Award would be icing on the cake for Washington firm

The firm has grown from a two-man business to employ 22 people, turning over £2m a year.

Craig Houston (left) and Michael Kay started Design a Cake in 1997
Craig Houston (left) and Michael Kay started Design a Cake in 1997

A company cooked up in a North East mum’s kitchen has ambitious plans to open high street outlets in the North East’s major cities.

Design a Cake began as a two-man operation in a Washington house in 1997 after Craig Houston and Michael Kay spotted a gap in the market for cake decorating and sugar craft products.

Now a £2m turnover business employing 22 people and supplying more than 7,000 decorating products, tools and ingredients, the firm has come of age after being shortlisted in the Retailer of the Year category at the 2014 Cake Masters Awards.

The firm, now based on the Crowther Industrial Estate, is one of four selected from more than 600 entrants to compete for the honour at the event, staged at the NEC, Birmingham, this month.

Winning the award would be the icing on the cake for the directors, who are now keen to take their products into the high street.

Craig Houston said: “My mother Maureen had built a very successful cake decorating service from home, providing cakes for weddings, birthdays and celebrations.

“She was receiving more and more orders but found it increasingly difficult to get hold of the quantities of supplies she needed locally.

“Both Michael and I had been working in retail with Dickens since we left school and saw a gap in the market for a store that could offer everything that cake decorators, from professionals to novice home bakers, would need.

“There were a handful of smaller shops and sugar craft stores but they seemed to be more concerned with selling the cakes themselves rather than providing the wide range of products required by hobbyists or skilled decorators.

“We felt that we could bring something fresher and more dynamic to the market place with a professional, retail focus.”

“It was difficult in those early years, but we had a plan in which we had a lot of faith and the hard work was rewarded as more and more customers started coming through the door.”

The duo’s commitment to seven day opening – a policy which still applies – meant there were no days off for many months as they survived on a £50-a-week new business grant from the government.

The shop proved more popular year on year as home baking revived, prompting a move in 2005 to a new 5000 square foot unit – double the size of the previous store.

Today, thanks to an endless stream of cookery TV shows including The Great British Bake Off, the industry is worth a reported £1.7bn.

The business was also one of the first to launch online sales – a step which helped drive a dramatic increase in turnover and saw a switch to product supply only and a phasing out of the cake-making side of the operation.

To accommodate demand, Design a Cake established a 12,000sqft warehouse and distribution centre to handle all mail order work and hold stock for the shop.

Michael Kay added: “The shop sales were growing rapidly so we decided to focus our attentions on offering more product lines and growing the mail order side of the business.

“We had a website from day one but went live with the first internet shop in 2003.

“It had a huge impact and online sales grew turnover by 50% in just three years, becoming an integral part of the business.”

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