A young North Yorkshire chef with a passion for baking is planning to do for brownies what Krispy Kreme did for doughnuts. Ruth Campbell gets a taste of some of his combinations
GEORGE WELTON started baking the moment he was big enough to hold a wooden spoon. From just three years old he accompanied his mum to the cookery classes she ran at a local after-school club, where he loved to get stuck in and get his hands dirty.
Little did his mother Valerie realise that this early introduction to the joys of baking would lead to her son launching a successful career with his own brand of brownies when he was just 18. Six years on, George’s Brown & Blond company makes up to 12,000 brownies a week, selling to restaurants, cafes, shops and delicatessens, as well as at farmers’ markets and country shows, throughout Yorkshire.
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Having started out with just £500, a second-hand domestic oven, one brownie tray and his granny’s 50-year-old Kenwood Chef mixer in a small workshop at the family smallholding in Cattal, between Harrogate and York, he has gone on to invest £25,000 in a fully-equipped modern bakery in a modern industrial unit, where he employs a second baker. But with turnover about to hit £350,000, he is looking to expand to even larger premises and plans to distribute his sought-after brownies further afield.
George, who is in the bakery every day, still loves getting his hands dirty and admits that he can sometimes still be as messy as when he was a youngster. “When I am messy it can be a complete tip, but I always clear up after myself,” he says.
George has clearly lost none of the enthusiasm he had as a little boy. “I eat, sleep and breathe brownies and don’t seem to think about anything else,” he laughs.
It is hard to say what makes his rich, fudgy brownies and blondies (made with white chocolate) so special. But George swears by top-quality natural ingredients, including locally-sourced butter and eggs. He uses the best Belgian chocolate and fresh fruit compounds, with most of his range being gluten-free. He tries and tests every recipe, making slight adjustments each time in order to get every recipe just right. “I experiment until I get it just as good as it can be. We put fantastic care and attention into everything we do,” he says.
He has worked on more than 100 flavour combinations and no ingredients are out of bounds. Some of his most popular bakes include chilli ginger, Turkish delight, pecan and amaretto, lemon meringue blondies and sour cherry with bourbon. “We soak the cherries for two weeks,” he explains.
Latest developments include a popular millionaire brownie with a central layer of caramel and chocolate on top. “And our peanut butter blondies and triple chocolate salted always go down really well.”
George and his baker tend to brainstorm over flavours in the pub. “After a few beers, the ideas tend to get a bit wilder. All these crazy combinations come out. We’re planning to try a tobacco brownie next, using extract of tobacco.”
Sometimes ideas don’t work. “Passion fruit was awful,” he says. But he is happy to try out bespoke brownies for customers, including one using Earl Grey tea for a café. “We have also been asked to make a blue cheese one.” But he drew the line at bacon: “I love to experiment, but that just sounds too gross,” he says.
When George first left school at 16, inspired by his mother who, as well as being a very good home cook, ran her own cake-making company, he originally got a job as a trainee chef.
“I always got involved in the kitchen at home, where mum taught me the basics. What I loved was creating something with the raw ingredients, from start to finish. It was fascinating, a little like magic for a child. That’s how it all started for me. I was hooked and never wanted to do anything else.”
His dream was to work in a Michelin star restaurant, but the reality of working in the industry as a commis chef in a local gastropub wasn’t what he expected. “I fell out of love with it very quickly. The hours are so unsociable and the way you get treated wasn’t for me,” he admits. “I wasn’t very good at being told what to do.”
It was when he moved to work in a café in Harrogate with Michelin star pastry chef Wendy O’Brien, who used to work at Le Gavroche, that George found his passion for cakes.
Descended from the famous Hillaby family of Pontefract, who established what was, at one point, the biggest liquorice factory in the world, George confesses that he has always had a sweet tooth. But he also appears to have inherited some of his Victorian forebears’ business acumen
Keen to do something for himself, he started to try out his flavoured brownies in the café and they flew off the shelves. Within the space of a few months, it went from an idea to a business. With typical teenage bravado and with no other financial responsibilities or commitments, he went for it. “This was the time, if any, to do it. It felt almost like a calling,” he says. At first it wasn’t easy: “I was just an 18-year-old boy knocking on doors with samples, trying to sell to delis, cafes and restaurants. It was hard to get taken seriously. It didn’t take off straight away but, very slowly, I got there. Setting up the business was the hardest thing.
“It took a lot of hard work and persistence to get off my feet. I had no finance behind me and couldn’t afford a website or marketing, sometimes I couldn’t even afford stock. The money I took from customers would go straight into buying ingredients.”
For the first few years, he made a small profit, but, living and working from his parents’ home, he didn’t have any overheads, otherwise he would have been out of business.
Ironically, his working hours are longer now than when he worked in the restaurant. Often starting in the bakery from 4am, during the country show season he regularly works an 80-hour week. Over Christmas, he was turning out 17,000 brownies a week. “I seem to spend all my life working,” he says. “But I love it.”
George does most of the deliveries himself, with a little help from his dad, a retired chamber of commerce chief executive and his sports therapist girlfriend, with whom he now lives in Leeds. “I also still like selling direct to the public. I get a real buzz when people like my brownies,” he says.
His parents have always been extremely supportive. The youngest of six children who have gone on to enjoy varied careers all over the world, including as a jockey, lawyer and air steward, George says: “I can’t thank my parents enough for encouraging me to do my own thing and for being so supportive.”
The idea of specialising in brownies appeals to George on a number of levels. Apart from the fact that they last up to two weeks and so have a long shelf life compared to other fresh bakes, he says their flavour actually improves after 48 hours. They also freeze well, which appeals to many of his customers.
He has no desire to diversify: “Brown & Blond is now a brand. Just as Krispy Kreme is known for doing nothing else but doughnuts, we just want to do brownies and do them really well. We want to be the very best at what we do.”
He may be supplying places like Leeds University, the recently opened £9m Macmillan cancer centre in Harrogate and some of the larger chains of bars and restaurants in Leeds, but George aims to go further. “We have almost saturated this area with our brownies and are now trying to find distributers to help us go further afield,” he says. “Manchester is our next stop.”
Website: brownandblond.co.uk; tel: 07826-558821