With the help of celebrity chef Rosemary Shrager and housing association Riverside, a group of ex-homeless veterans are rebuilding their lives and cooking up a storm in their own artisan bakery. Jess McCabe reports
On the first bite, the Viennese finger explodes with sweetness on the tongue, with a hint of vanilla. A moment later, it crumbles smoothly and dissolves.
No, Inside Housing hasn’t launched a foodie supplement. A housing association – Riverside – is, however, going into the biscuit business. If all goes to plan, its cookies will soon be on sale in a supermarket near you.
The 51,500-home landlord even has a celebrity chef on board – Rosemary Shrager – who provided the recipes for the cookies, starting with an ‘oaty nog’ and a ginger biscuit. Her face will appear on the packaging.
Cookies might be one of the more unusual commercial ventures entered into by a social landlord, but aptly it has a kind of circular logic. Riverside’s biscuit profits will be used to support an artisan bakery run by ex-homeless veterans staying in its specialist supported housing project, The Beacon, which opened in 2011 and houses 31 ex-service people in the northern garrison town of Catterick.
The bakery, which nestles at the heart of the purpose-built complex, was incorporated into the development in response to feedback from veterans who said they wanted the opportunity to learn a trade.
On the day of Inside Housing’s exclusive taste test, the rich smell of baking wafts through The Beacon’s hallways. Graham Youart, a shy, 43-year-old Royal Air Force veteran, has been helping to prepare the Viennese fingers and a batch of zesty lemon biscuits in advance of a function the bakery has been hired to cater for.
Mr Youart and Sarah Hill, the kitchen’s head chef, look tired – they’ve been working since about 3am on batches of bread for another customer.
‘Go on, try another one,’ encourages Mr Youart, after Inside Housing has already sampled three biscuits.
Mr Youart refuelled Harrier jets in the RAF for 12 years before leaving the services. At first, he adapted to life on ‘civvy street’ by getting a job as a lorry driver. But then his relationship broke down and he lost his job, leaving him homeless.
Volunteering at the bakery has given him a reason to get up in the morning since he landed at The Beacon. ‘I’ve got two daughters, [but] I’ve never plaited hair in my life, and all of a sudden I’m plaiting bread. I thought, “oh no. I’m baking, I’m plaiting bread – lorry drivers don’t do that”,’ he laughs, before conceding, ‘they do now’.
Selling to supermarkets
So far the veterans have baked Ms Shrager’s recipes on a small scale, finessing them ready for mass production by an external commercial factory.
Riverside hopes the cookies will soon be churned out on a supermarket scale, and during our visit we catch a quick glimpse of a blue and white check design for the packaging, which shows the brand name, ‘Rosemary’s Biscuits’.
Trevor Morris, a Royal Navy veteran and Riverside’s area manager for The Beacon, is the driving force behind the bakery. He is hopeful the biscuits will hold an immediate appeal to shoppers. ‘Veterans are going to benefit,’ he states.
Despite this progress, Riverside spokesperson Susan Littlewood is prosaic about the chances of success. ‘We’ve nothing to lose except maybe a little bit of face,’ she says.
But Mr Morris interjects: ‘I don’t think we’ll lose a little bit of face, because at the end of the day, we’ve had the people benefit from being there in the bakery. We know the model can work.’
After leaving the regimented life of the armed forces, veterans can struggle with the freedom of the outside world and working in the kitchen can help them adapt, explains Mr Morris.
A kitchen has its own hierarchies, and systems of doing things, which can be appealing to residents who are still trying to find their feet, Ms Littlewood adds.
‘Some of these guys have some deep-seated psychological issues. And they’re also people who’ve got the work ethic. What we’re trying to do is say: “This isn’t the end of the world for you. You couldn’t make it in the armed services, [but] you can make it in civvy street”,’ Mr Morris explains.
Elaine Walton, a support worker at The Beacon who specialises in health and well-being, adds that the bakery can have therapeutic and practical value. She recalls how one of the veterans, a man with severe post-traumatic stress disorder, came to The Beacon in a sorry state.
‘We got him from being isolated in his room, unable to speak, shaking and just not able to do anything, [suffering from] severe panic attacks, [to] working in the bakery,’ she says.
Unpaid shifts in the bakery are just one of a wide range of activities available to The Beacon’s residents. They also have the opportunity to work in its coffee shop or gym, or they can opt to study and gain professional qualifications.
The Beacon allows training organisations to use its space for free, in exchange for a couple of places on courses that can cost thousands of pounds. Through these training sessions, residents have been able to gain experience in everything from locksmithing to dog training.
Veterans often need intensive support when building life skills. For example, residents may need encouragement when interacting with members of the community outside the ‘squaddy’ world.
The way the project bridges the gap between military and civilian life is what appeals to veteran Caitlynne Liles, 21, who joined the rmy at the age of 16 before being given a medical discharge when she hurt her knee just three years later.
At first Ms Liles lived with her mother but it didn’t work out, leaving her about to become homeless. Like all the residents, she was referred through the Single Persons Accommodation Centre for the Ex Services, a phone line which is also based in The Beacon. Now, she is nearly ready to leave The Beacon, where veterans can stay for up to 18 months.
Just being in an armed forces atmosphere is important to her, she explains. ‘It feels like you’re still in the army in a way, because you’ve got the squaddy banter wherever you go,’ she says. ‘It’s very comforting living in a garrison.’
It’s clear that The Beacon offers many benefits to its residents, but as you might expect, there is another reason that Riverside is considering making it the beneficiary of the cookie business.
A lucrative market
Britons bought £1.4 billion of biscuits in 2011, according to the most recent report by Mintel, which researches the country’s buying patterns. If Riverside can get even a small slice of this action, the biscuits could help keep the artisan bakery going.
The Beacon was built on land donated by the Ministry of Defence, and Riverside received £4.3 million in funding from the government to build the project. It receives national Supporting People funding but in 2015, this funding stream will end and Riverside must find other funds to keep the centre running.
Profits from biscuit sales will be used purely to support the artisan bakery and its volunteers, Riverside’s Ms Littlewood observes: ‘We would be remiss if we didn’t look at bringing in other funding streams [to support The Beacon’s work].’
Riverside can’t point to another housing association that attempts to feed Britons’ colossal demand for something to dunk in our tea. In its favour, the landlord has celebrity backing, a tasty selection of biscuits and a cause with broad appeal.
In the long term, Riverside could use funds raised through the biscuit sales to open more Beacon projects in other garrisons, each with its own artisan bakery.
‘What we’re doing at the moment is nice and cosy in Catterick,’ says Mr Morris. ‘But we believe there’s enough for it to work elsewhere.’ Perhaps biscuits really are the recipe for success.
Rosemary Shrager’s most recent high-profile television performance was ITV’s I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here, and she avoided cooking in the jungle.
‘I kept well away,’ she says. But she’s happy to put her chef chops and famous face to use for the benefit of the veterans at The Beacon, of which she is a patron.
When she first met the baking veterans, she had to confront her assumptions that veterans are older people, she recalls. ‘It shocked me – you can be in the army for three months and you’re a veteran… The second shock was the traumatic things they have been through,’ she says.
It was the transformative potential of the bakery that attracted her to partner with Riverside on the biscuit plan. ‘I’m a strong believer [that] using your hands and also by creating something gives you a tremendous feeling of achievement,’ Ms Shrager explains.
Some of the veterans may go on to become professional bakers, and Ms Shrager suggests some might come to train or work in her new cookery school in Kent, called The Cookery School.