Hummingbird Bakery: Tarek Malouf

The American-style bakery founder talks start-up ambitions, inspirations and the challenges of growth

Ask someone if they’ve ever been to a Hummingbird Bakery and, if they have, their tales of sumptuous red velvet cupcakes will leave your mouth watering. The luxury, American-style bakeries have become infamous around London for sweet-treat lovers.

Inspired by brands such as Magnolia in the states, but primarily by home-cooked American baking growing up, founder Tarek Malouf wanted to create a bakery unlike any other in the UK, embodying American flavour and style.

As a response to what he believed to be a clear gap in the market, Malouf opened the first Hummingbird Bakery in Portobello Road in Notting Hill in 2004.

With a pledge to freshly prepare and bake each cupcake and treat on site, Hummingbird created a USP for itself that struck a chord with Londoners’ taste buds.

Today, the bakery has expanded into a chain, with five London stores selling an average of 22,000 cupcakes per week, a pop-up mobile bakery unit and an international franchise deal.

Malouf has also branched out from bakeries, sharing all of the company’s illustrious recipes in three bestselling cookbooks, enabling customers to create their favourite flavours at home.

And the brand continues to grow, with more London branches planned and national expansion in the pipeline, it seems Hummingbird’s all-American deserts are here to stay.

Talking exclusively to Startups at Sir Richard Branson’s Pitch to Rich event, Malouf opens up about taking inspiration from his family, the challenges of his mobile bakery on wheels business unit and plans for continued, moderate, organic growth.

How much of what you’ve achieved today was in your original plan? How ambitious was it at the beginning?

My original plan, I have to say, wasn’t very ambitious. It’s been over nine years now since the first shop opened and if I time cast my mind back I don’t think I thought I’d be opening more than one shop so it wasn’t an ambitious plan, with 10 shops, 20 shops. It’s grown on its own, organically.

What were your first major setbacks?

In the early days, there were no real setbacks. I was quite lucky but if I do try and remember I think it’s been stuff to do with staffing a lot. The first person I hired to work in the kitchen resigned a couple of weeks before the shop opened, so I had to find someone else relatively quickly. There were other normal things like the build of the first shop overran but I think all of those things are fairly typical, when you don’t know what you’re doing!

Do you feel it’s got easier from shop launch to shop launch?

With things like building issues – definitely – staffing is always a challenge but we’re much better at it now.

What was your elevator pitch for Hummingbird Bakery when you started out?

Basically I had an idea of bringing American baking to London and it was just a simple idea that I think we accomplished in the first shop, just having a few products really well made and baked on site.

You were inspired by Magnolia in the states, what did you take from the way Americans did business?

That was one of the inspirations; my real inspiration came from childhood. Even though I was born in London I went to an American school, we grew up eating American baked goods and sweets and desserts and I do have quite a few relatives who emigrated to the US and we used to visit them. That was my real inspiration, seeing what I had eaten there, the variety and what the trends were and I felt sure people here would like them too.

Where do you get inspiration now?

Well, that’s a good question. Quite a few places. Sometimes you can look through old recipe books and see what people have come up with in the past. For instance, about two years ago we did a cotton candy flavoured cupcake. Or it could be a Thai restaurant where I might have had a mango and coconut Thai desert; you think, how can we use those flavours?

International franchises have helped. How did you manage to do those first major deals?

I started getting approached by people who wanted to open a franchise of some sort pretty much from the first year of opening. It’s been going on and on – with lots of different people asking and then finally we spent we spent a good two to three years getting ready for it, as well as trying to run our normal operations at the same time. It was a huge undertaking. In terms of the actual deal – we were approached by a really good company. There was no middle man; they approached us directly. I liked what they did and the other brands they have – YO! Sushi, Gourmet Burger Kitchen and California Pizza Kitchen from the US – so they obviously knew what they were doing and we then went through the lawyers etc.

How many mobile bakeries do you have now and how are they going?

We have one – it’s a one-off for now. It’s a lovely unit – it produces a really good product but it’s a matter of finding an event for it every weekend of the year which is a bit of a challenge so for now just one is enough.

The last time we spoke to you, you said you were planning to take some private investment. You must have had some investor interest, is there any news on that? Have you taken any investment? Or is that still the plan for the future?

No, I decided that I like our moderate pace of growth. I never entered this business to open hundreds of stores which I feel would diminish the value of my product so I prefer to grow organically and open shops with the profits of existing ones. So for now I’m not considering it.

You have five stores now and the international franchises, what’s next for Hummingbird?

I’m looking for a sixth shop, still in London, and there will be two more shops opening in Dubai by January, February this coming year. I would also love to open outside of London [in the UK] but that is a bit of a logistical hurdle we still have to cross.

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