When coronavirus hit, Rachel Hanretty was devastated to shut the doors on her bakery, Mademoiselle Macaron.
Rachel fell in love with macarons when she lived in Paris and enrolled at the Alain Ducasse cookery school to learn how to make the melt-in-the-mouth delights. Returning to Edinburgh, she opened her own bakery and launched an online store in 2015. Orders flooded in, with caterers and wedding customers snapping up macarons.
But as lockdown was announced, the firm, which employs eight people, lost all their wholesale customers overnight. “It was really scary,” says Rachel. “All the weddings, all the wholesale customers, and the bulk of our production disappeared. And then, of course, you have phone calls from people wanting to cancel future orders and refunds. We entered the cash flow situation whereby the wholesale customers stopped paying the invoices. And we’ve now got over £30,000 worth of overdue invoices.”
Although it’s a worrying time for Rachel, she credits the government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme for keeping the firm afloat. Under the scheme, businesses can furlough staff and the government will pay 80% of their wages, up to £2,500 a month.
“The furlough scheme has been a real lifeline in this time of crisis,” she says. “I asked people to volunteer for furlough. So the people who wanted to and were happy to, they were the first ones to go. I cried.”
Staff were scared about travelling to work and desperate to maintain social distancing, so Rachel says they were really understanding about being furloughed.
“I just felt like I was stuck in this moral quandary,” she says. “Do we keep going and safeguard the business, so there’s a business for everyone to come back to? Or do I shut down because I can see that this is causing people severe anguish?”
Along with the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, there was another glimmer of hope as Mademoiselle Macaron saw a boom in online orders. But with six out of eight staff furloughed, Rachel had to meet the challenge of fulfilling the orders with a smaller team.
“We managed to recall stock that was sitting in hospitality clients’ freezers. That is the only reason we survived. What you make, you keep in the freezer and you use when you need to. It’s not like it’s a cupcake, if we were perishable goods we would never have survived or scaled up to where we are,” says Rachel.
“The furlough scheme let us preserve the team, and the business. But now, for me, the big test is: how do we keep this level of orders online?”
Safety is the main priority for Rachel, so she’s changed shift patterns and split the team in half so there’s less contact between them. “We have a big kitchen so the space isn’t the issue. It’s more that we wanted to keep the team safe,” she says.
Rachel’s passion for macarons is clear. “They’re just so pretty,” she says. “They’re so delicate. And they’re quite hard to make because there’s a lot that can go wrong.”
And after a tough few months, she’s got her eye on a brighter future. “I feel that the business is now emerging from a different global crisis,” she says, adding that she’d like to help younger people and create a training programme with a college.
“They’ve been so much more affected, and it’s just something close to my heart,” she says. “All the graduate positions I applied to when I finished university basically told us that because of the impact of the financial crash, they would never take on as many graduates than they used to.”