Sink your teeth into one of Romeo’s brownies and you would never guess that it’s sugar-free, gluten free and dairy free. It’s fudgy, chocolaty and perfectly moist, as all brownies should be. Romeo is the enthusiastic Founder of Romeo’s Sugar-Free Bakery, located on the same street as his other venture, Romeo’s Gluten Free Bakery, in Angel’s animated restaurant area. His secret for the perfect brownie appears to be hidden amongst hard work, passion, and his dedication to help people’s lives. In between mouthfuls of his delicious treats, we managed to ask him a few questions to learn more about his recipe for success.
Getting to Know Romeo
What brought you to London?
I came from Togo to London 15 years ago, to study for an MBA. I worked in the City for three years at UBS and then I decided to do something for myself.
What made you decide to start your own business?
I think I was bored. I had acquired broad business knowledge during my MBA. I learnt about marketing, finance and HR, but whilst I was working at UBS I was not using any of that knowledge; I was just focused on finance. I knew I had to do something for myself, create a new challenge.
How did you go about setting up your bakery?
First, I wanted a cash flow business. Then I realized that in retail, a food business is quite good in terms of cash flow. I then looked into what areas of a food business I wanted to specialize in. Doing some market research, I considered the new trends around health foods and how people’s habits in Britain were changing in terms of eating. I noticed that baking was interesting in that sense. People wanted freshly baked products. Twenty years ago eating out was based around fast food but that is now changing. So I decided to find out more about how a bakery would work and what the challenges were. Within 6 months I went to bakeries, befriended the staff, sat down and observed customers. I decided baking was something I was 100% going to do.
Where did the idea of tapping into the gluten-free market come from?
Four years ago, I set up a normal bakery and ran it for three years. Then I carried on doing some market research and I saw that I could actually tap into a more specific market. There were no gluten free bakeries on the high street at that time. People used to come in and ask for food without gluten, and I thought that it was strange that these people couldn’t find anything that was freshly baked and gluten free. Back then, people told me it was impossible to bake something without gluten. I said no, it can’t be impossible! So I started doing some research about gluten-free flours and how you could bake with them. It was difficult asking people to bake with gluten free flours
It was difficult asking people to bake with gluten free flours when they didn’t have the knowledge, so I decided to bake myself. I believed it was feasible. After all, baking is a form of chemistry. You just have to mix certain types of flours and you will get a good result. So one day I asked the bakers to teach me how to bake, and I started trying the gluten free flours myself. That’s how I started to tap into the gluten-free market.
“I have a family background with diabetes. My dad died from diabetes. So that motivated me to look into sugar.”
What made you decide to set up your second venture, Romeo’s Sugar Free Bakery?
I have a family background with diabetes. My dad died from diabetes. It motivated me to look into sugar. You can’t bake without sugar, as it is a main element of baking. The challenge was to take the sugar out and replace it with something more nutritional.
“I am struggling with British people, as they will be too polite when asked about their opinion and just say that it’s ok.”
What were the biggest challenges you faced?
To make sure we could come up with a product that looked exactly the same, tasted exactly the same as the products on the market that contained gluten or sugar. With our customers, it was about convincing them to try it. In terms of marketing, it was about giving things away to people. Some people were skeptical, thinking that sugar free won’t taste good, but when you force them to try it, they realize: Oh, it’s actually nice! I took time for people to understand that, but eventually it did work.
What about dairy free? Is it a new prospect you will go after?
Two months ago we started introducing dairy free products and now we have now been selling the same quantity of gluten and dairy free products. The reason remains unclear. I don’t know if it is because people in London are coming to Romeo’s bakery thinking it is a ‘Free-From’ everything bakery, or if there are just more and more people that are going dairy free now. It is something we want to investigate and understand better. We are also experiencing an increasing interest in our vegan products, so maybe it is something we could take on as an opportunity and tap into that market.
Why is cutting sugar now a growing trend?
I think the way it has been spread is through the press. Sugar has become highlighted everywhere as a cause of a lot of diseases like diabetes, cancer and heart disease. Today we are more aware of our health today than 2O years ago. People are more cautious about what they eat now. People are switching their lifestyles. Especially women. I have to say that our customers are female dominant. They don’t want to eat sugar nowadays. As a result, for us it was much more about tapping into the female market and then to try to grow that market because it has become a lifestyle for many.
How do you think the health food market will evolve?
The market is going to keep growing, especially the sugar-free market. For the gluten market, it is more difficult to say. I am a bit skeptical about how it is going to grow, because gluten-free is much more of an allergy, it is more niche. I have seen people come in and they live by a gluten free diet today, but tomorrow they will consume it again. However, the majority of people that come for sugar-free cakes will cut sugar out of their diet forever.
I am trying to reduce the sugar in my cakes even more. I am trying to perfect the chemistry, in terms of which flour has less sugar and less GI, so we can have an end product which is very low in sugar. Not only sucrose, but also fructose. That’s what we really want work on in the next 6 months.
How does the baking process work?
We bake at night and then we put the products out in in the morning.
What sugar alternative do you use?
We use stevia, which is considered to have zero calories and zero GI. We also use coconut nectar, which has a higher GI, but is much more nutritional when baked compared to other sugar alternatives. We occasionally use Xalatol. It is one of the only alternative sugar, based on European regulation, you can claim as sugar-free. There are only 5 alternative sugars that you can claim to be sugar-free.
We don’t use dates because they have a very high GI and tend to be very bad for diabetes. With dry fruits in general, the problem is that they are a concentration of fructose. If you want to bake a cake and you need to use a lot, it will be a concentration of sugar. As eighty percent of our customers are diabetic we tend to avoid dates or dry fruits.
The majority of the time we use fruit purees, to make sure the sugar level is very low, but has a nice taste. For example, we use pomegranate, blueberries, or strawberries because they have very low fructose. Apple puree, however, is good in terms of sweetening the cakes, but it is quite high in fructose.
“The market is going to keep growing, especially in the sugar-free market.”
How often do you brainstorm recipes?
That’s a really big challenge for a small business like us. Again, I just do it myself. Sunday night is my day off, so when we finish early on a Sunday, I usually leave by 5 and take the time to sit down and check recipes. Sometimes I will conceive a recipe and then I will do something different and then it works better. For example, I modified the recipe of my brownies thanks to a customer. He recommended that I try lucuma, as it’s high in fiber and has a low GI. When I tried it for brownies it was fantastic. A similar thing happened with our vegan brownies. I used to bake vegan products with chia seeds. One day, someone told me that linseed was even better than chia seeds, as it had more nutritional benefits. So I started using linseed in my vegan brownies and they turned out great.
How do you work with the consumer feedback you get?
Feedback from customers is really important for me. I have to say it is something I am struggling with, with British people, as they will be too polite when asked about their opinion and just say that it’s ok. If I don’t challenge them, they won’t want to tell me the truth. When I insist and ask them to tell me what I can improve, then they will open up. Take the gluten free brownie for example. At the beginning, I only used cashew nut butter and it would always turn out to be dry. And that’s the last thing you want in your brownie!
One day someone came, bought it and ate it and I really insisted that the person told me what the problem was. He ended up saying to me that it was it’s a little bit dry. He then asked what butter substitute I used, and I said cashew nut butter. The customer said to me that cashew nut was a dry nut, and that I should try something different. So I went back to the kitchen and I explored alternatives, and then I finally discovered that if you mix cashew nut and coconut cream, the brownie is perfectly moist. On top of that I also added a few linseed grains, and I finally got it, all because somebody actually gave me feedback about cashew nut being a dry nut. I really value people’s feedback because they are the buyers, and if they don’t like the products, they won’t come back.
Do you have a favorite product?
I think on the savory side, I would say the quiche. People keep coming back for the quiche and say we have one of the best ones and that it is fantastic. People don’t even realize it is made with gluten free flour. They just think the pastry is good. The brownie is something I love baking. I just love baking it, more than anything else. Even my staff knows about it and they know that when it comes to brownies, Romeo is baking it. So maybe that is my favorite product.
“Those moments when you do something that actually impacts people’s lives are my greatest achievements.”
What are you the most proud of?
Let me share this story with you. One day, a guy came in and wanted to buy a cake for his Dad who was diabetic. He explained that it was his Dad’s fiftieth birthday and that he really wanted to please him, because he hadn’t had cake for the past 5 years. So I worked out how I could bake a cake that had a low GI and that was good for diabetes. I worked out that, with my chocolate gateau recipe, instead of using flour and chocolate, I could create a similar texture by mixing pure cacao, raspberry and pomegranate puree. I then baked the cake and he came to collect it the next day. That night he tweeted, saying that it had changed his family’s life.
The guy actually came back with his Dad to say thank you. His Dad told me that when he had a first slice of the cake he was worried, as he was being really strict with his diet. He checked his insulin and it turned out to be fine. So he had another slice. In total he had three slices of cake. He told me if there is one thing he wanted to do in life, it would be to say thank you to me. It was really emotional. The fact that it changed his life is one of my proudest achievements.
A similar thing happened at the gluten free bakery. A lady came in and bought a gluten free sausage roll. Then she asked to talk to me, and said, “I have never had a gluten free sausage roll in my life”. Those moments when you do something that actually impacts people’s lives are my greatest achievements.
Have you ever thought about getting your cakes in big retailers to impact more people’s lives?
I actually turned down two projects since I started. I wasn’t really sure about growing to a bigger scale and feared losing the link I had with people and their lives. Today however, it is a part of my new strategy. I want to transform the business to reach a broader scale, so that people in Brighton or Edinburg can have access to products that can change their life too.
At the moment, I have started supplying some small businesses and I am gradually scaling up. I guess it is a good choice, because if you want to be able to change people’s lives you have to be able to scale your business.
What does a day in your life look like?
I go to bed at 7am, after I have spent the night baking. By 12 I start doing my itinerary. Then I have meetings, with my suppliers, my accountant, it can be anything. And in the afternoon I have to be here to organize the baking.
How do you manage a balanced life?
It is quite difficult but I do manage it because I have to look after my health too. If I collapse one day then this project will collapse too. Taking a day off is a dream that will happen one day. For now, what is important is to have my sleep and eat properly. Having lunch is very important and I have it when I wake up, but I am struggling with dinner. Sometimes I will bake from 8 or from ten and after that, you don’t really feel like dinner.
My biggest struggle is to have a personal life. I just turned forty and I said to myself, you can’t carry on like this. I need to have a personal life, a family, a partner. I believe that to have a personal life you have to create it, in the same way you create a business. I need to start delegating. It is difficult for me, being a perfectionist, as I end up taking over people’s tasks, to make sure it is done a certain way.
“My biggest struggle is to have a personal life. I just turned forty and I said to myself, you can’t carry on like this. I need to have a personal life, a family, a partner. I believe that to have a personal life you have to create it, in the same way you create a business.”
What are you doing to create more of a personal life for yourself?
I have a business mentor that I meet for a chat once a month. He advised to walk away, when I give somebody a job. He mentioned that creating confidence and giving feedback would be more beneficial over time, for enabling them to improve. I used to go and bake with the staff at night. Now, I come upstairs and have a coffee. Mistakes are being made, and things are not the way I might want them to be done, but it enables the staff to gain confidence, over time, until they do a very good job. It is working, but it will take a while.
Do you live by gluten-free and sugar-free rules yourself?
I’m a vegetarian and I don’t do dairy. It’s a lifestyle, as I am not allergic. I don’t enjoy meat, so I don’t force myself. As for sugar I haven’t eaten sugar in 5 years. Like I said, my family has a history of diabetes. When we were brought up, my mom forbade us to have sugar, since my dad was diabetic. Nevertheless, even though she cut out sugar, my sister has got diabetes today. It is a family problem. I am a lucky person as I don’t really like anything sweet anyway, not even fruit, but my family background is something that makes me aware of sugar.
Who is your inspiration?
I would say my Mum. We were brought up to believe ‘love what you do and make sure you do it very well’. I come from a very big family as there was seven of us, me being the youngest. My Mum is very strong willed and always said: you can do it, there is nothing that will stop you doing something. If you put hard work into it, you definitely can achieve what you want. We have done well several of us because of her. There is also the achievement of changing people’s lives. Another thing driving me as well is being someone who came in this country and being my color of skin. I believe you need more and more people like me to give more people confidence and example. To show: if I have done it, then you can do it too.
“Work hard, don’t give up, always have a plan.”
Rebel Wrap Up
What is your advice for people wanting to start their own business?
I’ve got two good pieces of advice. My first is make sure you work more than 24 hours a day. What I mean by that is that you have to spend as much time as possible on your project. If you want to get what you want, you have to put all you efforts towards it. Also, keep going. It is going to be difficult at some point and you will be thinking this will never work, but you are just about to turn around.
I remember when I was doing my A levels, our history teacher used to say that in the Second World War Churchill said: when the war is becoming extremely tough, the end is close. So when you are facing something extremely difficult you are just about to turn around, and it is not the time to give up. It is when you are thinking you can’t do it that you are just about to get there. So work hard, don’t give up, always have a plan.
Have you always wanted to be an entrepreneur?
Not really, and this relates to my family background. My Dad came from a very poor family, but he did really well. He got a scholarship to go to France to study. He was one of the first black man from Africa to go to ENA (National School of Administration). Then he came back to Togo and became a lawyer.
So for him it was about working hard. We were brought up with the path that you go to school, you go to University and then you get a job. Becoming an entrepreneur was not something we were brought up on. My sisters and brothers all followed the same process. They all went to University and got a job. I even have one of my brothers who teaches in Oxford today.
But when I went to MBA it changed my mindset, I thought I could do better. In Europe we think an MBA helps you get a better job. But I strongly believe now what in the US entrepreneurs always say: that an MBA helps you become an entrepreneur. The reason being that you understand how to talk to your accountant, you understand your marketing person, you know how to manage your staff, HR…
Becoming an entrepreneur was a challenge I didn’t mind taking. I am someone who tends to see the glass always half full, I am always positive. I always think that everything can happen. If you want it to get it done you can get it done.
“Failure is not an option.”
My first manager in UBS helped me in that regard. I remember on my first day I did the induction, he took me to my desk and then said to me: Failure is not an option. With everything you do in your life, tell yourself you can’t fail, that it is not optional. If you say to yourself there is no option to fail, you always succeed, because there is only one route. If a recipe doesn’t work, I question why it doesn’t work and then try it again differently. It drives my motivation and my life. Every Christmas I email him and thank him for this word of advice. Young people today, they always think it is not possible. I have an apprentice at the moment that I try to help out. For him everything is about the fact that it might not work.
That doesn’t inspire his confidence to do things. So I told him to teach his mind that failure is not an option. If you want to mix the cream, just say it, and it will come to be perfect. Don’t think about the fact that it will not work, don’t worry about those things, just say it will work. He is getting there. It is just about thinking it will work and getting it done. That is what I believe is the only way forward.