Cake maker Anges de Sucre
Reshmi with a cake for her most important client: her six-year-old.

I call Reshmi Bennett just as she's bidding farewell to a handyman visiting her new kitchen premises in Farnham.

He has not been able to solve the problem – her main fridge is down – owing to a busted compressor, she reckons. And, if you think that's the most stress she's had all month, think again. She's just moved kitchens in record time after being hit with a no-notice rent increase at her old premises near London.

All in a day's work for an independent cake maker – in this case, Anges de Sucre, dubbed "Europe's best bakery" by the Evening Standard.

"My rent increased from 1300 to 1900 with no notice... is this even legal? So can I leave the landlord with no notice then?" she wonders down the phone to me, still managing to sound upbeat.

When she refused to pay the overnight increase, the landlord gave her a week to leave.

As my conversation with her over the next hour demonstrated, you need large reserves of enthusiasm to battle the headwinds of this business as an independent operator.

"Patrick found premises seven minutes away from the house – so it's great because I was doing a 2.5-hour commute the last few months," she says, referring to her husband and business partner – the three of them, including her young son, have just made the move from London to Farnham.

Reshmi opened 'Anges de Sucre' in 2012, after bidding farewell to an investment banking career. Talking to her illuminates the real-life toll of the grim headlines of the last few years on small businesses around the country. It brings home just how much national and indeed, global, events impact livelihoods locally.

"I was supplying Selfridges right up to the pandemic. Then I had to downsize - so sadly had to lay off all our staff. Initially, I was thinking, how am I going to do all the orders myself? But very quickly, I realised my own strengths."

"Covid times were hard for me personally," says Reshmi, whose parents are Indian but live in Kuwait, where she was raised. "But business-wise, it was great. We used to be booked three weeks in advance. And when you don't spend money (during a pandemic), you see the savings grow."

She continued to do well as the lockdowns came to an end. "It was great because cancelled parties were rescheduled. Then, overnight, Ukraine happened."

Her experience since the Ukraine War speaks, perhaps surprisingly, to how much not just national, but global events, can impact local business.

"(After Ukraine) people stopped ordering. Peaks and troughs are part of business, but this trough was long!

"Consumer behaviour is usually, 'I'm not going to buy this cake because I'm sad about Brexit – but will do next week'. But after Ukraine, that wasn't happening!

"Then we figured out that lots of our luxury items were going to Russian customers – and they were not ordering – maybe because they were returning to Russia, maybe because their finances were blocked, I can't say.

Fake Bakes Cake from independent baker Anges de Sucre
Sainsbury's Chocolate Orange Cake: a runaway hit from Reshmi's "Fake Bakes" series, in which she challenges herself to make a professional-looking cake with supermarket ingredients, without any baking – all in under GBP 10.

"It's a bit better in the summer as we are very popular with Gulf tourists – possibly because of my background or because they like luxury products, but that can't be sustained throughout the year unlike with our Russian clientele."

Reshmi explained that the top end of her range is easily at the thousand-pound mark. The lower end, whilst still a luxury product, comes in at around 100 to 150 pounds. She told me her sales flattened at both ends.

And for those who may question those prices, the post-Brexit reality sheds more light on the issue.

Not only is this a time-intensive product, but one that is made using the best ingredients. That means the same forces that affect us all in the form of the cost-of-living crisis, also play havoc with the supply chain of high-end food producers, especially independents.

"Our ingredient bills have shot up by 70 per cent – everything is imported!

"All our nuts are imported - nuts just don't grow in this country. Chocolate is imported from Belgium - you will not get the same quality in UK-produced chocolate. Baking powder comes from Italy and at least some of our sprinkles from the EU as well."

Where she can get the best quality in the UK, Reshmi sticks to local: "Even ingredients like butter and almonds (for macarons) have shot up! The amount of costs we have to absorb are insane."

Reshmi has a lot of empathy for customers: "When the middle classes start tightening their wallets, you feel it keenly. A 100-pound cake is a considered purchase. And I feel that myself as well. I think twice about going out to eat whereas I wouldn't have before. So the same is happening to our customers."

Creativity at Work: Fake Bakes and Storybake Books

Cue Reshmi's ingenuity. Having known Reshmi for years, one of the things that strikes me is her creativity – it has contributed in no small part to her surviving the toughest of periods in her decade-long journey – with the last two years being the hardest thus far.

"During COVID, I started writing children's recipe books – which I then got illustrated. It was a baking book for my 6-year-old, with a foolproof recipe. We like baking and cooking together," says Reshmi, who sometimes puts up child-friendly Indian recipes on her Instagram stories as well.

"The first book was just a present for my son. I put it up on Instagram – and unexpectedly, was asked whether it was for sale.

"I had some copies printed and put on for sale – and sold 750 in one night! Then I ordered 1,000 more and they sold. I have them up on Amazon now.

"So I'm finding ways to apply my skill set to different mediums – books, recipe downloads. If we can't fix the demand side of the business, then we fix the supply side," she says, mentioning that aggressive cost-cutting has also been necessary.

Reshmi's gutsy business model translates into an animated social media presence. Her almost 60,000 followers are treated to shots of her beautiful creations, interspersed with more unconventional messaging – including DIY – 'Fake Bake' ideas and dishing on freebie-demanding self-styled "celebrities".

children's recipe books
Reshmi's StoryBakes series: two-in-one children's books, each with a foolproof recipe within a story. When she put the first one on sale, it sold 750 copies overnight.

First, the Fake Bakes – which are my personal favourite of all the ideas Reshmi has come up with over the years. Again, this started as something to do with her son.

The idea is to create a stellar-looking confection for under 10 pounds using supermarket ingredients without actually baking.

My top pick, for the unbelievably professional-looking result, is the Sainsbury's Chocolate Orange cake, made from five ingredients.

Starting with two store-bought chocolate sponge cakes, Reshmi lathers on Sainsbury's chocolate orange frosting. What makes it a showstopper is the decorations: piped swirls of frosting, a ganache-style drip (made from water and melted Terry's Chocolate Orange segments!), Chocolate Orange matchsticks standing proud on top, and finally, halved Jaffa nibbles balls bringing an orange pop of colour to the creation.

Reshmi insists on sharing the supermarket receipt as proof of the 10-pound budget!

Fake Bakes is Reshmi's way of giving back to customers. As an enthusiastic follower of the series (which you can check out on her Instagram or her blog), I can attest it creates enormous goodwill (and great publicity).

"Freebie Blaggers" and Cake Blackmail

On the other hand, what Reshmi doggedly crusades against is "influencer gifting" or grifting, as she likes to say. Countless self-proclaimed celebrities go to small suppliers looking for free products in exchange for a promise of "exposure".

After learning the hard way early on, Reshmi is vocal about these "freebie blaggers" who promise publicity in exchange for free goodies.

"If Kim Kardashian came to me for a free cake, I would still say no. This concept of exposure may work for big brand advertising like Coca-Cola or McDonald's, but as a small company, "exposure" doesn't pay my bills.

"It comes down to devaluing small businesses – the attitude of these "celebrities" is 'you should be so lucky that I chose you to give me free product' – and it won't end as long as someone keeps falling for it – and someone always does - but that's why I keep talking about it.

"What's helpful is word of mouth from our customers – still our best marketing method - I'd rather give my repeat customers some coupons."

Since Reshmi is not shy about exposing these "freebie blaggers", she is no stranger to controversy. A recent spat with an influencer made the Daily Mail.

As she has done in the past, she shared the exchange with her Instagram followers – in which an influencer asked for free cake for her friend's birthday.

Cake recipes independent baker cake maker
Reshmi's foolproof "hero sponge" recipe - and its variations – that she shares with followers for free, through her blog

Soon after, Reshmi woke up to her post being deleted by Instagram for not following community guidelines and a slew of 1-star reviews of her business popping up overnight – the latter from people she did not recognise as customers.

The first twist – for there are a few in this saga – came when the Daily Mail displayed admirable journalistic integrity by reaching out to Reshmi herself for comment. The resulting article presents both points of view, yet reads rather sympathetically in favour of the independent baker.

The next amusing turn came when the influencer in question posted a poll to her 243,000 Instagram followers. It asked whether Reshmi's blunt email response advising the woman to "just buy a cake from somewhere" or else try one of Reshmi's feted "fake bakes", was rude.

Just 22 per cent of respondents agreed with her, whilst the large majority sympathised with Anges de Sucre.

As a brand strategy, it may not be for everyone, but Reshmi finds that her paying customers appreciate her fearlessness around the issue.

Then there was the "celebrity" whose mother had ordered her a pink birthday cake - but insisted on delivery that it was red. Reshmi offered to take the cake away and issue a refund. It then became clear that the woman, who threatened "terrible reviews" from her "celebrity" daughter, wanted to keep the cake without paying for it.

In keeping with her general candour, Reshmi has also been open with her followers about the low points of business – such as cakes destroyed during delivery to customers – reminding us that behind the Instagram pages of independent operators are real people working hard to make a living in often challenging circumstances.

Through her social media engagement, Reshmi does us all a favour by using humour to highlight the difficulties faced by small businesses serving the public.

In the end, the quality of her products and her no-holds-barred style have won her a firm following of loyal clientele.