Sligo woman Alison Gorman has always loved baking. When she graduated with a Masters in English and Philosophy in 2007, she decided to combine her love of food with her love of the written word, embarking on a career in food publishing in London with Kyle Books.
“It gave me a great opportunity to learn all about cookbooks. While I was there, even though I loved the work, and it was the perfect combination of my qualification and my passion, I realised that rather than writing about food, I wanted to be making it.”
Back home in Ireland, Gorman set about achieving her goal: embarking on the 12-week cookery course at Ballymaloe. A hugely rounding experience, Gorman said the course taught her both about business and about the hard work that goes into working in the food industry.
“It really is like Hogwarts for food lovers, but it is hard work. They want you to leave the course and start a successful business. They instilled this ethos of only using quality ingredients to the best of their ability into me - I still here Rory [O’Connell] in my head when I’m baking!”
Following the course, she moved to Dublin to work in professional kitchens for a number of years. The training she had received was essential, she says. “I learned all these things about how to order and store food, how to cost things, and really, how to run a business.”
In January 2020, Gorman returned to her native Sligo and did a business startup course with her Local Enterprise Office. “I was getting my ducks in a row to start a business that was to specialise in bespoke cakes for occasions. So beautiful wedding cakes with unique flavourings that were tailored to the client - that kind of thing.”
And then, Covid arrived. Suddenly, there were no events requiring her cakes, and Gorman had to pivot. “I began sending cookies and cakes to friends and family as care packages, and then word gradually spread,” she says.
Before long, Hawthorn Bakehouse was born - making homemade treats and delivering countrywide. From the outset, Gorman knew that in order to be successful, she had to have a simple menu full of treats that travelled well. "I focused on brownies and cookies that would taste delicious for a number of days after they were delivered."
It is a small operation. Alison does all the baking, and her partner in life and in business Brian looks after the business side of things. “We are a team of two, but my Mum comes in and helps with the labelling on busy days, and we’d be lost without her.”
By focusing on an offering that centres around brownies and cookies, Alison is able to offer seasonal flavourings with ease. “One of the things I didn’t want to do was have a very static website. I want it to be exactly like a village bakery, but online, so we offer seasonal treats - like at the moment we have a mince pie flavoured brownie as a nod to Christmas.”
Their traditional chocolate and walnut brownie won a gold medal at this year’s Blas na hEireann awards, giving a huge boost to the business. “We are a small business and your budget for marketing is like basically yourself, then this is a huge opportunity and an amazing surprise for us.” Their treat boxes are the big sellers - they are hugely popular gifts for new parents, says the baker. “I love the idea that these boxes of deliciousness are being delivered to new parents who are tired and need a pick-me-up. It’s exactly what the business is about.”
With a Christmas treat box that is packed with brownies, amaretti biscuits, biscotti, mini biscuit cake puddings and snowball cookies as well as much more, Alison Gorman hopes that customers will gift her boxes to people who need a bit of festive cheer this year.