The last few years have been tough for H&F’s independent businesses, with artisan bread-maker Raluca Micu facing a triple whammy of pandemic, spiralling material costs and soaring energy bills.
But the resourceful Askew Road baker – who has run her business October 26 for seven years – has diversified to keep afloat, and now also runs an increasingly popular mini bookshop on the premises focusing on works by women.
The 41-year-old admits she faces challenges – not least as a powerful 100-branch bakery chain has opened nearby – but remains true to the principle of small-batch, on-site sourdough bread, while rivals ship produce in from out-of-town units.
A new page
In November, the W12 baker, who beavers away on her own at the shop’s ovens and preparation counters, turned the front of her premises into a specialist bookshop.
In a further diversification, the cellar is occupied by a florist, so the pavement board outside October 26 proudly proclaims ‘Bread, Books & Flowers’.
Customers still buy hand-crafted loaves at the counter on the ground floor, but they also browse the shelves by the shop window, filled with paperbacks written by female writers.
“The books? It’s a way to live with two dreams! The idea is to support women, so we have a resident florist and I also stock books, 98 per cent of which are written by women,” said Raluca, using the back of a floury hand to adjust her trademark woolly hat.
“I started that at the end of November. I curate the books; I pick them and I order them from publishers and distributors. It’s what I do when I’m not in the bakery.”
From feminist literature to modern novels, the shelves are full of works by women writers, adding another dimension to the shop as like-minded browsers stand and chat as they explore the range.
“It’s a bit more income, but it’s limited as it’s niche... but also because of the space. And, of course, I’m competing with Amazon!”
As a single mum (daughter Fiona, 10, goes to school locally), the pressure is on Raluca to stay afloat in troubled times. “The last two years have not been good for business, and it’s even worse now with the electric bills going up. I do have regular, supportive customers... but there’s only a limited number of them!”
With the rising cost of raw materials, including organic stone-ground flour from Shipton Mill, she has had to raise prices. But while loaves are now over a fiver, you get a hand-kneaded, lovingly baked individual bread for your money.
Raluca took over the shop in 2015 after beauty salon Planet of Joy closed, converting it with the help of friends and adding the wooden wall pegs, where loaves rest as they cool. She makes sour breads with flour, salt and water, rather than yeast dough, giving each loaf a rustic look with that distinctive dark, biscuity crust.
She never set out to be an artisan baker, having done a marketing degree at uni, then a masters in PR before working in telecoms for 11 years. Following redundancy, she donned her oven gloves.
“My grandmother baked, and I used to help and watch. And I even remember my great grandmother baking in a tiny, stony oven, producing dense loaves over a wood fire,” said Raluca as she batched the next day’s sourdough mix to prove overnight before being placed in the energy-hungry twin Belgian steam ovens, whose settings have to be tweaked to allow for frosty weather.
The October 26 shop (the date’s significance is that it’s Raluca’s birthday, her half-sister’s birthday, and the day her mum died) is open Thursday to Saturday, from 10am to 2pm for bread, books and flowers. It’s located at 154 Askew Road, W12 9AU.
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