they also discovered they had a shared passion for baking and in 2016 they became business partners setting up the Wildcraft Gluten Free Bakery in Leeds.
The pair quickly gained a loyal, and ever expanding, customer base that can’t get enough of their gluten-free products – everything from artisan sourdough breads to freshly fried dairy-free doughnuts.
They have won a string of awards and in September last year they opened a vibrant cafe (after customers helped raise £15,000 through a crowdfunding campaign) in Meanwood, an up-and-coming Leeds suburb.
Last year, just days after the first national lockdown, they also started an online mail order business, enabling them to send their tasty bakes to people up and down the country. “We found, probably like a lot of businesses that went online, that in the first week of lockdown we sold more online than we would probably sell in an entire month in the shop,” says Mina.
Fast forward 18 months and their online orders topped the 10,000 mark. Not bad for what is, in essence, a small, boutique business.
Mina and Sam run Wildcraft together – Mina handles the bakehouse and the online sales, while Sam runs the cafe side of things.
It all started after Mina, who is originally from Kenya, came to Leeds in 2007. It was while here studying for her PhD that she began making jams and other products from foraging which she would sell and this then gave her the idea for the bakery.
She started experimenting in her kitchen at home in Moortown and selling her goods at farmers’ markets, which would invariably be quickly snapped up. When someone she knew said a unit had become available at a small industrial unit nearby, her husband encouraged her to take it.
As well as being a working mother, Mina has ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). “One thing that tends to happen to people with ADHD is when you get a passion you want to know everything about it, and I hyper focused on all things gluten free.”
She would practise for hours at a time, making hundreds of loaves of bread and trying to perfect the recipes. “I strongly believe the fact I have ADHD is what has allowed me to create the kinds of products I’ve been able to create, because I didn’t give up.”
Mina is quick to credit the rest of the team, though, which includes seven other bakers, among them Keith Austin, a baker with 40 years experience who has been with Wildcraft from the beginning. “I was a home baker and everything I’ve learned about baking as a ‘real baker’ I’ve learned from Keith,” she says.
Whenever the team creates a new product, it goes through a rigorous set of tests. “The bread, for example, needs to be soft, you need to be able to make a sandwich with it, you need to be able to spread butter on it without it disintegrating, and you need to be able to freeze it and defrost it without it falling apart. And, of course, it has to have flavour,” explains Mina.
“It’s about using the right grains, using the right processes and knowing how to blend things and how far to push things, and I think that’s where we’ve made waves in the gluten free-market.”
Gluten-free products have become far more accessible in the past five years or so, but it tends to be things like biscuits, cakes and brownies. “It’s a bit of a running joke among coeliac people that the one thing you will find that’s gluten-free wherever you go is a brownie because it’s easy. So all the low-hanging fruit has been harvested as it were, and what’s left is the stuff that’s incredibly technically challenging.”
That category includes things like gluten-free sourdough bread which Wildcraft has perfected.
Mina hopes to emulate the success of Bettys and its emphasis on quality. “We decided we weren’t going to compete with people who can make mass-produced bread in quantity for not very much money. What we’re going to do is give people what they can’t get, a hundred per cent handmade loaf.”
The proof, of course, is in the pudding and if their lockdown doughnuts, which they started selling online last year, are anything to go by, then they’ve hit the mark. “We were releasing doughnuts every Sunday evening and they’d be gone within minutes. A thousand doughnuts would just disappear within 15 or 20 minutes,” says Mina.
Now, they’re gearing up for a hectic Christmas, with their gluten-free panettone, mince pies and recently launched stollen already proving popular.
And despite the long hours, Mina is looking forward to it. “Last Christmas it was in amongst all the restrictions and it was mayhem because we didn’t know what to expect from one minute to the next. But this year we’re really excited, it’s going to be our best Christmas... it will be mostly me on the panettone,” she says, laughing.
Not content with expanding their product range, Wildcraft has also helped to launch a monthly vegetarian farmers’ market outside its cafe which is already proving popular with locals.
The business is firmly rooted in its community but with a desire to make gluten free bakes accessible and affordable to everyone. “We’re basically two people who love food. Neither of us can have gluten and we thought we’d open this business so we could make lovely things that we enjoyed and share them with other people, and we really seem to have resonated with so many people who wanted something better than they could buy in the supermarkets.”
Its success, says Mina, is the result of a series of happy accidents.
“The bakery began in my dining room but I wouldn’t be here doing this if Sam hadn’t found me. We’ve motivated each other to keep going, and when I look at it now I can’t believe how far we’ve come, because when I started all I wanted to do was bake a few cakes…”
wildcraftbakery.com. The next farmers’ market is on December 18.