From desk jobs to chef whites: How one London couple became ‘accidental entrepreneurs’

5 min read
13 Feb 2019

n a high street in south London, brick-and-mortar businesses driven by passion and local ingredients are thriving. Here’s the story of a couple who left their corporate jobs, followed their love of baking and founded a cafe on this particular high street.

Lordship Lane, a winding street located in the southern borough of Southwark, offers a picturesque view of life in the British capital. Populated by specialist retailers and locally-owned food shops, this British high street has grown from a rural thoroughfare to a lifestyle shopping hotspot.

Tucked away on an adjoining street in the neighborhood is Brick House Bakery, an award-winning artisan bakery and cafe founded by Fergus and Sharmin Jackson.

Six and a half years into the business, Brick House Bakery is thriving and the energy is palpable. “It’s busy and it’s noisy and it drives everyone mad,” Sharmin says, looking over at the sea of people tucking into toast and competing for tables.

Located in a former electrical warehouse, the cafe’s whitewashed brick walls and minimalist interior provide a serene setting to the humming sound of customers indoors.

While chatting to families, couples and students with laptops is an enjoyable aspect of the job for the owners, it’s clear to see that the making of homemade bread is at the heart of the business’ concept.

Sharmin and Fergus Jackson outside Brick House on Zenoria Street. Photo: Joe Woodhouse

‘Accidental’ business people

Britain’s brick-and-mortar businesses may be suffering a slow demise, but this high street in London still pulsates with life. “That’s one of the reasons we set up here,” Fergus says. “We realized this area – which still has a traditional high street – would be receptive to Brick House.”

With an open kitchen that enables customers to observe the team at work – each team member dressed in chef whites and covered in a thin layer of flour – the worlds of baking and breakfasting collide.

Husband and wife Fergus and Sharmin work on the premise of “doing one thing really well.” With the bread that they bake, sell and incorporate into dishes for the cafe, the idea is to have a small but high-quality range of products – without all the frills.

“There’s so much faddishness in food, like charcoal lattes and matcha cake. For us, it’s about having a core offering and friendly service,“ Fergus says.

People refer to us as entrepreneurs, but we didn’t set out to be.

While sitting in their light and airy loft-cum-office – a room that overlooks the activity of the bustling cafe and kitchen below – the smoothness of their operation was clear to see. Everything appeared to run like clockwork.

The owners could never have imagined that their business – crafted out of dreams, ideas and places they have known and loved over the course of their lives – would look like this.

“Originally we were just two people with a dream, running headfirst into it,” Sharmin says. “People refer to us as entrepreneurs, but we didn’t set out to be,” Fergus adds. “We are intentional bakers and accidental business people.”

From corporate jobs to chef whites via San Francisco

Fifteen years into their careers in advertising, the couple grew “bored and disillusioned” with their corporate jobs, Fergus says.

Fergus began baking bread at home in his spare time. Slowly, his kitchen started turning into the test bed for what would later become Brick House’s signature sourdough loaf, The Peckham Rye.

Brickhouse's staple sourdough loaf baked in-house. Photo: Paul Winch-Furness

Having found out about a baking course at the San Francisco Baking Institute, the couple decided to relocate to California in 2011. They had heard that the state was creative and entrepreneurial, not least because it is home to Silicon Valley.

“The curiosity to figure out what was out there really propelled us,” Sharmin says. “It felt like a natural time in our lives to explore.”

At the time, San Francisco was an inspiring place to be for the couple. A sense of excitement was in the air as new business ventures, each with a unique philosophy about how food should be created and enjoyed, were springing up everywhere.

Sharmin loved the energy and sense of experimentation, but also the democratic nature of the food scene in California. “In London it was very ‘sceney,’ she says. If you weren’t part of the hipster culture, then dining in more trendy places was more or less forbidden. “In San Francisco, if it’s good, people will go. Anyone is welcome.”

From an entrepreneurial point of view, people in San Francisco were also more receptive to “crazy business ideas” than people in London, according to Fergus.

“There’s a more ‘can-do’ attitude in San Francisco, whereas London is more risk-averse,” he says. “People are willing you to succeed rather than instinctively telling you that you’re going to fail.”

Good food, good bread, good people

Sharmin and Fergus returned to London more optimistic than ever before about opening a business that would eventually become their lifeblood.

“We were so energized by what we had seen in California, that when we got here, we realized we were never going back to our old careers,” says Sharmin. “This was it.”

Brick House Bakery has since blossomed into a staple cafe for Lordship Lane’s locals, where the daily ritual of coffee and brunch has been made even more special. Their Californian loaves sell out without fail every Saturday lunchtime – a testament to the couple’s mantra of “quality and consistency” when it comes to their product.

There is no magical formula for starting a business. It is blood, sweat and tears, and having an idea that you’re willing to go to the ends of the earth for.

Brick House now has a smaller offshoot in Peckham, but the owners do not plan on scaling up quickly. Instead, they hope to retain their customers and attract new ones to their plant-adorned door with a trusted offering that is consistent and delicious.

“People often ask us for advice about how to successfully start a business, but there really is no magic formula,” Fergus says. “It is blood, sweat and tears, and having an idea that you’re willing to go to the ends of the earth for.”

Main photo: Anna&Tam