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A tale of two restaurants: Why Aberdeen bakery Fat Batch is thriving as sandwich bar closes doors

Eve Smith, centre, and Michael Deans serve one of their many customers.
Eve Smith, centre, and Michael Deans serve one of their many customers.

Eve Smith couldn’t sleep the night before she opened Fat Batch bakery.

“We were lying in bed talking about what we’d do if no one showed up,” the 25-year-old says sitting in the upholstered window of her Elmbank Terrace shop just down from Aberdeen’s Kittybrewster retail park.

“There was a feeling that maybe we’d hyped it up and no one would show because they couldn’t be arsed.”

Eve, left, sold 300 bakes before noon on her first day in business.

She needn’t have worried.

From a 10am start, Eve and her boyfriend Michael Deans were sold out of their signature brownie and cookie mashups – known as ‘brookies’ – by noon.

When I visit a week later, they are, if anything, even busier. As I wait to speak to Eve on an overcast Friday, a customer snaps up the last bake.

It’s 10.30am.

‘There’s going to be tears’

Across town at the Birch Tree sandwich bar on Union Grove, owner Terry Birch has also been having trouble sleeping.

But for different reasons.

After a career spent in hospitality, Terry wanted the Birch Tree to be his retirement plan.

But the pandemic hit and the 44-year-old found himself struggling to cover the bills.

Since the end of lockdown, Terry’s corner of the West End has changed irrevocably.

The Birch Tree has many loyal customers but the drop-off of office staff and passing trade from the city centre crippled margins.

Every day, Terry came to work knowing he would lose money.

He started having chest pains, which caused more stress.

Terry Birch in his Birch Tree sandwich shop on Union Grove.

One day, he went to the pharmacy next to the Birch Tree to get his blood pressure checked. He was fine, but it was a wake-up call.

After a particularly bad Platinum Jubilee weekend, Terry decided he couldn’t do it anymore.

He applied for bankruptcy. Tomorrow (Friday July 1) is the Birch Tree’s last day.

“There’s going to be tears,” Terry says. “But there’s going to be a certain amount of elation, too.”

The immense pressures facing food businesses in Aberdeen

Eve and Terry’s contrasting fortunes underline the high state of flux for north-east food businesses.

Terry is far from the only business owner under immense pressure.

In the past two weeks alone, The Cupcake Shop in Cove and Chapelton and Store 34, a mobile food delivery truck, both announced on social media they are closing.

The challenges Terry has faced would be familiar to many independent shops in Aberdeen.

Soaring costs on one side and squeezed disposable income on the part of customers because of inflation and their own daily cost pressure.

But these are issues everyone is facing. Why, then, is Eve at Fat Batch turning customers away?

House of Cakes and the Aberdeen experience

Patrycja Stachowicz is perhaps the best person to answer that question.

Patrycja runs House of Cakes, a bespoke patisserie, from her home in Aberdeen.

She makes fantastically colourful and inventive cakes for special occasions such as birthdays and anniversaries.

Last year, she created the biggest gingerbread house in Scotland for a dog-shelter charity. My favourite is a Ghostbusters-themed one she baked a couple of months back.

Patrycja’s Ghostbusters cake.

“Nothing makes me happier than getting a photo of one of my cakes next to the smiling face of a little girl,” she says.

Patrycja is originally from Poland and started House of Cakes in 2020 after being in Aberdeen for more than a decade.

In 2021, looking to expand, she took over a lease on a shop in Kittybrewster and moved in.

Patrycja was delighted because the kitchen was bigger than the one at home. Finally, House of Cakes had its own place.

Patrycja Stachowicz and her partner Arek.

But the venture didn’t last. Less than a year after Patrycja moved in, the shop closed. Patrycja took House of Cakes back home, and another tenant eventually moved in to the empty unit.

That tenant was Eve Smith.

Social media’s generational divide

When I speak to Pat about her experience in the Elmbank Terrace shop, she makes it clear the decision to move out was hers.

Council grants that would have helped her get started were hard to come by, but Pat’s health was the real issue.

She badly damaged her back in her previous job as the head chef for Wagamama in Aberdeen, and manoeuvring in the shop was extremely painful.

Meanwhile, House of Cakes has thrived since returning to Pat’s house. Her order book is overflowing because she finds it difficult to turn people away.

The gingerbread house that Patrycja baked last year.

“When it’s your regular customers and you know the family for years now, it’s hard to say no,” Pat says with a laugh.

But she also says that Eve, who first launched Fat Batch as an Instagram channel that curated her home-delivery baking business, has achieved things that she couldn’t quite manage, especially with social media.

For 46-year-old Pat, it’s a generational thing.

Younger bakers such as Eve seem to have a preternatural knack for selling online, partly because of their willingness to first sell themselves.

“Our generation can’t seem to do that,” Pat says. “I’m jealous (of the younger people), because they can do it. I’m proud of them that they can go there – to tell the whole world: ‘I’m good at this, I’m amazing!’.

“For me, that is difficult to do. It’s like I’m always thinking that my product should speak for itself. But I know that’s the wrong approach.”

The ethos behind Fat Batch

At Fat Batch, Eve is aware she’s one of the lucky ones in the current climate.

“It’s awful,” she says of the wave of closures in hospitality. “I just hope that I’m never in that position.”

But she knows just how important her social media presence is. Eve curates her Instagram feed fervently, using it as her connection with her customers. She’s even using it to recruit extra staff – less than a week in business and Fat Batch is already expanding.

When I speak to the people that have turned up in the hope of snagging one of Fat Batch’s brookies (£3.60 per slice, but chunky with it), it is clear they identify with Eve through her social media posts.

Many of them are young women like Jayde Low, who has followed Eve since the start of Fat Batch.

Jayde Low’s brookie from the Fat Batch shop on Elmbank Terrace.

Jayde is in the shop for the first time and loves what Eve has done with the place.

“I like the Fat Batch name,” she adds. “It’s so catchy.”

“I think food is so very oversaturated,” Eve says later when we sit down to chat. “A lot of people have baking businesses, but if you have a niche product it is something unique that people are drawn to. That’s what kind of happened with me.

“If you just go with the norm and don’t step out your comfort zone, you’re not going to grow and people aren’t going to be excited about it.”

I tell Eve she sounds exactly like the chief marketing officer of a multinational company, and she laughs.

I ask if she’s had any marketing training at all.

“Oh, no!” she says. “I was a buyer in oil and gas.”

‘I wish that girl all the best’

There are no hard feelings at House of Cakes about Eve’s success. Pat tells me she spoke to the Fat Batch owner ahead of the opening to warn that it sometimes gets hot in the kitchen during the summer.

“I wish that girl all the best, because I know how much hard work it is,” Pat says. “To sell food, and make food, and make a profit from that – it’s really a lot of work.”

Customers line up outside Fat Batch on Elmbank Terrace to get one of Eve’s brookies.

She’s also delighted that Eve welcomes dogs to the shop as she has three of her own.

“It’s beautiful, and I wish her all the best,” Pat says. “And I hope so she will have the business for a long, long time in this place.”

Meanwhile, Terry is finally getting some rest. After he decided to declare bankruptcy, he got his first proper night’s sleep in months.

“I get to stop,” he tells me when I visit him at the Birch Tree. “I don’t have to worry about wages or bills or anything. So, I’m going to take a week off, I’m going to sleep and I’m going to find a job that is not in the food business.”

Before I leave, I order one of Terry’s signature chicken satay paninis to take back to the office.

It’s a feast of a meal, one that Terry concedes he charges too little for. The sauce is freshly made and giant chunks of chicken spill onto my desk.

It’s delicious.

And I’m one of the last people that will get to taste it.

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