A richly rewarding business venture
With the support of Lord Alan Sugar, Alana Spencer’s bakery and confectionery business is fast making waves. Neill Barston reports exclusively
Ever since she was a teenager, self-taught chocolatier Alana Spencer dreamed of turning her personal passion into a full-time career in the confectionery and bakery world.
When the Welsh-based entrepreneur gained the chance to impress on The BBC TV series The Apprentice two years ago, she grabbed it with both hands and ended up winning.
“I was the underdog of the show,” admits the series winner, who says it just wasn’t her style to be overly pushy as with many of the contestants on the reality screen series.
Her quiet, yet effective approach on the series ultimately paid off, as she claimed the prize of £250,000 to help ignite her fledgling bakery business within the UK and further afield.
While not everyone who has won the series has gone on to experience commercial success, last year’s winner Sarah Lynn, whose business Sweets in the City is fast gathering momentum, proved there is a market for creative confectionery businesses.
As for Spencer, her Ridiculously Rich by Alana bakery brand has the backing of the man behind the Apprentice, Lord Alan Sugar, who recognised the series winner’s potential.
In his assessment, the recipe for her venture’s success lay in creating a network of brand ambassadors, and “cakepreneurs” promoting the company’s products.
Among its core range are indulgent chocolate brownies, salted caramel slices, and chunky rocky road, which remains another favourite with British consumers.
Another major area of focus for the business has been the ‘to-go’ segment of the market, with a key product launch of new bar range of snack bars unveiled at the Speciality and Fine Food Fair at Olympia in London last month.
The release of her latest range was another marker in the company’s development, with the venture’s turnover already around £500,000, based around its core team of Spencer, alongside her boyfriend Bart Thomas, a design and marketing specialist, and Stacey Smith who managing the brand ambassador programme.
“Every step of doing the Apprentice was a shock in getting through each week, but I am 100% glad I did it. I think it was a pretty mad and gruelling experience, but what I’ve gained from it has been really amazing,” explains the entrepreneur, who adds that the real gap in her knowledge had been in knowing how to take her business venture to the next level, which the show has now given her.
The 26 year-old, who lives in Aberystwyth, says she had a real interest in enterprise that influenced her early work projects.
“I’d first started the idea of my business when I was 13, when we moved to Wales – and being out in the middle of the countryside meant we had to make our own entertainment that meant I ended up cooking and learning how to make chocolate.
“I found it was really rewarding making and selling products from our place,” explains Spencer, who admits that while she may not have been especially academically-inclined in her teens, it was her strong nose for business that spurred her on.
As she explains, it was a chance encounter with TV chef Jamie Oliver that would prove a major moment in her life, and sparked her inspiration to set up in business.
“I met him (Oliver), when I was about 12 visiting the Good Food Show in London – his team was just about to set off home for the day, but he stopped to talk to me for about 15 minutes about how to start making a business, which was really nice of him,” recalls Spencer of her earliest days that paved the way for her eventual route into the bakery and confectionery world.
While her company is making tangible initial headway, there have been significant obstacles to overcome. The most challenging of these came when the business hit the headlines at the end of 2017, when Trading Standards had threatened action over labelling of products, that it judged had not been clear enough.
“I learned from that that you just have to check, check and check again on matters like that,” adds Spencer, who says it offered a steep learning curve.
Though she admits that her mentor Lord Sugar had not been impressed by the incident, he instructed her to put procedures in place to ensure there would not be a repeat offence.
According to the young entrepreneur, it is this growing network of bakery and confectionery ambassadors that are making a substantial difference to the awareness of her ranges.
“It was Lord Sugar and his business partner Claude who came up with the idea for our ambassadors, which is completely different to how I had thought the business would progress.
“But it’s been great, and the fact that Lord Sugar is very much straight to the point and focused on the business has been very inspiring, as I perhaps am not always like that.”
As she explains, working with an established Welsh bakery in Flint for the company’s production requirements has been instrumental in keeping costs down during the initial start-up phases.
Keeping a grounded approach, she adds that both her boyfriend and her ambassadors’ manager have done a great job in keeping her on the right track, which has freed her up to engage with her favourite side of the business in devising new recipes.
“For a fair while we were just focusing on tray bakes, but we’ve now expanded out into doing cakes and grab-and-go bars too, so there’s been some real growth in our business. I’d say 100% that our most popular product so far has been the mint crunch, which is a mint tiffin with chocolate.
“While there’s definitely more pressure on us now, I’m just really enjoying seeing the company grow,” adds the entrepreneur, who says a combination of determination and focus is fast paying off for her as the company continues to make inroads into a competitive market.