Harriet Hastings, founder of Biscuiteers, talks to Rosanna Spence about the transition of her online business to the heart of the high street, and how her biscuits have transformed the art of gifting

Designer handbags and bespoke biscuits have more in common than you think. They can both be found in Vogue, for starters. It was in 2007 when Harriet Hastings posed the question: ‘Why send flowers, when you can send biscuits?’

Biscuiteers knew that biscuits presented the ultimate blank canvas, a muse upon which artists could work their magic, creating individual, bespoke products – with as much care and attention given to each pipe of illustrated icing as bestowed upon the finest fashion items.

It was no coincidence, then, that just over 10 years ago, Hastings’s first biscuit collection was based on fashion, and these iconic biscuits remain a firm favourite for customers.

If you’re not already familiar with the products, then first you have to forget everything you already know about biscuits. Step into one of Biscuiteers’ two icing cafés and enter a biscuit wonderland: there’s biscuit bunting streaming from the ceiling, bountiful fruit baskets made from biscuits, lollipops peeking out from tins perfectly iced, safari animals scrabbling from another box and more. Flicking through The Biscuiteers Book of Iced Gifts brings even more inspiration, from build-your-own burgers to teapot parties and mini gingerbread houses perched on the rim of a mug concealing warm cocoa. The only downside of all this creativity? The pang of guilt as you eat something that has been so carefully crafted.

But how does Hastings feel about opening up her world-famous brand in a book with precise instructions?

“Brand value is at the centre of the business,” she tells me. “And part of that is an essential generosity of the brand. It’s pretty clear to us that icing biscuits like we do is really hard, but there’s absolutely no reason why we wouldn’t want to encourage people to try and do it themselves; it is about deeper engagement of the brand.”

Hastings’ keeps her focus on the bigger picture, which is to position iced biscuits as a gifting option alongside chocolate and flowers. And encouraging people to try it for themselves helps to grow the category as a whole.

“That’s what it was really about,” she says. “More and more people now think about giving iced biscuits. More people want to make them, so if more people associate them with personalised gifting it’s better for us in a sense. It’s about spontaneous gifting as well, spreading a bit of biscuit love. We’re trying to create happiness through beautiful personalised presents. That’s the spirit of the business.”

The icing on the... biscuit

Hastings previously worked in brand marketing as head of consumer brands. Her husband Stevie Congdon’s catering and events business Lettice was part of the reason she realised the big opportunity in the gift food market. Biscuiteers’ success is down to Congdon’s knowledge of food production and catering, married with Hastings’ expertise in e-commerce and brand marketing.

“I didn’t come at it thinking I was going to be launching a bakery business,” she remembers. “I was clear in that we were launching a gift business, creating a premium brand that was designed originally to be a direct online brand, as online lends itself so well for gifting.”

Eleven years later, and Biscuiteers sells its gifts from its online shop, as well as two icing cafés located in Battersea and Notting Hill. But with such an original focus on running an online business, what drove the decision to have a high street presence, which is now so integral to the brand?

“It was less about seeing the cafés as a commercial opportunity, and instead more of a natural extension of the marketing of the business,” Hastings explains. “Lots of people started to ask us where our shops were – it was clearly an expectation that we had a physcial presence in terms of brand engagement.”

Rather than simply open a shop, Hastings took inspiration from pottery cafés, creating the first icing café in Notting Hill. Having a more interactive element to the retail side of the business protected the company from the exposure of having a biscuit shop, selling biscuits in a completely different way to online gifting.

“It’s much more challenging in a high street retail environment,” she notes. “But I think it works because most people who come to the shop are already aware of us and have quite a high level of understanding of what we do. We call it biscuit theatre.”

The Notting Hill shop has twice been voted the most Instagrammed shop front in London. People come from all over the world to take pictures of it and Hastings knows it’s a living and breathing marketing platform for the business.

Social scene

Biscuiteers may have its roots in the pre-Instagram world, but its social media presence is now picked up all over the world. Although Instagram is the brand’s fastest-growing and most engaged platform, according to Hastings, Facebook still works very well for the team, and the largest platform is Pinterest.

“Our total social media following is over one million,” she states. “A lot of those people are probably in the States, and a lot of our engaged audience is on Instagram, which feels like the right platform for us due to the visual nature of what we do.”

It’s not as simple as uploading pretty biscuits in random succession with hoards of hastags, though.

“We do think about it carefully and there is a strategy behind it, because you have to create a balance between commercial objectives and brand enhancement,” she tells me. “You’re effectively running a media channel and creating an audience for that, thinking both about what the audience wants and also what it suits us for them to see. Running social channels on this scale is extremely time consuming due to the content you have to create, as we do all our own photography and video in-house.”

With 10 years of biscuits under her belt, Hastings has her sights set on scaling production efficiently and effectively. Her current business model clearly works, and she wants to build on the current organic rate of 5% export, not forgetting the huge market still available to them in the UK. There is a big opportunity overseas, and you can bet your biscuits Hastings will market the brand in style to those not in the know.

“We’ve always behaved and marketed ourselves more as a fashion brand than a biscuit brand,” Hastings concludes. “We’re the aspirational biscuit market, and it’s the same as being the aspirational handbag. I want people to feel that they not only recognise that it’s a Biscuiteers’ biscuit because of the quality, the design of the icing and the packaging, but also that they feel they attribute greater value to it because it’s a Biscuiteers biscuit. That’s what creating a premium brand is all about."

The ice queen

Lucy Simmons, head of icing at Biscuiteers, takes us through a day in the life of the exquisite illustrators who bring character and creativity to each biscuit. Simmons was a graphic designer who escaped her desk job and takes great pleasure in making every biscuit by hand.

“When I arrive at work I check in with my team and make sure they are fully briefed on the corporate orders to be iced that day and try to solve any issues and challenges that they might have with the design of the biscuits,” she explains. “After that I check my emails and catch up with the production manager on the plan for the day. Then after that I am able to start on my own to do list which consists of working on samples for corporate client enquiries, creating the biscuits that you see on our social media channels and product development for our seasonal collections (which is currently Father’s Day 2019!).

“My days can be very different. I work with lots of areas of the company and it is so interesting to work with different departments. One moment I can be working with the social team doing a video of icing a biscuit to be put on our social channels, next I could be working on product development, working alongside our MD designing new collections or working with our production planner to fit in all the corporate orders that we have coming in. I also create sample biscuit designs for all corporate order enquiries that we receive. So, my days are varied and I’m always kept on my toes!

“Icers at Biscuiteers start their day mixing the colours that are needed for production that day and organising all the biscuits we need for the day’s work. Icing the biscuits is done in three stages. Outlining the biscuits, creating an icing barrier around the edge of the biscuit. Next comes flooding the biscuits. This is done with a runnier mix of icing. Biscuits then enter our low temperature ovens to dry the wet icing for an hour.”

Biggest challenge?

“I worked on the installation of Leeds Castle, created entirely from biscuit and fondant icing. Building and moving such a large creation was very tricky, as was adding the finishing touches once it was in place! Last Christmas we designed 80 bespoke gingerbread houses which involved icing, building and packaging every single one by hand.”

Greatest success?

“This year we have been looking into how to improve our production systems. With these things in place, we have been able to successfully produce several high-volume orders, including 5,000 biscuits to celebrate the Royal Wedding earlier this year, and 7,500 pumpkin biscuits for Halloween.

“Last year we had a record-breaking Christmas, the production team was able to produce 20,000 biscuits in a single week.”

How do you manage to keep the quality of each hand-iced biscuit the same?

“Each biscuit is individually hand-iced in our icing halls at Biscuiteers, so although the biscuits will be iced as per the design, sometimes you can see the different icing styles from different icers. This adds to the charm of knowing that individuals have iced the biscuits, not machines. One icer always does lovely big smiles on the Jolly Gingers that she is icing, so I can always tell which ones she has iced!”

Do you have any favourite designs?

“It has to be the Safari tin. I really like the muted colour palette and the range of animals that we have in the collection. The biscuits in this tin have even more meaning as each animal chosen represents a ward name at Great Ormond Street Hospital. We worked closely with this hospital to create this collection. Every time a tin is bought from the website, £5 from the order is donated to the Great Ormond Street charity. Over the years, since we started working with them, we have raised over £50,000 for the hospital which is just fantastic and a real honour to be a part of.”