I met Holly through Instagram, around 2016 when I had just showcased my vision I had been working on, Charlotte Elizabeth. Holly and I shared a similar health challenge at the time, which is how we began to build our friendship.
Sharing the ups and downs of life together, it has always been such comfort to be 'in it together'. Yet Holly added far more than just being a support in the darkenss, she became a friend who is there for me always, with her incredibly bright and British humour, something that puts a smile on my face on even the darkest of days!
I am so grateful to have met during that time of my life. It has been such a joy to watch Holly go from blogging her incredible, healthy and nourishing recipes, which have supported her in her health and wellness journey, to see her go on to turn that passion into her purpose.
Holly Tree Kitchen is Holly's blog and online store where she sells her most scrumptuous cakes and healthy snacks, with intention of helping make someone's day that much richer, brighter and happier.
I have loved catching up with Holly and hearing more about her journey, from blog to business. I hope you feel as inspired as I do reading her story below!
How did you first start Holly Tree Kitchen? Can you remember where you had the idea, was it a slow process dream or an epiphany?
I remember exactly where I was when I first had the idea. I was on holiday in Carbis Bay, Cornwall and felt inspired to step out of my comfort zone and to share my passion. I had been struggling with a huge M.E relapse after finishing university, which left me unable to work and feeling completely stuck in a rut with no clear way out. Whenever I’m beside the sea, I feel like I come back to myself. I feel grounded and have a much clearer sense of perspective, and less anxiety surrounding how to move towards my goals.
I didn’t want to return home after my peaceful, healing break, back to the endless monotony of merely managing day to day life with chronic illness. I wanted something to look forward to, to work towards and to give myself a sense of purpose – something that can so easily be lost when you’re in the throes of incredibly poor health.
I created my Holly Tree Kitchen Instagram account and began sharing recipes and (initially, quite frankly, truly terrible quality) food photography. It was a safe (originally anonymous) and designated place to hone my skills and harbour my passions; creating recipes that were centred around plant-based nourishment, naturally delicious and easy for others to recreate and bring to life in their own kitchens.
When did it become an idea which you believed could turn into a profitable endeavour?
After all four of my grandparents passed away, each one almost six months to the day of the last, over a two year period, I felt a deep-rooted desire to no longer wait for my circumstances to change. To no longer hold on to hope that things will fall into place, that my health will improve and I’ll eventually be well enough to get a “real job” and enter conventional employment. I had always known I would have to create that change for myself, however, I had absolutely no financial means to make it possible. I inherited a very small amount of money, and with that, I was able to convert part of my parent's garage into a purpose-built commercial kitchen. This, very importantly, gave me the freedom and security to work from home, in a small space to call my own.
I wanted to use that money to do something they would be proud of. To bring light into a situation steeped in grief and loss. To create a new beginning. I wanted people to have access to delicious foods that catered to a multitude to allergies and intolerances, and not have their location be a factor which dictated the possibility for that. I strongly believe you shouldn’t have to live in a major city to be able to have options on a menu. I knew that the products I had been developing for years were something people would want to buy. They were something I wish I could have been able to buy and have delivered to my door, but that didn’t seem to be a viable option outside of London. My little community on Instagram were constable asking if the things I was sharing were going to be available for purchase, so that’s what I set about making a reality.
How long did it take from vision to launching your brand?
The evolution of HTK was an incredibly gradual process. As previously mentioned, initially, I set up an Instagram page where I could share my recipes and write pieces on my experience of living chronic illness. It was the first time I had allowed myself the freedom to talk openly about my condition. I have lived with M.E since 2005 when I was 15 years old, and up until launching HTK, I very much went through it alone. I struggled to talk about my reality for fear of ever sounding negative or being a burden, which of course, with hindsight, was ludicrous. In finding my voice, I was able to connect with a wonderful community of people. Though I never wish to be defined by my experience of acute and chronic illness, I chose to have that foundation of honesty and transparency at the heart of all that I do. Admittedly, that can make you more vulnerable to critique or unfounded judgement, but it also provides you with a platform in which you can help to raise others up each and every step of the way.
At that very starting point, I had no inkling that this would one day blossom into a business. In 2012, I graduated from university with a first-class degree as well as the academic prize award from gaining the highest grade on my degree programme. However, on return back to my parents’ home, I suffered an almighty relapse, leaving me unable to join the post graduate rat race, unable to do very much at all. Years slipped away as I tried to continue education, getting stuck into various courses and potential career paths in keeping with my degree, however each avenue I embarked upon, left me more ill than the one before.
My daily life was small, and primarily spent between four walls, though the health hurdles I was attempting to overcome were monumental. I felt incredibly stuck, lost and quite frankly (albeit wrongly) I felt like a complete and utter failure. It wasn’t until I stopped pushing, and started simply allowing myself to be that I experienced some healing.
Sharing something I was passionate about and finding a way to connect with likeminded souls, subsequently began to fuel my own soul. And though I didn’t gain vast amounts of followers like many of my peers, I did gain a solid foundation from which I wished to build on. To take as the starting block to build into a business and into a brand.
I moved from a simple Instagram account to a website/blog in 2017 and went on to launch my online shop at the very end of 2018.
What was your vision? What did you want to gift to the world?
My vision was, and still is, to provide people with more options. To offer the simple freedom of being able to eat without fear of fluctuating symptoms. Without fear of cross-contamination of allergens and to find the joy in food and getting creative in the kitchen.
I wanted to take away some of the stress around living with allergies and intolerances, or the limitations of choosing to eat a vegan diet. I wanted to help people and show them that they can have their cake and eat it too.
Tell us a little more about your product, what did you want to create and why? Did you create it to fill a market or out of pure natural evolution? How long did the sampling take to get it right? Did you have market research of taste testers for your yummy treats?
Specialising in making raw cakes (a vegan cheesecake equivalent) and sweet treats that are kind to your body and fuel for your soul, my aim is to develop and share an abundance of naturally delicious products and recipes that are as inclusive as possible. Due to my personal experience of living with multiple chronic health conditions, I wholeheartedly understand how tricky it can be to navigate life when your symptoms are helped or hindered by what you eat. Subsequently, I mindfully develop my raw cakes, energy balls and sweet treats for those with food allergies and intolerance's, and I hope I can help to reduce some of the hassles and to bring a whole lot of fun back into home cooking and baking.
All of my products available for purchase on hollytreekitchen.com are gluten-free, refined sugar-free, dairy-free, palm oil-free, vegetarian and vegan. I also have an ever-expanding range of products for people with Low fodmap and low sugar/carb dietary requirements.
All HTK products are rigorously tested by people with absolutely no special dietary requirements. I find that by garnering feedback and market research from people who can eat anything and everything, and who aren’t used to the often-compromised taste and texture of store-bought ‘free from’ products, I get the truest to life reflection of just how inclusive and delicious they can be.
I also regularly add free sample slices of new flavour trials as a little surprise to go along with my customer's orders. They are my target market and primary interest so I highly value their honest opinions and feedback. I always endeavour to make the highest quality products I possibly can, using ethically sourced ingredients and supporting other small business and suppliers.
I’m sure there have been a few teething problems along the way, share any here which you feel would help another avoid!
The main teething problem I experienced was purely with regard to the colossal amount of red tape surrounding shipping chilled food products. I knew that offering nationwide delivery would be imperative to my business. Living in the Cheshire countryside, I wasn’t going to have enough demand locally to maintain this as little more than a hobby.
And with temperamental health, I knew that spending my weekends travelling to, and working at, artisan markets etc. was not at all practical for me, nor was it logistically how I was going to be able to build business locally within the first year or so.
I was adamant that I wanted door-to-door delivery to part of the service I offered my customers. Access to great vegan or free from food should not be a postcode lottery.
I worked tirelessly to source the best temperature-controlled packaging, sturdy cake boxes and ran countless delivery trials high and low around mainland UK and Northern Ireland. I had found a courier service with a fairly reasonable shipping price and when I got the very final stages of setting up my business account, I was told no. A simple, flat out no. No, they wouldn’t be willing to ship my perishable items. Case closed.
I, however, wasn’t prepared to take no for an answer and continued to push for the reasons why they weren’t willing to ship my products. As is typical in a case like this, it was because my business didn’t fit neatly in a box that needed to be ticked. I proved that I had already accounted for everything they claimed would “not be possible” and made sure it was crystal clear that it was. Eventually, with that persistence, conviction in my ability to make it work, and inarguable fact that it very much as possible, they gave me the go-ahead.
Tell us about your logo, boxes, site – what has been your vision, the harder moments and the best way of saving the pennies along the way?
All HTK packaging is reusable, recyclable and/ or biodegradable. This certainly isn’t the most cost-effective way to ship your products, but for me, it was, and is, paramount and it’s something I will not waver on. Nationwide deliveries are shipped in temperature-controlled packaging ensuring your order arrives in mint condition, from the moment it leaves my kitchen and arrives at your front door.
As I one-woman business I am responsible for everything. The making, cleaning marketing, shipping, shopping, accounting and everything in between. IT has never been my strong point, to put it very mildly! However, I wanted to build my website, blog and eventually online shop myself, so I could be on top of all.
I used ‘squarespace’ which has been a real godsend and incredibly easy to master. With everything being fully integrated for desktop and mobile use, with all the necessary extensions and capabilities to create a one-stop shop that’s aesthetically pleasing and very easy to navigate, it has been a brilliant tool to work with. Not to mention the fact that at no point do you need to become an expert in coding. Drag and drop my friends, drag and drop.
How did it feel to start receiving orders and comments with customers sharing their photos of your product?
I received my very first order a matter of minutes after launching my online shop. And to my shock, it wasn’t from my mum! Ha. It was from a lovely lady called Jayne, who had always been very supportive of my work, be it my recipes, my writing, and my business endeavours. There’s always that anticipation that although people say they want to buy your products when the time comes, you never know if they actually will. As my products run at a fairly premium price point, I was also very aware that people would have to instil their trust in HTK to part with their hard-earned cash.
I still pinch myself each and every time a new order comes through. I will never take for granted what an absolute pleasure it is to provide products for my customers. I know the value of their money and I’m truly grateful that they trust in me, and know that they will be receiving something special.
Seeing customer feedback is something I really cherish. I do what I do because I have a genuine desire to help people. To let them know they can celebrate in style and eat this absolute confidence that my products are tailor-made to meet their dietary requirements.
How would you describe your brand/product in 3 words?
Naturally delicious treats.
Tell us your highlights over your time running HTK?
Though my business is still very much in its infancy, I’ve been lucky enough to have some thoroughly lovely highlights along the way. Earlier this year (2020) I had the joyous experience of being able to hear my products being sampled on the ‘two vegan idiots’ podcast, hosted by hilarious comedians Carl Donnelley and Julian Deane, with the special guest that week, the wonderful Romesh Ranganathan. It’s a real rarity that I get to hear people’s initial reaction; the exciting unboxing of their treats and their joy upon taking the first bite. It was a total pleasure to hear some of my favourite comedians, being so thoroughly complementary to the products and to share that experience with their lovely listeners.
Another beautiful highlight was when I received a photograph of a lovely customer, and fellow M.E sufferer, with a beaming smile and HTK cake nestled in her lap, as she ventured out into the world in her wheelchair for one of the first times leaving the house in over two years. I shed tears of joy for her. I love so deeply being able to provide fuel for the moments that often go unspoken, the mini victories, the monumental personal triumphs.
HTK has received a few accolades including winning the ‘best newcomer’ at the Northern blog awards, 2018. I have also been nominated as a finalist for the ‘best small food producer’ at the ‘taste Cheshire awards, 2020’. The final awards have been postponed due to the ongoing pandemic.
On a personal note, the main highlight for me has been the fact that I have been able to work at all. Admittedly, I may not be making huge amounts of sales just yet, but nor did I expect to by this point. However, to have spent 15 years of my life being unable to fulfil my dreams or partake in excitement and adventure, and well as the simple mundanity of “normal” day to day life with carefree autonomy or any form of spontaneity, it really puts things into perspective.
To actually have been working for myself, to not have relapsed, to not have had to quit or shut up shop if my health faltered along the way has been such a huge personal marker for me, and one I know that has encouraged others to take steps into carving out their own career path, too. I have a daily dose of gratitude as I mindfully reflect on the fact that I’m actually doing this. I’m doing it! I have made it happen!
What is your best advice to other entrepreneurs with a company like yourself?
If I can do it, you absolutely can do it. And if you don’t quite believe in yourself just yet, know that I believe in you.
My advice would be to cover every eventuality for the reasons and roadblocks of why you might be told you “can't”, and prove very clearly and consistently through your actions that not only is it possible, it’s absolutely achievable.
One of the many blessings in disguise that living with chronic illness has afford me, is that though something may not fit neatly in a box, to be crossed off or ticked, don’t ever let that deter you from making your own way. If has not been done before, it doesn’t mean that it can't be done. Show them that it can, and stay strong in your convictions.
What would you tell anyone who has a dream and unsure whether to go after it?
Try. Try with no expectation of outcome. But try, you owe it to yourself to try.
What are your little moments of happiness throughout the day?
Gentle movement, hearing my dog dream, filling my ears with beautiful music and nourishing my mind with the hilarious podcast, taking time to create pockets of peace to simply and mindfully breathe, getting lost in the creativity of cooking, baking, and making in the kitchen.
What’s your happy place?
Feeling the sand between my toes and the cooling breeze on my cheeks beside the Cornish sea.
When did you last feel brave? How do you define bravery?
For me, bravery is present in everything. Bravery is not the absence of fear or anxiety. I have those by the bucket load. Bravery is nestled in the relentless perseverance in each day we choose not to be defined by our limitations. I personally believe the bravest people are those who choose kindness, softness, gentility and quiet strength in the face of adversity, and those who path a way for positivity to emerge and light to shine through the darkness.
What do you wish to see more of in the world?
What inspires you?
The unwavering desire to help people and stitch a golden glittering thread of joy, kindness and deliciousness in all that I do.
Favourite adventure you’ve ever had?
Watching a beautiful pod of dolphins joyously dive, chase and play in their natural habitat.
What do we need to show more of in the world?
We need to show that leading from a place of passion and positivity is more powerful than ruling with the force of fear.
What do you wish you’d known when you were young?
One piece of advice I would offer to my younger self is that it is not your duty to keep the peace. It is your duty to find your own peace and to nourish it daily.
In the depths of chronic illness when I was bedridden and housebound I would meditate with the daily mantra:
“my immune system works perfectly,
I am calm
I am capable
I am free”.
What’s your dream?
To live fully, regardless of whether I make a full recovery. To live by the sea, belly laugh daily, love deeply, have a little family, help people significantly, do meaningful work, always have a dog, not be such a nervous little nitwit, sleep more peacefully, dream boldly, give abundantly, speak confidently and move freely.
Thanks gorgeous Holly for being such an inspiration! Do make sure to follow and support her journey over on her Instagram @hollytreekitchen and do take a look at her yummy healthy treats on her website www.hollytreekitchen.com.